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Most people can safely drink up to 3 cups (710 mL) of pu-erh tea per day, unless they’re also consuming large quantities of other caffeinated beverages.
What Is Pu-erh Tea?
Lindsey Goodwin is a food writer and tea consultant with more than 12 years of experience exploring tea production and culture.
Updated on 09/20/22
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Pu-erh tea (also commonly known as ‘puer,’ ‘pu’er,’ ‘po lei’ and ‘bolay’ tea, and known as ‘dark tea’ or ‘black tea’ in China) is a semi-rare type of tea that is made in Yunnan, China. In the West, pu-erh tea is known for its health benefits, but there are many misconceptions about pu-erh’s flavor, processing, and other attributes. Read on to learn more about this mysterious and oft-misunderstood tea.
- Origin: Yunnan Province, China
- Alternative Names:Heicha, “dark tea”
- Temperature: 195°F
- Caffeine: 60-70 mg per cup
Pu-erh Tea’s Flavor
Good quality pu-erh tea has a deep, rich flavor that many consider earthy or mushroomy. Bad quality pu-erh often tastes muddy or moldy. Good quality pu-erh often appeals to coffee drinkers and pairs well with rich desserts. The flavor and reputed health benefits of pu-erh tea also make it a great option for drinking as a digestif after a heavy meal; indeed, in China and Hong Kong, it is often consumed during and after heavy or greasy meals, like dim sum.
If you don’t like the flavor of pu-erh on its own, there are many pu-erh blends on the market. Chrysanthemum pu-erh is a traditional Chinese blend used for its ‘cleansing’ effects, but there are also more ‘contemporary’ tea blends available. For example, Rishi’s pu-erh blends include ginger pu-erh tea and vanilla-mint pu-erh tea.
Pu-erh Tea’s Origins & History
Pu-erh originated thousands of years ago in the Yunnan Province of China, where large-leaf tea trees (Dayeh) grow. Its history relates closely to the tea trade between China and other nations (notably Tibet), and it is named for the town from which it was originally sold en route to other countries (Pu’er City). It was originally compressed into shapes for more efficient transit, and it acquired its dark color and flavor due to natural fermentation in transit to its final destinations.
For many years, pu-erh has been aged. The aging process results in a slow fermentation, and it can take about 15 years for a ‘raw’ (unfermented) pu-erh to get the dark color and flavor that pu-erh drinkers desire. In the 1970s, a style of processing called shou processing (or ‘cooking’) was developed to expedite the fermentation process.
Shou processing eventually led to a pu-erh collecting/investment ‘bubble’ in the 1990s and 2000s. During the pu-erh bubble, many impostor pu- erh teas were made with tea leaves grown outside of the traditional appellation of origin (Yunnan). Prices skyrocketed, many collectors began to hoard their aged pu-erhs and the quality of new pu-erhs plummeted as production ramped up to try to meet demand. Fortunately, the pu-erh bubble collapsed and production has more or less returned to normal.
Pu-erh Tea Processing
Sheng pu-erh is made from the minimally processed leaves of the large-leaf Yunnan tea tree, and then carefully aged under supervised conditions before it is consumed. This style of pu-erh is often aged for 15 or 20 years and can be aged for much longer for a deeper, richer, smoother, more complex flavor.
Shou processing involves the application of heat and moisture, as well as the inoculation of the tea leaves with beneficial bacteria. It takes about a year for harvested tea leaves to become ‘ripened’ or ‘finished’ pu-erh. Some ‘ripened’ pu-erhs are also aged for a flavor more similar to traditionally produced pu -erh.
Pu-erh Tea Shapes
One of the more distinctive characteristics of pu-erh tea is its many shapes. Pu-erh commonly comes in shaped forms, such as bricks, cakes (which are disc-shaped and also known as ‘bing cha’) and ‘tuo cha’ (which are shaped like tiny bowls). These shapes make the transport and storage of pu-erh convenient.
Pu-erh may also be in loose form (like other loose-leaf teas) or packed into pomelo fruit or bamboo stalks. Occasionally, it is available in teabags.
How to Make Pu-erh Tea
Although steeping pu-erh can seem daunting when you unwrap your first bing cha (pu-erh cake), it’s really not that difficult.
If you’re making pu-erh from a compressed form of tea (rather than loose-leaf pu-erh), you’ll need to gently pry off about a teaspoon or two of leaves. You can use a pu-erh knife (available from most pu-erh retailers) or another small, dull knife to do this.
