China's Yunnan province is considered to be the birthplace of tea and the origin of pu-erh. Wild tea trees, some of them hundreds of years old, can be found in the tropical forests of Xishuangbanna. This region offers ideal conditions for the cultivation of tea: a temperate, moist climate and a rich soil with an abundance of organic materials.
The prized tea of Yunnan Province is Pu-erh, made from tea plants native to its forests and jungles. The tea was named after the town of Pu-erh, an important trading center and the beginning of the ancient Tea Road which connected China's southwest to Tibet and onward to Nepal and India. Pu-erh tea is one of the oldest types of tea and traces its history to the Tang dynasty (618 - 907). During that time, tea was compressed into cakes of various sizes, then boiled in salt water with added flavorings such as ginger, onion and orange zest to create a tea "soup". Tea was also shaped into bricks to make it easier to transport on horseback for the long and arduous journey to Tibet.
Pu-erh is a fermented tea. The fermentation occurs through a process of microbial activity, similar broadly to the production of wine, vinegar, yogurt and soy sauce. Pu-erh tea can be divided in two types: raw (“sheng”) and ripe (“shu”). Both types of Pu-erh are processed similarly in the beginning – leaves are picked, withered outdoors for several hours, fired at low temperature and then sun dried. The result is "maocha" or unfinished tea. After the maocha stage, the processing methods diverge.
Sheng Pu-erh leaves are left alone to age naturally over time. In the humidity of China, naturally occurring microbes in the leaf break down to new substances, resulting in changes to the flavor of the tea.
Shu Pu-erh tea is made by accelerating the fermentation the "maocha" in a controlled process using added heat and humidity, similar to composting. The unfinished leaves are gathered into piles where the heat generated kills off undesirable microbes and promotes the growth of beneficial microbes. The result of this fermentation process is a tea like no other - known for its earthy, mellow flavors and sweet lingering aftertaste.
Both Sheng and Shu Pu-erh teas can be kept in a loose form or compressed into various shapes such as cakes, bricks and nuggets.
Pu-erh tea is recognized for its digestive properties. Due to its microbial aging process, Pu-erh naturally helps to break down fats and grease in the stomach.