How to brew pu erh tea the right way
If you're new to pu erh, it's easy to get lost during your first tea session. This guide will help you learn about the teaware, preparation methods, and most importantly the philosophy behind brewing a cup of pu erh tea. Use the information below navigate through every tea session and properly steep any pu erh tea.
And while you're enjoying your brew, make sure to take a look at our 'Pu erh Tea Flavour Wheel' with the 24 most common pu erh flavours below. This infographic will allow you to recognise more flavours when you're tasting pu erh.
We've to confess that the title of this post is actually quite misleading. There's no 'right way'. Brewing pu erh isn’t exact science. There are misperception out there, making you believe that you’ve to adhere to exact temperatures, steeping times or that you have to use a special kind of water.
There’s no such thing as the perfect cup of tea or a perfect way of brewing. Preparing tea isn't science, it's a way of art. Be an artist. Steep with your heart. Adjust the way you steep depending on the tea, the tools available, and most importantly: your mood.
That said, even an artist needs some guidance in the beginning of their journey. In this article, we aim to help you build your intuition to get the most out of your tea experience.
Tea can be made in a simple mug or teapot. Ideally you want to combine the mug or teapot with a strainer, so it’s easy to filter out the leaves. It’s also possible not to remove the leaves at all, and steep your tea the ‘grandpa’ way. We’ll explain more about this method later in this article.
If want a slow session and steep tea the traditional way, then gaiwans (bowls with lid) or Yixing clay teapots are the way to go.
Gaiwan versus Yixing Teapots
Gaiwans don’t affect the flavour of tea. You can steep any tea with it. On the other hand, you should dedicate one Yixing teapot per type of tea (one for ripe on for raw pu erh). This is because the Yixing clay will absorb the fragrance of tea over time. So you want to stick to one category per teapot.
When you're just starting out, we highly recommend to get an allround porcelain gaiwan. Later on, you may consider investing in a good separate Yixing teapot for raw and ripe pu erh. Teasenz.com, is a great source for high quality Yixing teaware.
Tea Knife: most pu erh teas are compressed in shapes such as cakes, tuocha and bricks. While cakes can sometimes be fairly loosely compressed, tuochas and bricks are generally always very tight shapes. As such, you'll need a tea knife to pry and loosen up the tea.
Tea Pitcher: pitchers are essential for serving an 'even' brew if you share tea with others. We'll discuss more about pitchers below.
Tea Table: tables with a drainage system are ideal if you want to perform a more traditional tea steeping session. Drainage systems can catch the discarded tea while you rinse your tea and teaware.
Tea Cups: at last, you'll need cups to serve the tea from the pitcher if you perform traditional brewing.
How To Break Pu Erh Tea?
For pu erh teas that aren't loose, but compressed, you can use a tea knife to break off a piece. Hold the tea in one hand and the knife in the other hand. Then stick the knife inside the tea with controlled force. Then twist and elevate several times. Repeat this in several parts of the tea until you can break off a piece of the tea. Try to do this gently without breaking too many leaves, as this may result in a too astringent brew. For safety concerns, always make sure the knife is NOT pointing towards yourself or your hand.
For pu erh tea, we recommend to stick to water between 95 and 100 °C. Use water that is just boiled. And reheat when the water goes too low. Once you’re more familiar with pu erh, you may want to experiment with lower brewing temperature. Some young raw pu erhs are suitable for low temperature brewing as well.
There are three ways to brew pu erh tea. Here they are, from easy to advanced: grandpa, Western and traditional gongfu method. Below we discuss each method in detail.
Super easy: Grandpa method
This is absolutely the easiest method to brew tea. In the West we call this the ‘grandpa’ method. Often times, the older generation tend to steep tea in this casual way.
Grandpa brewing simply requires a large mug or glass. Add 3-5 grams of tea leaves depending on how strong you prefer your tea. Then, fill the mug with water at 100 °C.
With grandpa brewing, there’s no steeping time. You can take small sips and start drinking when the tea is strong enough. However, when the tea gets too bitter, you simply add some more water. When you’ve finished 2/3 of your mug, it’s usually a good time to refill your mug until it’s full.
Other grandpa-brewing tips:
- Fill up your mug or cup until up to 8/10 full. Brew has become too strong, this will allow the flexibility you to add more water lighten the flavour.
- Glassware are ideal for grandpa brewing, because you'll be better able to observe the colour of the tea soup to get a better idea of the current intensity.