Once you have your pu-erh leaves ready to steep, you’ll want to ‘rinse’ them, especially if the pu-erh is aged rather than cooked. Although some people say this is to remove dust that has settled on the tea during the aging process, it is actually to remove the dust that has formed as the pu-erh has fermented, as well as to ‘awaken’ the leaves (prepare them for infusion). To rinse your pu-erh, place the tea leaves in a brewing vessel, pour near-boiling water over them and then quickly discard the water.
After you’ve rinsed your pu-erh, you’re ready to steep it. Use water that’s around 205 F and steep for 15 to 30 seconds (if using a yixing teapot or gaiwan) or three to five minutes (if using Western teaware). Some people prefer to use fully boiling water for a stronger flavor.
Pu-erh Tea: Benefits, Dosage, Side Effects, and More
Pu-erh tea — or pu’er tea — is a unique type of fermented tea that’s traditionally made in the Yunnan Province of China. It’s made from the leaves of a tree known as the “wild old tree,” which grows in the region.
Although there are other types of fermented tea like kombucha, pu-erh tea is different because the leaves themselves are fermented rather than the brewed tea.
Pu-erh is usually sold in compressed “cakes” of tea leaves but can be sold as loose tea also.
Many people drink pu-erh tea because it not only provides the health benefits of tea but also those of fermented food.
May promote weight loss
There’s some limited evidence to support the use of pu-erh tea for weight loss.
Animal and test-tube studies have shown that pu-erh tea may help synthesize fewer new fats while burning more stored body fat — which can lead to weight loss ( 1 , 2 ).
Yet, given the lack of human studies on the topic, more research is needed.
Additionally, pu-erh tea is fermented, so it can also introduce healthy probiotics — or beneficial gut bacteria — into your body.
These probiotics may help improve your blood sugar control, which plays a key role in weight management and hunger ( 3 , 4 , 5 ).
A single study in 36 people with overweight found that consuming 333 mg of pu-erh tea extract 3 times daily for 12 weeks resulted in significantly improved body weight, body mass index (BMI), and abdominal fat measurements, compared with a control group ( 6 ).
Still, this research doesn’t prove that drinking pu-erh tea can help you lose weight. These studies employed highly concentrated extracts, which contained the active ingredients of pu-erh tea in much higher doses than those you’d get from drinking it.
Several animal studies have observed that supplementing with pu-erh tea extracts benefit blood fat levels ( 7 , 8 , 9 ).
Pu-erh tea extracts may help reduce cholesterol levels in two ways ( 10 ).
First, pu-erh tea increases how much dietary-fat-bound bile acid is excreted in the feces, thus keeping the fat from being absorbed into your bloodstream ( 10 ).
Second, in animal studies, pu-erh tea also decreases fat accumulation. Together, these effects can decrease heart disease risk ( 11 , 12 ).
Yet, animal studies using concentrated extracts do not prove that drinking pu-erh tea will have the same effects in humans.
Inhibits cancer growth
In test-tube studies, pu-erh tea extracts have killed breast cancer, oral cancer, and colon cancer cells ( 13 , 14 , 15 ).
While these findings offer a promising starting point for future research, pu-erh tea should not be used as a cancer treatment.
These studies involve applying highly concentrated extracts directly to cancer cells, which is not how drinking pu-erh tea would interact with cancer cells in your body. More research is needed to understand how drinking pu-erh tea would affect cancer cells.
May boost liver health
Because it can help decrease fat accumulation, pu-erh tea may help prevent or reverse nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a disease in which excess fat accumulates in your liver. However, this has only been noted in animal research so far ( 16 ).
Another animal study also found that pu-erh tea extract may protect the liver from damage caused by the chemotherapy drug cisplatin ( 17 ).
This is a promising area of research, but human studies are needed before any claims about pu-erh tea and liver function can be made.
Most of the side effects of pu-erh tea come from its caffeine content. Depending on the strength of the brew, pu-erh tea can contain 30–100 mg of caffeine per cup ( 18 ).
Most people can tolerate up to 400 mg of caffeine daily, but some of the side effects of excessive caffeine can include ( 19 ):
- changes to your heart’s rhythm
- diarrhea or excessive urination
Because fermented foods may affect your gut bacteria concentrations, pu-erh tea may also affect your digestion and potentially cause some digestive upset.
Most people can safely drink up to 3 cups (710 mL) of pu-erh tea per day, unless they’re also consuming large quantities of other caffeinated beverages.
Research is lacking on how much pu-erh tea you should drink daily to experience its potential weight loss benefits, but 1–2 cups (240–480 mL) per day is a good starting point.
How to brew pu-erh tea
What you need
- pu-erh tea — a single cake or 3–4 grams of loose leaf tea per cup you plan to make
- boiling water
- a teapot with a strainer
- teacups or mugs
- optional extras like cream, milk, or sweetener
- Place the pu-erh tea cake or loose leaves in the teapot and add just enough boiling water to cover the leaves, then discard the water. Repeat this step once more, being sure to discard the water. This “rinse” helps ensure a high quality tea.
