Widely consumed, a tea that has traveled with merchants and nomads for centuries, Pu-erhs are some of the oldest, most complex teas yet are largely unknown in the western world. As Pu-erhs age, they develop an earthy aroma and a sweet, full-bodied taste. They come in many, many shapes and forms - green and dark, loose leaf, compressed by hand and machine into nuggets, bricks and cakes of all sizes; aged in bamboo and baskets, fired and aged in citrus rinds and innumerable other materials, all to create unusual tea.
Pu-erh tea is made from the plant Camellia sinesis var. assamica or a regional sub-varietal known as dayeh, a large-leaf tea plant native to the forests and jungles of Yunnan Province. Pu-erhs are divided into two main classifications - "sheng" which is raw, green or uncooked leaf; and "sho" known as ripe, cooked or black Pu-erh.
With green Pu-erhs, the firing of the leaf is only partial thus allowing the leaf to continue to oxidize over time. "Cooked" Pu-erhs appear darker due to their initial oxidation before firing. These dark teas age well and their flavor improves with time but the degree of change typically is less than green Pu-erhs. Often Pu-erhs are stored in caves or special underground rooms to allow them to age properly. In fact, the most distinct characteristic of this tea is its ability to age well. The aroma of cooked leaves may remind one of a wet forest floor. Greens can be quite spicy or reminiscent of a single-malt scotch. Generally, Pu-erhs are thought to be moderate in caffeine content.