Research Update: Puerh Health Benefits and Health sovereignty

As we globally experience a polarisation of society, where views and opinions become amalgamated at each end of a spectrum it is always refreshing that within the tea community we can have open discussions and value each other’s contributions.

One of the ongoing concerns, however, is the continued health benefits cited for Puerh tea. As this gets increasingly capitalised I fear that both the value of enjoying tea for its experience is lost and with such strong opinions from certain sections of global tea trade there is this creep into polarised opinion around health.

From my own perspective, as a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine as well having one foot firmly planted in Western academic enquiry, I extol the medicinal value of Tea, however it comes from an Eastern tradition of medicine which is much more expansive and less reductionist.

What I am essentially stating is that whether we recognise the health benefits of Puerh or not the true value is in the experience.

A recent systematic review however has highlighted that studies on Puerh generally support that a number of ingredients extracted from Puerh have the health benefit of lowering blood sugar, with a few studies conducting experiments and validating the argument that drinking Puerh tea can help regulate and maintain adequate level of blood sugar. Unfortunately, none of those articles have identified specific ingredient(s) responsible for lowering hyperglycaemia and their actual mechanism(s) (Lin et al 2018).

The problem we see is that many studies demonstrate incongruity between extraction methods and dosage when performing experimentation and observation of effects of Puerh. Additionally, many studies use animal models and/or variable criteria for subject selection. Hence, comparing results and studies remain difficult.

What we have to consider is what drives these studies? As tea drinkers we may not be that interested in whether Puerh helps out blood sugar or protects us from disease, that is surely secondary to the experience. However we are all subject to disease and whilst we might not consider it in our love of tea, we all want to remain healthy. Hence the drive for global health continues to drive research on tea.

From a clinical perspective, I remain interested in the fact that it informs what I feel I already know, however if it was solely governing or determining my consumption habits, much like how green tea powder has become a trend in  health “smoothie” recipes, I not only allow “expert opinion” become sovereign over my own decision making but I become subject to science led consumption habits. After all I have not the time or capacity to repeat these experiments myself to decide whether the results and opinions are true or not.

Upon reflection, we can remain balanced and have a healthy respect to research upon tea without polarisation or strong opinion. For example , as a tea drinker when I feel under the weather or accumulated with winter congestion, whilst my first line in treatment might not be reaching for the Puerh I will instinctively know that a hot bowl of ripe Puerh will make me feel better. Studies that show that  bio-active chemicals such as strictnin, that is active against influenza is found in Puerh extracts only serve to reassure my own instincts and experience rather than govern it.

Lin HC, Lee CT, Yen YY, Chu CL, Hsieh YP, Yang CS, Lan SJ. Systematic review and meta‐analysis of anti‐hyperglycaemic effects of Pu‐erh tea. International Journal of Food Science & Technology. 2018 Oct 25.
Chen TY, Wang MM, Hsieh SK, Hsieh MH, Chen WY, Tzen JT. Pancreatic lipase inhibition of strictinin isolated from Pu’er tea (Cammelia sinensis) and its anti-obesity effects in C57BL6 mice. Journal of Functional Foods. 2018 Sep 30;48:1-8.



The Osmanthus Effect

There is a tradition in some areas of China and particularly Taiwan of adding Osmanthus to your brew when the tea starts to fade a little. It is suggested that it revitalises the liquor and reinvigorates the brew.

Osmanthus is a shrubby bush that produces sweet and fragrant flowers that not only smell fruity but taste fruity. In Traditional Chinese medicine Osmanthus is understood to improve the complexion and helps rid the body of excess metabolites and has been
in use as a medicinal plant for thousands of years, possessing a broad spectrum of biological effects (Li et al 2017). Extracts of Osmanthus flowers are well-characterized as being rich in phenylethanoid glycoside, which has been used as a natural anti-oxidant, suggesting some significant health benefits (Lu et al 2016)

Known as guìhuā 桂花 its name suggests some association to cinnamon (桂皮 guìpí) which can lead to it being translated, perhaps inappropriately, as cinnamon flower. More appropriately is the fact that it has a fragrance, not at all similar to cinnamon, but equally strong and sweet scented. Etymologically speaking, I suggest that the compound characters for cinnamon comes from the suggestion of “fragrant leather or bark” such that Osmanthus more simply is understood as “fragrant blossom” similar to other fragrant blossoms like Rose which is called mei gui hua 玫瑰花 . Not only is this suggestive of the long history of this plant in Chinese Medicine and culture (along with cinnamon) but that  it really does have fragrant potency in its simplicity obtained from it’s significant aromatic phenolic content.


The Experiment

To test the taste and cultural opinion of Osmanthus as an additive to tea I chose a wheat grain size 2008 ripe Cha Tou Puerh that had been brewed 5 times previously in a 120ml gaiwan. Its not a bold tea and I felt the Cha Tou format would allow it to continue to emerge in subsequent steeps. Additionally it has somewhat a fragrant flavour that I felt might have married well with the floral tones of Osmanthus.


