Pu-erh Tea: Benefits, Side Effects, and Preparations

Pu-erh Tea

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman


Pu-erh tea, also known as pu’er tea, is a type of aged and fermented tea traditionally consumed in Yunnan Province, China. It is made with leaves from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant, which is the same plant used to make green tea, black tea, and oolong tea. Pu-erh tea is known for providing the health benefits of tea and fermented foods since it is rich in antioxidants and beneficial bacteria.

What is Pu-erh Tea?

Pu-erh tea is unlike traditional herbal teas, which are made by drying and steeping tea leaves. To make pu-erh tea, the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant must come from the Yunnan Province in China. The place where the tea leaves hail from is also known as Pu-Erh County, which is where pu-erh tea gets its name.

Once harvested, the leaves are dried, rolled, and fermented using a microbial process. Sometimes the leaves are raw instead of dried before the fermentation process, resulting in a greener tea. Dried leaves result in a blacker tea. The fermentation process allows beneficial bacteria to grow, which is why the tea is believed to have the health benefits of both tea and fermented foods.

After the leaves are fermented, the pu-erh tea is compressed into round-shaped cakes or discs. Sometimes they are formed into other shapes, including bowls, bricks, and pearls. They are densely packed into cans or cloth to prevent them from falling apart.

Though often compared to kombucha, another type of fermented tea, pu-erh tea is different because the fermentation process happens at a different stage of making the tea. Kombucha is made by fermenting tea that is already prepared. Pu-erh tea requires fermenting the actual tea leaves, then preparing the tea after the leaves have undergone a microbial process.

The quality of pu-erh tea is affected by the season during which it was harvested, the packing method, and the age. Tea harvest during the spring yields a higher quality tea. Tightly packed pu-erh tea is preferred to loosely packed tea since it will age better. Other factors include oxidation, temperature, and humidity levels. Since pu-erh tea is heavily oxidized, it is like wine in the way that it is believed to get better over time.

How to Prepare

While many teas come in the form of tea bags or loose leaves, pu-erh tea most commonly comes in the form of densely packed cakes. Therefore, it requires a different preparation method.

For the best cup of pu-erh tea, ripe pu-erh cakes are recommended. This means the tea has been fully oxidized and aged, resulting in a deep color and slightly sweet flavor.

This is how to prepare pu-erh tea from pu-erh cakes:

  1. Bring water to a boil.
  2. Remove one teaspoon of leaves from the pu-erh cakes.
  3. Place the pu-erh leaves into a teapot. Do not use a strainer at this point.
  4. When the water has reached boiling, pour 8 ounces of the water directly over the tea leaves. This allows the leaves to fully submerge into the water.
  5. Let the tea steep for approximately five minutes.
  6. After five minutes, use a strainer to remove the tea leaves, leaving a smooth pot of pu-erh tea. Do not allow the tea to over steep. 

Other types of pu-erh tea call for different preparation methods. Raw pu-erh cakes, which are like ripe pu-erh cakes but made with raw fermented leaves instead of dried ones, should be treated with more delicacy. Use lower temperature water and steep for less time. 

Loose-leaf pu-erh tea and pu-erh tea that comes in sachets or tea bags have similar methods of preparation. Loose-leaf tea can be prepared by steeping 1 teaspoon of leaves in 8 ounces of water for five minutes. Strain before enjoying. Pu-erh tea sachets are the easiest to prepare since they do not need to be strained. Simply steep for five minutes before removing the teabag. 

Caffeine Content

Pu-erh tea is caffeinated. It has a similar amount of caffeine to black tea, according to data published in Pharmacognosy Magazine. Black tea contains between 14 milligrams and 61 milligrams of caffeine per cup. However, the amount of caffeine in tea may vary depending on the strength of the tea and the length of the brew time. Strong servings of pu-erh tea may have as much as 100 milligrams of caffeine per cup.

There is a misconception that pu-erh tea is lower in caffeine since it is fermented and aged, but it contains a similar amount of caffeine to other types of tea.

Health Benefits

Pu-erh tea can be enjoyed simply for its smoothness and subtly sweet flavor, for its health benefits, or both.

Antioxidants

The antioxidant properties of tea are well-known and thoroughly studied. Like other teas, pu-erh tea is also a rich source of the antioxidants. According to research published in Molecules, both raw and ripe pu-erh tea contain antioxidant activity due to the presence of polyphenols. The benefits of antioxidants include heart health, reduced risk of infection, and reduced risk of some cancers.

Probiotics

When food and drinks are fermented, they contain beneficial bacteria. This bacteria can help the gut microbiome by introducing probiotics. Probiotics have proven gut health and immune health benefits.

Weight Loss

Several types of tea have been touted for their weight loss benefits, including green tea, matcha tea, and more. Studies have also found a correlation between pu-erh tea consumption and weight loss. A study published in China Science Journal found that the bioactive components in pu-erh tea help reduce the content of lipids in the blood, aiding in weight loss in humans and animals. 

Reduces Cholesterol Levels

In addition to the heart health-promoting antioxidant benefits of pu-erh tea, it is also beneficial for improving cholesterol levels. This may help reduce the risk of heart disease. One study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that pu-erh and other teas can lower body weight, triglyceride levels, and total cholesterol levels in rats. Though animal models are promising, this research has not been concluded in human studies.

Side Effects

The side effects of pu-erh tea are largely related to its caffeine content as well as its fermentation process. 

Since pu-erh tea can have up to 100 milligrams of caffeine per cup, users may experience some of the side effects of caffeine: jitters, irritability, insomnia, headaches, and more. However, these side effects are unlikely when pu-erh tea is consumed in small or moderate amounts. The side effects of caffeine are more likely when the recommended amount of 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is exceeded.

The fermented benefits of pu-erh tea may be experienced as side effects to others. This can cause stomach aches and upset stomach in people who do not consume fermented foods or drinks often. 

The side effects of pu-erh tea are usually not serious. If side effects persist, it is recommended to discontinue use and see a medical professional.

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