What is Puerh? August 27 2013

What is Puerh? Six months ago I had no idea. I’m not entirely certain how there was a blank hole in my mind where puerh should have been. In all my travels and experiences I am certain to have had puerh along the way. Perhaps no one took the time to explain what I was drinking and I didn’t remember if they told me. That all changed this year.

I spent the better part of the first half of 2013 on a 10,000+ mile long solo road trip across the southern half of America. Just me, the road, and my trusty mad max styled monster truck. It was awesome. It’s what everyone dreams about doing some day but usually never will. I used the trip as an excuse to search the country for good coffee.

Coffee is my first love. I mean real coffee, not the over-roasted, caffeinated sugar milk that Starbucks peddles. I am passionate about coffee in ways most people wouldn’t understand. I roast my own beans, I agonize over the perfect ratio of water to beans, I measure everything to the gram, and I need my water at exacting temperatures (176°). I travel with my own hand grinder, water kettle, fresh beans, and assorted coffee paraphernalia. To say I am passionate about coffee puts it lightly. Coffee is (was) my world. All that changed when I reached Santa Cruz, California.

My trip took me to Santa Cruz to visit an old college buddy. Santa Cruz is a great little town. Quirky, fun, and proud of itself. While there my friend convinced me that I needed to visit the Hidden Peak Teahouse [ http://hiddenpeakteahouse.com/ ] and experience their gongfu tea service. I was intrigued. I was not aware the term gongfu could be used outside of the martial arts. While on this road trip I learned to take the adventure wherever it led and made a point of visiting this teahouse.

I visited Hidden Peak on a quiet, sunny afternoon in May. The teahouse, as the name implies, is hidden right downtown. I sat down and the owner asked if I knew what I was doing and I confessed that I did not. I picked a puerh that I thought looked interesting and he showed me the entire process. If anything, I am a sucker for process and procedure. I love to take my time giving attention to tiny details. I enjoy the little things. I was shown how good puerh can be brewed many times and is very forgiving for temperature. I learned that each time the leaves are steeped they have new flavors to reveal.

As soon as I tasted that puerh tea my world changed. Maybe that sounds cliched but it has quite literally had that effect. The tea had such amazing flavor. It was so rich and dark and smooth and memorable. It was also incredibly familiar. I had never experienced anything quite like it, and yet I felt like I knew it. I had a very deep emotional connection with that tea. What was this drink? How had I not heard of this before? Did others know about this drink? This was the start of what has become a real passion for me.

After returning to my friends house I had a lot of questions about puerh that his roommate was able to answer. We talked at length about puerh. The next morning he treated me to some of his own puerh in a gongfu tea ceremony in his living room. It was enchanting; a memorable experience. One thing he told me took me by surprise. Puerh is a tea cultivated exclusively in Yunnan, China. My soon to be wife was from Yunnan, China.

When I asked her about puerh she was genuinely surprised at my interest in it. She said most people in Yunnan drink green tea and not puerh. I have come to conclude this is because of a sort of grass is greener effect. Puerh has been an export from Yunnan for so long that it is taken largely for granted among the people who live there.

I never really drank coffee for the caffeine. I drank coffee because I loved the flavor. Straight black, no sugar, cream, or artifical flavors was the only way. Seattle is home to some of the best coffee roasters in the world. Shops like Stumptown, Victrola, and Caffe Vita demonstrate what coffee really has to offer to a discerning palate. This was the flavor experience I sought. Each morning I would grind some beans first thing and begin the lengthy process to create a perfect cup of coffee. I would drink this magical elixir and then get started with my day. I would take an afternoon espresso if I was near a trustworthy barista, but that was about as much caffeine as I wanted in a given day. I yearned for an excuse to drink more coffee, but I just really didn’t want that caffeine. I wanted the chance to enjoy many cups of coffee, but without the caffeine (decaf doesn’t count).

Once I got back to Seattle I stopped at a tea shop in the International District and bought some puerh that to me, at the time, seemed wildly expensive. It was $100 for a 400 gram cake. He broke off roughly half and sold it to me for $45. I bought a small Yixing pot and went home to try it out. The first thing I did was fabricate a makeshift gongfu table so I could attempt to mimic the process I had been taught. That worked for about a week before I ended up having to buy a real table. I practiced brewing puerh in the gongfu style every day. I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t making myself coffee anymore. With puerh I found that I can continue to re-steep leaves all day if I wish to. I can have a delicious drinking experience as often as I wish without worrying about being overcaffeinated.

Doing some quick math it was apparent that using 5 grams of leaves from a 400 gram cake of puerh per day made even expensive cakes of puerh quite affordable in comparison to my coffee habit. If I wanted good coffee to make at home I was looking at spending ~$25/pound for fresh and fancy beans from a local roaster. A pound of coffee, brewing it how I brew it (21 grams per session), would work out to about 21 cups of coffee. That’s a little over a dollar per cup. That’s not too bad, but that’s just one cup per day. A cappuccino in the afternoon would add another $5 (with tip). Now with puerh a 400 gram cake worth $100, using 5 grams a day works out to be $1.25. The great part is that I can use those 5 grams all day long. That $100 cake is suddenly a lot better deal than drinking coffee.

I didn’t even really realize that I had stopped drinking coffee entirely until a few weeks later. I made myself some coffee the way I had thousands of times. The experience was lacking. The flavor felt primitive. I was disappointed. I then brewed some puerh and the depth of the experience and flavor was overtly obvious. Puerh is what I have been looking for all along. I don’t miss coffee.

I joked with my wife-to-be that we should use her connections in Yunnan and start a tea import business specializing in puerh and educate Westerners on what an amazing thing puerh tea is. She said “Why not?”, and I had no response. It dawned on me that we could make this work. Crimson Lotus Tea was born.