The power of fermentation: instead of fighting off microbes, you invite the right kind to your party. It doesn't take a lot of culinary know-how to acknowledge that certain fermented foods get better the longer they ferment, like wines and cheeses. The more sourdough starter ages, the more complex its flavors become. Then you've got your fermentation standards like pickles, dairy products like kefir, soy-based miso and natto, and even Russia's beet-based kvass.
But did you know that occasionally tea gets invited to the bacillus party? Welcome to the world of pu-ehr!
Pu-ehr's name comes from the town in the Yunnan province in the mountains of Southwest China. It's a way of storing and consuming tea that has roots in Ancient China's tea trade. To create it, tea leaves are picked and processed as normal—usually a combination of bruising the leaves, pan-roasting, allowing to dry in the sun—and then steamed, pressed into shapes, and dried out for at least several weeks.
Pu-ehr makers then allow the tea bricks to age, which brings out more complex flavors. Most inexpensive pu-ehrs are around 10 years old, and the more premium pu-ehrs come from higher-quality leaves and allowed to ripen longer—it's pretty common to hear about tea enthusiasts purchasing pu-ehr cakes made in the 60's and 70's. (Occasionally you'll hear of a tea brick stretching back to the 30's, but this is understandably hard to verify!)
I found the Pu-Ehr pictured here on Amazon. It's a 2007 and comes in single-serving cakes pressed into bird-nest shapes. (At around $9/package, it translates to less than $0.50/cup, which is way less than you'll be spending at a tearoom.) It made a smooth, earthy cup—perfect starter pu-ehr. I let it steep for about 4 minutes in around 12-14 ounces of boiling water and drank two more steepings after the first. (Same tea. New water.)
I think the taste is excellent, and am fascinated to see if I experience any health benefits as I continue to sip for the next few days. I think 36 oz. of delicious tea for 50¢ is a pretty awesome deal, and I'm excited to try some different options.