- Fill the teapot with boiling water and allow the tea to steep for 2 minutes. Based on your taste preferences, you can steep for a longer or shorter period.
- Pour the tea into teacups and add extras as desired.
Unless you are completely cutting out caffeine, you should have no problems stopping pu-erh tea, and you shouldn’t have any withdrawal symptoms.
However, if pu-erh tea is the only source of caffeine you were consuming, or if you’re cutting out all caffeine along with pu-erh tea, you may experience some symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, including fatigue, headaches, and trouble focusing ( 19 ).
Still, most caffeine withdrawal symptoms only last for about 1 week ( 19 ).
Overdose is unlikely on pu-erh tea. Yet, it contains caffeine, so there’s some risk of caffeine overdose if you’re drinking several cups per day in combination with other caffeinated beverages.
Caffeine overdose symptoms, such as irregular heartbeat, can begin after ingesting 400 mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to 4 or more cups (950 mL) of pu-erh tea, depending on the strength of the brew ( 19 ).
One or two cups (240–480 mL) of pu-erh tea presents little risk of overdose.
Pu-erh tea is relatively safe, and most drug interactions are due to its caffeine content. Some drugs that may interact with caffeine include antibiotics, some stimulants, certain heart medications, and certain asthma medications ( 19 ).
If you have any concerns about your caffeine intake and your medications, you should consult your healthcare provider.
Pu-erh tea is a fermented product that continues to improve in quality as it ages, so — if properly stored — it lasts nearly indefinitely.
Keep pu-erh tea cakes in an airtight container in a cool, dark place like your pantry.
If it looks or smells off, or there’s visible mold growing on it, you should throw it out.
Caffeine is the biggest concern regarding pu-erh tea during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Although pregnant women don’t have to completely cut caffeine from their diet, they shouldn’t overdo it. Experts recommend no more than 200 mg of caffeine per day during pregnancy ( 19 ).
As pu-erh tea can have up to 100 mg per cup (240 mL), it can be added to a pregnant woman’s diet in moderation as long as she’s not regularly consuming any other beverages that are high in caffeine.
Breastfeeding women should also limit their caffeine intake to about 300 mg per day, as small amounts of caffeine can pass into breastmilk ( 20 ).
Pu-erh tea doesn’t appear to have any contraindications for specific populations.
Like other teas, you should avoid pu-erh tea if it seems to bother you. Because of its caffeine content, you should also not drink it in excess.
People with sleep disorders, migraine, heart problems, high blood pressure, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or ulcers may want to avoid excessive caffeine ( 19 ).
Regardless, 1–2 cups (240–480 mL) per day should be fine for most people.
Pu-erh is unique in the world of teas. As far as brewed teas go, black tea may be its closest alternative. Black tea is oxidized, resulting in its dark color, but not fermented to the same extent that pu-erh is.
For a similar beverage that contains the benefits of fermented foods, try kombucha, a fermented tea. It can be made from any variety of tea, and the liquid is fermented as opposed to the leaves, as in the case of pu-erh tea.
What does pu-erh tea taste like?
Due to the fermentation process, pu-erh tea has a unique pungent or “funky” taste, but this is mixed with other flavors — such as sweetness, bitterness, and earthiness.
Pu-erh teas with other ingredients will have different flavors. Additionally, the taste changes as the tea continues to age.
What is raw pu-erh tea?
There are two main varieties of pu-erh tea — ripe and raw.
Ripe pu-erh tea is the least expensive variety. This tea is made by fermenting the loose leaves for several months and then pressing them into shape ( 21 ).
Raw pu-erh tea is more expensive. To make raw pu-erh, the steps to make ripe pu-erh are reversed. The fresh tea leaves are pressed first, and then fermented — usually for years ( 21 ).
What are some popular pu-erh tea flavors?
Pu-erh is a popular tea choice and often infused with other flavors. Popular blends include chocolate pu-erh tea — which contains cocoa powder — and chrysanthemum pu-erh, which contains the dried petals of the chrysanthemum flower.
These additions can make pu-erh tea taste much better, as it has a unique taste that not everyone likes.
How many calories are in pu-erh tea?
Brewed teas — including pu-erh — are naturally calorie-free or extremely low in calories. However, adding sugar or cream will increase the calorie content of your tea.
Can you drink pu-erh tea every day?
Yes, there’s no harm in drinking pu-erh tea daily as long as you tolerate it well.
Last medically reviewed on June 15, 2020