Nestled not far from the heart of the Russian River Valley Viticultural Area, down a long driveway a stone’s throw from renowned wineries and acre upon acre of vineyards, is a unique climate-controlled aging room, a space with no barrels, no bottles, no winery aromas.
Instead, shelves that climb nearly to the ceiling are packed with boxes filled with a rare yet increasingly popular tea: puer, the only tea in the world that improves with time. It stands alongside not only the world’s finest wines but also such other delicacies as aceto balsamico tradizionale, or true balsamic vinegar; the rare Culatello di Zibello, the benchmark cured ham; and those ancient sourdough starters you hear about now and then.
Puer tea — pronounced pooh-er, not pooh-air — was once reserved exclusively for China’s emperors and remained a well-kept secret for centuries, but now you can enjoy some of the finest puer teas in the world right here in Sonoma County.
This aging area takes up about a quarter of the space of an old building a few yards from the home where Larry and Yang Su Chin, founders of Pure Puer, live. When the couple moved here from Corte Madera in 2014, they quickly began transforming the building into an ideal space for aging this precious tea.
Adjacent to the aging teas are open shelves where both ancient and modern tea implements, tea pots, and a few very rare teas are displayed. Nearby is a small tasting area, equipped with everything needed for tasting the puer and other teas the couple imports directly from farmers in both Taiwan and China. Among the implements is a clay lotus root with a tiny ceramic frog sitting on its rim; its purpose is to hold a small teapot’s lid while water is being poured into the pot.
“Current tasting fashion is with Tang Dynasty-style implements,” Yang Su explained.
Each action of tea teasing is supported by an implement both beautiful and practical, creating a choreographed experience.
But what, exactly, is this rare tea and why are some people obsessed with it?
Puer tea comes from the same variety of tree as all traditional green and black teas, camellia senensis. It is produced only in the high mountain forests of the Yunnan province in southwestern China that lead to the Himalayas.
Although puer is often referred to as fermented, it is actually a raw tea, the only raw tea in the world. Raw, in this case, means it still possesses all of its potential for aging and developing the beneficial microbes that have captured an increasing number of health professionals around the world.
Other teas, from delicate Darjeeling to that workhorse English Breakfast, are baked at high temperatures, which fixes flavors and halts further development. These teas are best young; they do not improve with age. Both green and black puer benefit from time in an environment with about 60 percent humidity. The older the puer, the better it is.
“Puer is an antique you can drink,” Larry Chin likes to say.
The small new leaves of the trees, many of them hundreds and even thousands of years old, are picked by hand. They are then rolled in a machine that loosens the leaf’s thin outer layer. Next, the leaves are allowed to breath for a time and then go through a process similar to composting, a process Larry refers to as oxidation rather than fermentation.
After being hit with steam for a few seconds, the tea is either dried as whole leaves or pressed into bricks or cakes and dried. At this point, the puer must be moved, as Yunnan’s high humidity — over 80 percent — leaves the tea vulnerable to mold. For millennia, this was accomplished on horseback. The tea is now moved more efficiently, though there are no big highways to or from the Chinese tea farms and no nearby airports.
When the Chins visited, it took 13 hours to drive from Chengdu, a city of nearly 15 million people in central China, to their destination. They traveled narrow roads through terraced rice fields, small villages and ancient forests as they snaked their way to nearly 6,000 feet.
Their reward for this arduous journey was not only a tour of the farm and factory by its owner. They also saw what is considered to be the mother tree of all tea, a 3,750-year-old tea tree from which all tea trees are said to be related. A tree doesn’t even begin to hit its stride, when it comes to the flavor of its tea, until it is at least 100 years old.
A primary reason for traveling to the farms, the Chins explained, is to verify claims that the teas they purchase are what they say they are: pesticide-free, organic and of the highest quality.
“I must have asked about pesticides 15 different ways,” Larry explained, adding that insect control is accomplished through companion planting, with trees that attract unwanted insects interspersed with the tea trees and other forest plants. They came away confident in their sources.
In the 11 years since the Chins founded their internet-based company, puer has grown in popularity, though not all purveyors understand just what it is they are selling. This is where the Chins shine. They have a deep understanding of the teas they sell, underscored not only by their visits to producers, but also by Yang-Su’s fluency in the languages necessary to communicate directly with the farmers.
She can also read labels, including the printing on the rice paper packaging that wraps pressed puer. Their Pure Puer website is filled with photographs of their travels, including every step in the production of the tea, research about the tea’s health benefits and exactly how to prepare it.
