Drinking Earth: The Magic of Pu-erh, Part 1
Yesterday was pretty awesome. I popped in to Nopa to upload video from the Flipcam to our hard drive. I was making space for our tasting with Tom Bulleit on Thursday. I was surprised to see Xandre there too since it was his day off. I soon discovered he had an appointment with our tea purveyor to taste tea along with Brooke and Chris. The discussion of adding (or rather, reviving) pu-erh tea on our list has been ongoing for some time now. I decided to lay off the media for a second and have some pu-erh.
Pu-erh, pronounced (Poo-Air) is a Chinese tea that develops its unique character through oxidization, maturation and in some cases fermentation. Like obscure wine grapes, heirloom produce, shade-grown coffee, mescal and the like, Pu-erh’s emergence in recent years coincides with the broader trend in American gastronomy of seeking out products of intention and attention. Increasingly buyers are looking for quality artisanal goods that offer a strong sense of place, and in which production decisions are influenced by holistic considerations on matters of environmental health and cultural/geographic identity. I believe the genesis of this movement can be almost entirely credited to the local food renaissance. Discovering these products like pu-erh and making them accessible to Nopa patrons brings me immense joy. I feel a strong subsequent obligation to use the platform to push the movement forward.
Silk Roads Teas Owner, Ned Heagerty
Most of our teas from Silk Road overlap the organic/terrior/artisan criteria, but pu-erh is definitely its own thing. Drinking pu-erh is a bit like diving head first into a freezing cold lake. It takes some getting used to, but as you adjust to the temperature, discomfort makes way for exhilaration. Their nature is pungent one. They are robust teas, full-flavored, and often smell and taste of dirt, manure, barnyard or perhaps a zoo. The oddity of beverage dorks is that we are inexplicably turned on by these smells in our drinks.
The best way I can explain it is a connection to the earth. It is one thing to smell black soil when you are potting a plant or walking in wilderness, but it is a completely different trip, and ultimately appreciation, when something smells and tastes of the earth that is merely an expression rather than the physical. Fermented beverages are living beings with microbes, cells, active yeasts, and oxygen all playing a role in the development of this, “earthiness”. Eating dirt is not good, but drinking things that are evocative of dirt is really fascinating. Once you move past the initial funk, these teas are incredibly complex. They offer other less offensive layers of smoke, wood, hay, grass, bamboo, spinach and in some cases even citrus. They are distinctive and pronounced smells of the earth and this is what is meant when people talk favorably of earthiness in food and drink.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we will explore this earthy realm and I will share more on pu-erh production and my tasting notes--including the winner which will soon make a cameo on our dessert list!
Posted October 6, 2011 • Filed under Wine
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