Ok, so you’ve had an awful pu erh tea experience. The question is: “Now what?” You can throw your tea in the garbage can, or try to ‘fix’ it with this guide!
Often times, when people taste an unpleasant pu erh, they blame the quality of the raw material or poor storage. Then they give up on the tea. Yet, even seemingly bad pu erh can turn into a treasure if you deal with it the right way. Now let’s start fixing your tea.
Pu erh tea can smell weird when you’re dealing with one that either very old (more than 10 years) or when it’s not properly stored (too humid, too hot). There are two things you can do to solve this:
- If the tea is compressed, pry it into smaller chunks and store it in an tea caddy made from Yixing clay. These jars are excellent, because it protects the tea from humidity, light and temperature fluctuations, while it lets the tea ‘air’. This is a very effective method to remove the bad smell.
- Once the tea is aired, perform two quick rinses before you steep the tea. Simply at hot water into your tea vessel and discard it in 10 seconds. Two rinses should be enough to remove the ‘bad’ layer of taste and make the tea ready for a good and tasty steep.
Below a video on how you can let tea air in a caddy:
Pu erh Tea Tastes Like Dirt
Most people who drink pu erh the first time, find it too strong. “This pu erh tea tastes like dirt!” is something you often hear from first time drinkers.
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It’s important to note that there are two types of pu erh: raw & ripe. Especially with the latter type, people often complain the taste is too strong.
There’s a few things you can do:
- Rinse once or twice before you start your first real brew. This can remove the storage flavor of ripe pu erh.
- Reduce the brewing temperature to 90ºC: While ripe needs to be brewed at high temperatures, you can somewhat reduce the temperature to make the tea softer in taste.
- Shorten the steeping time: Western brewing methods often use steeping times that last multiple minutes. This is fine with most Chinese teas. However, with ripe pu erh, you’ll easily get a very unpleasant, dark brew. To taste the finer notes of ripe pu erh, you should shorten the steeping time to 1 minute in a large teapot or 10-20 seconds in smaller vessels such as a gaiwan. The steeping time can then be slowly increased for subsequent brews.
- As a last resort you could flavor your ripe pu erh with flowers or herbs. More on this in the last paragraph.
- If the above advice still doesn’t work for you, then switch to raw pu erh teas. Raw pu erhs are less savory and intense, instead they tend to be more green, flowery and fresh, which might suit you better.
Pu erh Tea Tastes like Fish
While ripe pu erh can taste like dirt, a raw pu erh can sometimes taste fishy. There are a few ways to explain. Some raw pu erh has a vegetal seaweed taste. Some people will describe this as ‘fishy’. If this is the case, there’s nothing wrong with the tea, and you probably don’t like it. What’s also possible is that it has been badly stored. The solutions suggested above for ripe pu erh can also work for raw: prying in chunks and let it air, rinsing and playing around with temperature and steeping time.
Here’s a full article on fishy tastes in tea.
You may also don’t like the bitter taste of raw pu erh. In that case, read the next paragraph.
With ripe pu erh, the bitterness is often smoothened out due to intensive post-fermentation in a warm and humid room. Raw pu erh haven’t undergone this process. Instead they’re stored for slow natural fermentation process that can take many years. Therefore raw pu erhs can taste bitter and here’s what you can do:
- Store it away: often times, raw pu erhs just aren’t ready for consumption. This is the case when the tea is still very young. Store it away and let it slowly ripen. Over time, the bitterness will be reduced and the tea will become darker and sweeter. Start drinking the tea from when it’s aged for at least 3 years. Then revisit every year to see how it continues to age and transform.
- With raw pu erh you can play even more with the temperature and steeping time than ripe pu erh. You may try temperatures between 80 to 100ºC to see what works for you. Adjust the steeping time accordingly. If steeping at full temperature results in a too bitter brew, you can try 90ºC and 80ºC. Especially at the lower range, you’ll find that it tastes like a completely different tea. It’s gonna be much softer, and it will be easier to recognize the delicate flowery and fruity notes.
- Switch to ripe pu erh if the above doesn’t work for you. Ripe pu erhs are very smooth and thick in flavor and have hardly any bitterness. Even when they’re still very young.
Last Resort: Blend Pu Erh with Flowers & Herbs
Ok, so you’ve tried everything above, and you still can’t get accustomed to the taste. Then there’s a last resort: flavor your tea!
With flavoring it’s not like you’re gonna randomly blend it with whatever there’s in the kitchen cabinet. We’ve to find highly compatible ingredients while we still ‘keep it real’. We want the tea to be still very recognizable pu erh, but fix the parts of the flavor that you don’t like.
Don’t feel bad about it. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s oftentimes done in China. In fact, it’s an effective way to start learning to drink pu erh. Overtime, you’ll be better able to accept the base flavors and taste the unique notes of each tea. That’s when you should switch back to pure play.
- Chrysanthemum flowers: by far the most used ingredients to blend with pu erh are chrysanthemum flowers. These flowers make a ripe pu erh taste more soothing and refreshing!
- Fruits: dried fruits like goji and jujube are also really recommended to brew with both ripe and raw pu erh. Goji is great to give it some extra sweetness. If you like savory sour notes, dried jujube is great.
- Nuo Mi Xiang herb: this herb has a sticky rice flavors that wonderfully smoothens out and add extra flavor to the taste of both ripe and raw pu erh. This herb isn’t readily available to buy, but you could look into pre-blended nuo mi xiang pu erh.
Below a video about blending pu erh with chrysanthemum:
If you’re curious to learn more about pu erh, we recommend you to read this article: Pu erh tea taste explained.