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I opened the bottle of your vanilla extract last weekend to bake some cookies and the difference in taste is extraordinary." – Judy

The Numi Pu’erh Challenge


Recently I went to the Specialty Food (also known as the Fancy Food) show in San Francisco to see what was new and exciting in the food world.  I also went to connect with companies who are supporting sustainability and ethical trade with farmers as well as selling fair trade and organic products.  I’m happy to say that the number of specialty food companies buying consciously is growing, a hopeful sign for growers and consumers alike.

A company that I am quite interested in is Numi Tea.  We carried Numi’s  Indian Night Decaf Black Vanilla tea in our gift packages and by the box when we were still doing retail sales in our online store.  The vanilla is delicate and understated, just as it should be so that the quality of the tea leaves are enhanced rather than overwhelmed by the vanilla.

So it was a logical step for me to sign up for Numi’s Pu’erh Challenge, a two-week commitment to drink pu’erh tea and blog about it.  How do I like it, how does it make me feel, would I recommend it to others?  That the challenge fits so well with our site and commitment to the tropics is an additional plus.

Many of you may be scratching your heads and asking, “What’s pu’erh?”  You’re not in the minority; pu’ehr is a relative newcomer in the American and European tea scene, though it has been a favorite in China for at least 1700 years.  Also known as “pu’er” and “po lei” in Cantonese, Pu’erh (pronounced poo-er) is named for a county in southwestern China, below Yunnan province.  This region is also considered the birthplace of tea.

Xishuangbanna and Simao, the region of China where pu’erh is grown, is tropical, though the tea itself is grown in the cool, high mountainous regions.  The tea bushes, a large leaf variety of Camellia sinensis are hundreds of years old and harvested by ethnic hill tribes.

Pu’ehr is a green Tea that has been allowed to ferment/compost. Its secondary fermentation gives it a very dark, earthy quality.  In China, what we consider black teas are called red, whereas pu’ehr is considered black.  Pu’ehr is commonly sold in beautiful compressed cakes, often with deeply impressed stamped designs. When I stayed with a tea specialist and research scientist on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, he showed me large circular cakes of pu’ehr at his display in one of China’s most expensive retail stores.  Pu’ehr cakes are aged for years-to-decades, in some cases, and can fetch amazing prices at auctions.  Terroir is a powerful factor with Pu’ehr teas, falling into a similar category as the evaluation of fine wines.

Pu’ehr is also valued for its alleged medicinal properties, some of which have been validated in scientific studies.  Known in China as the “Wonder Tonic,” it is credited with lowering cholesterol levels, raising the body’s energy levels or “Qi,” helping with the digestion of oily or fatty foods, and much more.

With this brief introduction to a very complex tea, I will give you my first impressions of Numi’s full leaf pu’ehr tea.

Tea is my warm beverage of choice.  For many years I was a pretty typical American tea drinker.  I nearly exclusively drank English Breakfast or Earl Grey teas, and rarely used loose leaf teas.  In the last fifteen years, however, I’ve expanded my taste in teas, sampling varieties of Indian, Chinese and Japanese green, white and black teas as well as teas made from grain, such as roasted barley tea, and frequently using loose leaf teas.

I’ve never drunk coffee so I haven’t used tea as a substitute.  Pu’ehr is often considered a good substitute for coffee because of its bold, earthy and malty flavor. I was given two boxes of Pu’ehr.  One, Emperor’s Choice, is a straight pu’ehr.  The second, Magnolia Blossom, is fragranced with magnolia flowers. 

Straight pu’ehr has a very specific aroma that I would best describe as “dirt.”  While that doesn’t sound appealing, my impression was neutral.  I suspect it is part of the second fermentation process that gives it this aroma.  It is absolutely a bold flavor and it actually doesn’t taste at all like dirt.  I haven’t come up with the right word yet to describe the flavor, however. Maybe I’ll find the word I want in the next few days. I drank half the cup plain, then added some soy creamer.  The soy creamer softened the flavor some.  No bitterness or aftertaste either straight or with creamer.  I think I like it.  More to come.

Patricia Rain
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