At first glance, puer seems expensive, especially compared to supermarket and even specialty market teas. And, indeed, it can be. Single cakes — about 357 grams — can sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars, depending on their age and quality. Stories of a single brick selling for $10,000 to $20,000 and more are not uncommon. But these teas are extremely rare. The Chins break down the cost of a single cup to about four cents, based, in part, on the fact that a single tablespoon can and should be brewed over and over again, until the leaves are exhausted.
Another way to understand it is to do the math yourself. Take a black puer harvested not far from the mother tea tree in 2015. A 357-gram brick sells for $68. If you use 5 grams for each pot of tea and infuse it ten times, as is recommended for this particular tea, the cost is about 10 cents a cup.
Pure Puer offers many options, including 6-gram “bricks” known as tuocha; loose leaves, and, by request, tea bags that contain 2.5 grams of puer and are made especially for the company by a farmer in Taiwan using high quality materials that do not contain bleach or other chemicals, as standard teabags do.
When Yang Su began exploring tea, the impetus was, to a large degree, health concerns. She was about to turn 43, her cholesterol was high, and none of the natural methods she tried had an impact. It wasn’t long before she came across puer, at that time it was barely known outside of China, Chinese communities, and the occasional tea aficionado. After drinking puer tea for several weeks and doing nothing else to manage her cholesterol, it dropped 50 points.
This is, of course, anecdotal, but there are numerous studies about a wide array of health benefits attributed to both green and puer tea. Larry, who has a degree in Spanish and has had a long career in the financial world, is most passionate about this aspect of the teas he sells.
He is currently writing a book on the topic, tentatively titled “Health Benefits of Puer Tea.” In the book, he explores both individual stories and research that suggests puer may be effective in lowering blood sugar, fighting cancer, relieving stress and insomnia, and encouraging weight loss, to name just a few of the issues that are being examined.
He envisions a transformed world, one in which rising health care costs, overmedication and increasing disease are dramatically decreased by something as simple and pleasurable as a daily cup — or ten — of the world’s finest tea.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if this tea could replace the millions and millions of dollars we spend on drugs?” he said.
Most of the Chin’s business is conducted through the couple’s website, purepuer.com, with customers from all over the world. They ship tea to Australia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Canada and Mexico, a market that particularly interests Larry because of his fluency in Spanish and his passion for the tea’s health properties.
They also attend two local farmers markets each week, the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market (at the Luther Burbank Center) on Saturday and the Sebastopol Farmers Market on Sunday, where they offer a wide selection of their teas, tastes and full cups.
You should not reserve puer for special occasions. Its rarity is from a global perspective, based on lack of exposure, not unavailability. it can be your daily workhorse beverage, enjoyed from morning through evening, as it is quite low in caffeine. Enjoy it on its own, with breakfast, or in the afternoon, with a few simply nibbles, such as salted almonds or pistachios, dried cranberries, and seaweed-sesame crackers.
In this recipe, tea is incorporated directly into the dish. It is traditionally made with green tea but is even better, at least to my palate, with black puer or a mix of black and green puer. The recipe is casual and flexible and you should feel free to make your own adjustments when it comes to vegetables, proteins, and herbs.
Ochazuke with Puer
Serves 2 to 3
1 tablespoon green or black puer
— Boiling water
3 cups cooked sushi rice or risotto rice, hot
1 small carrot, grated
4-6 ounces diced (1/4-inch) cooked chicken thigh or 4 to 6 ounces cooked wild salmon, broken into small pieces (or other cooked meat, mushrooms, or tofu)
— Small handful of wakame (seaweed)
2-3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2-1 teaspoon powdered wasabi
1 teaspoon umeboshi paste (pickled plum paste)
2 heaping teaspoons white or red miso
— Toasted sesame oil
— A few cilantro leaves, chopped
— Sriracha or other hot sauce
Make the puer according to the instructions in the sidebar to this story; you’ll need 2 to 3 infusions, which can be decanted into a warmed tea pot. Set aside briefly and keep hot.
Divide the hot rice between large bowls and scatter carrots, chicken or salmon, seaweed and scallions over it.
Divide the wasabi, umeboshi paste and miso between the two servings, putting it on top of the rice. Shake a few drops of sesame oil on top.
Pour the tea over the rice, pouring in concentric circles so that all of the rice is moistened and the tea pools in the bowl. Sprinkle the cilantro over everything. Use chops sticks to stir the mixture so that the umeboshi and miso mix with the tea.
Enjoy right away, with the hot sauce alongside.
Michele Anna Jordan has been drinking puer tea since 2002. Email her at email@example.com