- If you use a very long glass, the flavour at the bottom of the glass might be stronger than at the top. In this case, it's better to only fill up the glass until 1/2 full. Then when you're to drink, add a bit more water to stir up the tea soup for an uniform flavour.
Easy: Western method
The most common Western way to brew loose leaf tea is to use a mug or teapot with a strainer on top of it. These strainers are easily available these days and generally made from stainless steel.
We do not recommend the small ball shaped tea infusers, because they don’t allow enough space for the leaves to expand. We recommend 5 grams of tea with 350ml of water. With such ‘leaf-to-water’ ratio, you get about 3-5 sessions out of a single 5 gram portion of pu erh tea.
Apply a 2-3 minute brewing time. For each subsequent infusion, you increase the time by 1 more minute. You may adjust the time depending on how the steeping time worked on the previous session. If you feel like the taste was too light, you can increase the steeping time more. On the other hand, if it was too strong, you can reduce the time.
Advanced: Traditional gongfu brewing
Once you get more familiar with pu erh, you can slowly start to experiment with the traditional way of brewing tea, known as ‘gongfu brewing’. The term ‘gongfu’ (or kungfu) makes you think of martial arts in a Jackie Chan movie. Gongfu means ‘effort’. In the context of tea, it’s about making some ‘effort’ and pay more attention to detail to steep a better cup of tea.
Amount of tea
With gongfu brewing you steep smaller but more portions. This is why gaiwans and Yixing teapots are the most suitable tools. We recommend 5-8 grams of tea steeped 120 ml of water.
In a gongfu session, your tea tools should be pre-heated and the leaves should be ‘awakened’ through a quick ‘rinse’. To do this you add the tea leaves with 120 ml of water in your steeping vessel. Then you wait for 5-30 seconds and discard the first infusion.
The rinsing time can be short for loose leaf pu erh and teas that consist of very small leaves. The time should be longer for teas that are tightly compressed, because they require more time to unfurl. Note that the tea leaves doesn’t have to be completely unfurl. Generally, a 30 seconds rinse can be regarded as a maximum.
After rinsing, you can infuse the tea leaves again with 120 ml of water. Cover your gaiwan or teapot with a lid. When you’re using a Yixing teapot, you can optionally pour hot water over it, to further lock in the heat inside of the teapot.
Now wait for 10 seconds and pour out. The steeping time for gongfu sessions are much shorter because we’re using a large amounts of leaves relative to the amount of water (120 ml).
Generally, we recommend to apply a 10 second steep for the first 3 infusions, followed by adding 5 more seconds for every subsequent infusion. However, feel free to adjust this depending on how you like the intensity of the previous steep.
You can reuse the pu erh tea leaves until the flavour has become too light. We recommend to do a final 2 minute brew to draw out all the flavour.
Note: if your pu erh consist of very small leaves, it may release flavour very fast. In such case you can pretty much instantly pour our the tea after adding water. For small leaves, also instantly pour out when rinsing.
Serving tea: Fairness pitchers
Pitchers can be useful in a gongfu tea session. Traditionally, the tea in the brewing vessel is first poured in a pitcher. Then, the tea is divided over small drinking cups. If you pour directly from the brewing vessel, every cup of served tea would taste different. After all, the tea in the first cup has stayed less long in the tea vessel compared to the last cup. With the short infusions in a gongfu ceremony, this particularly matters. No wonder why these pitchers are called ‘fairness’ pitchers.
Use Small Cups
With traditional brewing, you should match the smaller brewing vessel with small cups. Also, while tea brewed the Western way, can be at drinkable temperature after the steeping time has past, traditionally brewed tea is very hot when served. Smaller cups will allow the tea soup to cool down more swiftly! Because pu erh tea is always steeped at full temperature, most pu erh tea lovers in China use small flat shaped cups. Flat cups will allow even more surface of the tea soup to be in contact with the air so that the temperature drops even faster.
Pu Erh Tea with MilkIf you're fan of tea with milk and/or boba tea, we recommend you to read our separate guide with recipes for pu erh tea with milk.
We hope that pu erh tea brewing process becomes more intuitive to you with this guide. The best way to learn about pu erh is to simply start and learn along the way. With the guidance of this article, we hope that making a cup of pu erh will soon become second nature to you. If you’ve any remaining questions, feel free to contact us at [email protected]
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