Pu'er tea is a distinctive variety of black tea grown and manufactured in the Yunnan Province of southern China. It is named for a small village near the Laos/Myanmar border.
As is usual with distinctive teas, there is much mystery and lore surrounding the origins and techniques used to grow and ferment this variety of tea. The duration of the fermentation process is explained through folklore (as is often the case). As the story goes, farmers in the Nuoshan Mountains whose trek by horse to the towns in which the tea would be processed was long and arduous, and over the duration of the trip, the tea would slowly ferment. By this accident, therefore, the tea's special flavor was acquired. The result was well-liked, the tea grew in popularity.
While the tea is often sold in leaf form, it is usually packed into tight black nuggets (tuan), which vary widely in size. Some are as small as a thimble, and others are as large as a serving platter. The tradition of packing the tea in this way (and subsequently wrapping it in paper or bamboo) has been documented as far back as 780 AD, when it was described in Lu Yu, one of the oldest books on the subject of teas. At times, Pu'er tea enjoyed such popularity that it was used as a form of currency in China.
The flavor of Pu'er is strong and smokey and unlike any other kind of tea. Some varieties have a full range of flavors, including undertones resembling cassia, vinegar, orchid, earth, teak, hickory and autumnal fruits. Pu'er tea is a dark reddish-brown color when prepared in the usual fashion, although strong brews approaching hues of dark black can be acquired without undue bitterness.
Today, the tea can be purchased throughout the world. In mainland China, the tea leaves (like most finer teas) range widely in price. A perfectly palatable low-end version might cost 3 RMB per cup, while the more expensive varieties can bring well over 1000 RMB for a cup. Because the tea's quality is regarded as improving over time, the age of the tea is an important part of its character. Much like wines, the season, year, and age of the leaves is of the utmost importance to the connoisseur.
As is usually the case, the finer leaves can often be reused more times, are often difficult or impossible to over-steep (avoiding bitterness, especially when brewed in less-than-optimal ways). In addition to this, the dimensions of flavor in finer leaves can range into broad areas of flavor.
Pu'er is famous for a number of benefits unrelated to its flavor. The teas is said to be popular in the dim sum parlors of southern China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, supposedly because it alleviates pain from overeating and aids in digestion. Some favor it because it is lower in tannins, which some studies seem to indicate can be carcinogenic. Tradition as well as some modern experiments seem to indicate that the tea can also reduce cholesterol, reduce body weight, treat hypertension, help heal the liver, heart and kidneys, improve ingestion, cure intestinal infections and, owing to its anti-oxidant properties, help prevent cancer.
Brewing a good Pu'er is a somewhat foolproof process, since it is difficult to oversteep. Pu'er steeps quickly (within ten or twenty seconds). If the tea is too strong, it can be diluted without threat of bitterness. However since consistency of flavor is an important quality in the proper serving of tea, it's a good idea to try to keep the process simple and repeatable. While the process of gongfu cha should really be reserved for Wulong Teas, the process of steeping Pu'er is quite similar to that of brewing a fine Wulong. After all, beyond the beauty of the tea ceremony there are very utilitarian reasons behind the gongfu cha methodology.
Some find a spoonful of brown sugar or a few chrysanthemum blossoms to be a good counterpoint to the bold flavor of Pu'er tea. Others enjoy it with milk.