Puer and Heicha are related varieties of tea in that one (Puer) is a subset of the other (Heicha). Puer is named after Puer city where that tea variety originated while Heicha (or Hei Cha) is the name of the class of fermented tea in China which includes Puer tea. Puer is sometimes spelled pu-er, pu-erh, pu’er, pu’erh. In China there are six class of tea: green, white, yellow, oolong, black and heicha. The best known heicha teas are Puer and Anhua heicha. As with other classes of teas heicha teas differ according to where they are grown and how they are made. Heicha (hei cha) is sometimes referred to as dark tea to differentiate it from black tea. Heicha is the only class of tea that includes fermentation and post-fermentation processes. Its development differs from oxidized tea in that it involves natural or artificially-added beneficial bacteria or microbes, especially in some varieties like Puer and Anhua Fuzhuan. Sound familiar? Yes, in a way, it is similar to modern probiotic foods, although it has been around for a lot longer.
There are two types of puer based on how the tea is produced: “raw” and “ripe”. The raw type (also referred to as green type) is processed naturally, without the need to artificially stimulate bacteria, and it tastes better if the tea is allowed to continue to age. With raw puer the post-fermentation process starts at a certain temperature under moist conditions after the tea has been pressed into shapes and packed. The main processing of raw puer is by pan firing (much like green tea), sun-drying, steaming to form into cakes, balls or other shapes and packing, with natural processes allowed to occur thereafter. The natural bacteriological processes of puer tea were discovered when the tea was transported and traded over considerable distances, such as through the Himalayan mountains on trails referred to as “tea horse roads”, and the tea was found to have changed its properties during the voyage. Puer tea will continue to age when it is stored properly. The tea tastes better than when it was first packed, the same as a good wine.
The ripe puer came into being in the 1970’s as people were looking to shorten the time to produce bacteriologically mature tea that tastes good. The technique was not mature until 1980’s. Separately both puer and heicha producers have found methods to artificially induce bacteriological ripening of the tea. Both add microbes or bacteria to the tea and claim to have found their own unique beneficial bacteria.
Heicha in Chinese literally means black tea but it is not the black tea we are familiar with in the west. What we call “black tea” here is called red tea in Chinese because of the color of the tea liquor. Heicha’s liquor is darker than that of black tea so it is sometimes called dark tea. Heicha teas are mainly from Shichuan, Yunan, Hubei, Hunan, and Guangxi in China. Puer is from Yunan and is the best known heicha tea here in the western world, but Anhua heicha from Anhua in Hunan province is no less popular in China and Asia.
The growing environment of puer tea includes plenty of rain. Puer tea is from a big leaf tree plant, and the tea includes less stems than other heicha varieties. It has an aged smell and robust taste.
Of the many types of heicha, Anhua heicha fuzhuan (fucha) is one of the most sought after. It is produced during the hottest summer days with the “fa hua” process – adding the beneficial bacteria eurotium cristatum (which look like small golden flowers).
Heicha goes through full fermentation during processing. Heicha originates from Anhua, Hunan Province. Puer used to be a single class of tea and was later classified into the heicha category. The use of pine smoke is a distinctive characteristics of Anhua hei cha. Anhua heicha is grown on trees of smaller leaves than that of puer, and that characteristic, together with a higher proportion of stem content can be used to visually distinguish it. Anhua heicha usually is lighter tasting than puer.
Heicha has long been appreciated by people from areas in China where herding of livestock is a primary agricultural activity, such as in Tibet. In those areas, which feature fatty meats and butters in the diet, people have long believed that Heicha can cleanse the fat in their bodies. Now some studies seem to vindicate the belief that puer tea has some effect on decreasing fatty acids. (1) (2)
1 Qiong S & Xishuang Y. Tourism Institute of Beijing Union University, No.97, Beisihuan East Road, Chao Yang District, Beijing, PR China. (2014, July 27). History of Pu'er Tea and comparative study of the effect of its various extracts on lipid-lowering diet. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25016260
2 Department of Agrobioscience, Graduate School of Agricultural Science, Kobe University, Nada-ku, Kobe 657-8501,Japan. (2014, Aug. 7). Oolong, black and pu-erh tea suppresses adiposity in mice via activation of AMP-activated protein kinase. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25098399
Raw Pu-er (left) & Ripe Pu-er (right)
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