How to Brew the Perfect Pu’erh

The first time I had a pu erh tea, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It’s an interesting tea, and a bit of an anomaly, for several reasons:

  1. It’s the only tea (at least to my knowledge) in which letting it get old can be a good thing. You can age pu erh like wine, and, like wine, aging the pu erh brings out a more mature, complex flavor. Fascinating, right?
  2. It doesn’t grow bitter from oversteeping like most other teas. You can steep this for a few seconds or for several minutes and it won’t taste weak or bitter. 
  3. It can be pressed into cakes or bricks to be sold. This is a tradition that dates back to the days of trade caravans.

The first time I tasted pu erh, I was amazed by its dark, almost opaque liquor and its bold, earthy taste. But it had this almost…fishy note to it that was strange. Well, there was a reason it had tasted fishy. I had brewed it wrong.

The secret to a good cup of pu erh is to rinse the leaves before you actually brew it. Rinsing is very simple. If you’re making a Pu’erh in a glass or a ceramic pot (note to self: write a blog entry on Yixing clay pots. Or 12 entries.), just put your leaves in the pot or mug or Gaiwan, then put in enough boiling water to cover the leaves. Let this sit for a 2 or 3 seconds, then dump out the hot water. You might need to do a second rinse. This will clean the leaves and it will ensure that the tea you brew actually tastes like the pu erh leaves, instead of whatever stuff clung to the leaves during its aging process. You’ll get more of the pure tea taste after a good rinse.

You also don’t have to steep pu erh for nearly as long as I originally thought. While some websites said to let it steep for 5 minutes or more, others said to steep it for 20 to 30 seconds! This depends on the vessel you brew it in, and, most likely, your personal taste. The good thing about pu erh is, you can’t really mess it up. That is, you can’t brew it to the point of it tasting bitter and undrinkable, although certainly there are long traditions on the best way to make a cup of pu erh.

But the cardinal rule to pu erhs to come away with is to rinse before you infuse!

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At a Glance: Where to Get Tea in Iowa City

At first glance Iowa doesn’t seem to have much to offer as far as teas go. Midwesterners rely on their coffee as per tradition. But in the more urban areas (since it’s Iowa I’m using “urban” in a loose sense), shops are beginning to offer more varieties of teas, loose and bagged.

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Photo courtesy of leafkitchen.weebly.com

Leaf Kitchen is your best option if you want a nice British afternoon tea. Leaf Kitchen offers great breakfast and lunch options, and they have a hefty list of teas on their menu, including one with rose that’s really nice. With a reservation, you can do a full afternoon tea with scones, finger sandwiches, a mini-cake, a truffle and a pot of tea. They also do a British cream with scones, clotted cream, jam and a pot of tea.

 

The Java House is the most popular coffee shop in Iowa City, with three city locations and three locations in the university hospital. They sell tea paraphernalia at the main downtown store, including several kinds of teapots (with a couple of cast iron offerings!), bamboo tea scoops, and handmade mugs.

The tea selection they have to offer is good, too. You can get a 2-cup pot of mate, silver needle, rooibos, English breakfast, Iron Goddess and more.

This ends up being tragic, because they serve the tea to you in a tea house pot still steeping. This is fine with herbal teas like rooibos and mate, which can sit in water forever and taste fine, but if you order a green, white or black tea, there’s a good chance your tea could already be bitter and over-steeped by the time it’s handed over to you. Then you’re left to try to pick out the metal basket with your fingers without scorching them and pray that they didn’t burn your leaves. My tea has always tasted over-steeped and awful when I’ve gone here. It’s a damn shame, because Java House treats their beans with such respect. I wish camellia sinensis got the same kind of treatment there.

Photo courtesy of highgroundcafe.com

Photo courtesy of highgroundcafe.com

Which is why I’m glad there are coffee shops like High Ground Cafe. They can brew up a damn good cappuccino but also have a wide variety of Numi tea to offer and serve it up well. Their Ti Kuan Yin is served loose in a pitcher, and you just pour the tea over a mesh filter and into your mug when it’s steeped to your liking. Unlike the Java House, they serve the tea to you at the right temperature and right away so you can control the steep time and ensure that your tea isn’t bitter and undrinkable.

They also give you the choice between loose or bagged teas. Their bagged teas are better than the run of the mill offerings. There are several pu erhs, as well as savory herbal teas that taste like a warming broth if you add a little salt to them.

They also offering a flowering tea, which you can steep for several pots. It’s ideal for a long sit-in with an essay assignment or a good book.

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Photo courtesy of prairielights.com

Prairie Lights Bookstore is an Iowa City institution, and it also boosts a nice cafe upstairs. They have about 20 different kinds of Rishi organic teas and serve them up in adorably mismatched teapots with little glass teacups on a tray. Alas, the cafe at Prairie Lights can fall prey to the same problem The Java House has. The strainer is in the teapot, so unless you pick it out precariously, your second and third cups of tea will be unbearably bitter unless you are guzzling that tea down your throat. And who wants to do that after you’ve been book browsing and found a nice stack to sift through as you sip your tea?

 

I guess my takeaway from this little excursion from Iowa City’s tea vendors is that it doesn’t matter what quality of tea you serve if you don’t prepare it right! If you’re shelling out for a pot of silver needle tea, you want it to taste good. Sure, it’s not that hard to get a fork or a knife and pry the little metal basket out of your teapot, but it can feel ridiculous when you just want to relax with your pot of tea. Still, the tea options are growing. The fact that I can walk into a coffee shop and order a pu erh or a Ti Kuan Yin and not get a funny look is a sign that even the Midwest is starting to get interested in the world of tea!