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Pu erh teas are part of what the Chinese call hei cha – black or dark teas – but are, in the West, more commonly referred to as pu er. What we in the West call black teas are known as hong cha in China, which means red teas. The difference is found both in which leaves are used and, more importantly, the production process. Additionally, storage is often the intent behind producing pu erh teas, why many of them are tightly packed into bricks or cakes according to ancient methods. The dark tea is really the raw material which can then be consumed while fresh, stored, compressed into hard cakes, or used as loose tea leaves. Pu er in Yunnan is the dominant and most famous area of production, but dark teas are to some extent also produced in a handful other regions in southern China.

For many, pu erh teas are an acquired taste. They generally have a significantly more earthy, natural, and raw taste compared to black teas from India, Sri Lanka, and China. For a novice consumer, they can be rather robust, almost intrusive. At their worst, they can carry a distinct scent of a barn, but at their best, they bring the pleasant aromas of an underground storehouse: earthy, damp, fruity, but filled with vegetables, fruits, and other goodies. In the world of wine, a strong and heavy Amarone would be a fair comparison.

Everyday consumption of these teas is common only in Yunnan, Tibet, and among a handful of peoples in the mountainous regions of southern China. They are otherwise considered highly exclusive teas in China, used mainly for their medicinal qualities, and served at finer tea houses or sold as precious goods in tea shops. As they are highly durable and can be stored for a long time, they are commonly given as gifts to newborns or newlyweds.

In the past few years, pu erh teas have gone through a popularity boom as enthusiasts from other parts of the world have discovered the special teas. This has also brought a dramatically increased price that can, at times, be astronomical. A market has even emerged for teas as investment projects, where some buy them just to store and sell at a premium in the future.

If you have gotten your hands on a precious pu erh tea, you should enjoy it as is, but they also combine quite well with certain foods. Think of them in the same way you would of a strong, mature red wine, and you will be able to match them with the right type of dish. They are delicious with a strong and meaty dish, smoked, roasted, or grilled. Pu er is also one of few tea types that can hold its own against a whiskey or other aged liquor as a complement. Perhaps even supplementing a cigar? In Cantonese culture – where the tea is known as po-lay, bo-lay, or bo-nay – pu erh teas are often consumed with dim sum dishes shared with friends and family. Even fruits and light sweets can present a splendid complement to the dry, earthy tea. In Chinese tea houses, candied fruits such as sweet and salty plums, are often served along with pu erh teas.