I think I have finally cracked Pu-erh tea. I first tried it last year in San Francisco - I realise this sounds somewhat pretentious but it's true! Despite having a rather horrible cold which rapidly turned into sunstroke I walked across half the city in search of the famed Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown. Imagine my joy when I found the address only to discover it had closed down... or more accurately it had moved to the Ferry Building. I was pretty disappointed when I found the new branch as despite being in an attractive building devoted to good food and other lovely things it still felt pretty much a mall inside. I mean, I know malls are practical and all that, but it doesn't compare to being in a fantastically vibrant neighbourhood like Chinatown.
Anyhow, although this was very much early days in my tea obsession - in fact it may well have been the start of it - I hadn't made all that effort not to try a cup of tea. The shop itself was a little underwhelming in terms of decor but there was an extensive tea menu and very helpful staff. We were assisted by a waiter who, bizarrely enough, was from the north of England and he recommended a tea to me - which I can't even remember - and a Pu-erh to Coffee Boy. The main reason I don't remember what I had is that I spent pretty much the whole visit coveting the Pu-erh. It had a lovely refreshing top note above the characteristic earthy taste.
For those of you who've never tried it Pu-erh is a fermented tea. Now any tea purists that are reading this will probably be going mildly apoplectic at this simplistic description but you can find other blogs that will go into the minutiae of the different methods of producing Pu-erh if you want to know more. For me fermented is about as much as I've got my head around as yet. One thing that's for sure is that it's a tea that divides people. Even the master blender at a tea tasting I attended said it was the only type of tea that he personally didn't like.
Undeterred, when I returned home I ordered some loose-leaf Pu-erh (it also comes in a 'cake') and looked forward to recreating the San Francisco experience in the comfort of my own home. Needless to say I didn't. The tea tasted far too earthy, in fact on the verge of mouldy, and was a total disappointment. I'd sort of sworn myself off it deciding that my meagre knowledge wasn't enough to guarantee I could buy a Pu-erh I would actually like.
I happened to mention my experience to Tim at Postcard Teas last time I was there and he very kindly gave me a sample of his loose leaf 1992 Vintage Pu-erh to take home and try. But here was the crucial bit, he told me not only that I could make multiple infusions - something I always do with teas anyway - but that I may actually prefer the taste if I rinsed the Pu-erh before even trying an infusion.
As so often where tea is concerned Tim was spot on. I came home, rinsed the leaves in hot but not boiling water and then made the first infusion. When I drank it there I was transported back to the Ferry Building in sunny San Francisco. It was pretty exciting to realise that the simple act of rinsing the leaves had massively improved the flavour. I guess it's one of those little idiosyncrasies that makes tea such an endless source of fascination. For me it's not really an everyday tea, but it's certainly a special treat to enjoy when the mood takes me. So although it's something of an exaggeration to say I've 'mastered' Puerh, I have at least managed to find a way to enjoy drinking it again. And that's good enough for me.