DARK TEA and PU-ERH
The story of Pu-erh tea begins on the old Tea-Horse Road, used for centuries to trade tea from China for horses from Central Asia. The type of tea that was traded was called hei cha, meaning 'black tea', and it was often made from old growth, wild tea trees. For easier transport and storage, the tea leaves were pressed into cakes and wrapped in paper. Pu-erh was a trading post in Yunnan, China, where horses were loaded up with these tea cakes for the long journey west.
The Tea-Horse Road carried traders through a variety of climates, temperatures and humidity levels, which caused the tea to ferment. The buyers in Central Asia enjoyed the flavor and nutritional benefits of this fermented tea, and found that it got better with age. Pu-erh tea aged over twenty years was a favorite. Eventually, the drinking of aged pu-erh made it's way back to China, and demand increased. To accommodate, a technique was developed to accelerate the 'aging' process, by introducing cultures (as is done with cheese or wine) and storing the tea in warm, humid conditions. After 3-6 months, tea produced with this method -- called shu or 'ripe' pu-erh -- approximates the taste of 20 year aged sheng or 'raw' pu-erh.
In recent years, tea drinkers have found that raw pu'er, fresh and un-aged, is great tea on it's own. Raw pu-erh has unique characteristics, often a pale orange or peach brew is accompanied by light peach flavor and a pleasant mineral or metallic note. Raw pu-erh is a gift that keeps on giving - have some now, age the rest!
There are many ripe pu-erh factories and techniques, each with their own unique recipes for the fermenting process. Traditionally, the recipe and batch were recorded as numbers on the wrapping, but in recent years teas marketed for Western consumers have more sensational names. Ripe pu-erh brews up very dark red, even black, and the flavor is like the Matrix - you have to experience it for yourself. Some tea collectors keep ripe pu-erh for aging as well, while others say that no benefit comes from aging.
Fu Cha - 'Brick Tea'
This tea deserves its own category (learn more here). While Pu-erh style tea is fermented in heaps before being pressed into cakes, Fu Cha is pressed into bricks before fermentation. The particular leaves and process used leads to a special kind of fermentation, in which 'golden flowers' grow throughout the bricks. The flavor and experience of drinking Fu Cha is unlike any other tea - flowery and honey-sweet mixed with autumn leaves and forest rains.