Weight to Weight ratios were approximately 1:1 Osmanthus to tea.


The colour and taste was heavily influenced by the Osmanthus, with a “peachy” and fruity aroma and taste on the first dual-brew.

Later brews were less “peachy” and the Puerh came up to level again in the bowl.

The Verdict

The initial brew was very floral and peachy and the Osmanthus dominated. Over successive brews there was a point where there was a balance achieved between the Puerh and the Osmanthus.

It is difficult not to get some escaping blossom in gaiwan brewing, with some florets entering the bowl. Whilst this does not distract from the brew too much it might just increase the weight of Osmanthus aroma in the experience. I would therefore suggest using a strainer if perfecting this for any gong fu session with friends.

Personally I feel that Osmanthus would work better with hongcha which are generally much more aligned in flavour to the fruity fragrance of Osmanthus and likely to extend the session with more harmony and symmetry to the tea. It might not be somethign to be repeated with prized Puerhs as the boldness of the Osmanthus might just be too much to be appreciated in a long session with nuanced boutique tea.

However, if you do want to extend the tea session it is well worth keeping a small jar of Osmanthus in handy reach of the Chapan, trust me your guest will have no complaints.

Li HL, Chai Z, Shen GX, Li CY. Polyphenol profiles and antioxidant properties of ethanol extracts from Osmanthus fragrans (Thunb.) Lour. flowers. Polish Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences. 2017 Dec 1;67(4):317-26.
Lu B, Li M, Zhou F, Huang W, Jiang Y, Mao S, Zhao Y, Lou T. The Osmanthus fragrans flower phenylethanoid glycoside-rich extract: Acute and subchronic toxicity studies. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2016 Jul 1;187:205-12.

5 years: a good age for Ripe Puerh

It is often said that a good age for Shu, or ripe Puerh is after the 5 year mark.

In essence this gives it time to rest and continue some of the fermentation that had been kick started by the wet piling process. It could also be said that it allows some of the wet pile taste (wo dui 渥堆) to dissipate, which, to be honest, probably depends more on the storage than the age.

I have roughly 30/70 ripe to raw Puerh in my collection and I always get a mild panic when I realise I have been chipping away at the older ripe teas that I have not enough younger cakes to replace the vacuum created.

This is partly due to tea drinking habits whereby often I will enjoy the older raw Puerh first, thus allowing time for the younger productions to come up to age. However, with my ripe collection its far less systematic and more erratic. I guess this is inevitable as some really good Menghai ripe productions can be enjoyed within the first year of production, and if you really enjoy drinking tea then why wait?

However, if you can afford to have the patience its well worth exploring the +5 year threshold.

On this occasion, and to exemplify, I have chosen a 2013 ripe production from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing. This is entirely Nan Nuo mountain material.

When initially released , Scott described it as,

“Sweet, pungent and slight bitterness all rolled into one tea.  Light-Medium fermentation gives this a subtle cha qi and mouth-watering effect making this a good bet for long-term aging!”


I utilised a borsiliscate glass teapot to ensure a level of neutrality in brewing with approximately 120ml to a good 8 grams of leaf.

Two customary rinses were given and the initial aroma gave me memories of dry Autumn beech woodlands, not overly composty, damp or earthy but woody and fresh.


The overwhelming flavour notes coming through were of  sour cherry, that slight familiar cherry-stone flavour you get with many aged ripes was more rounded than expected giving a richer fruity note.

The mouthfeel was not overly thick and slightly drying perhaps retaining some of the effects of Kunming storage.

The huigan was the most surprising element as it delivered both woody and peppery after tastes. This was a delight as a half expected typical camphor flavours.

At 5+ years, there were still some bitterness, as Scott originally described, but I feel this has softened and become en-robed in the sour cherry notes.

I suspect the light fermentation has allowed the tea to develop further in storage, although perhaps more gracefully due to more dryer conditions. This perhaps gives the tea more time to develop over a further few years and encorages me to put more age on it still.

I feel I could have upped the ratio of leaf to water (maybe 10 grams!?), giving a bolder outcome in the cup but I may have lost some of the more subtle level of tastes to the tea.

In conclusion, at +5 years, this ripe performs very well and should encourage more of us to store ripe productions for longer. I am perhaps slightly disappointed to not have had this tea back in 2013 to see how it developed so I also suggest that if you plan to set out to store some ripe productions for middle to long term aging that you at least get a few cakes per production so you can enjoy the wealth that comes through time.

Tea fasting

Over the last week I have fasted off tea. It is that time of year when the seasons change and not only is it a good time to check our tea drinking habits but also  we await the bounties of Autumn tea harvests.

Recent celebrations of China’s National Day at the beginning October gives us the opportunity to drink and enjoy lots of tea among family, friends and even new acquaintances. However it maybe surprising that wine is perhaps the most preferred and consumed drink of the festival, China being the biggest producer!

During this time I find it its a good time to take stock of my tea stores and collection and establish some teas to take me through the Winter. Therefore having a fast from tea drinking, albeit for a few days, can also help us to refresh our minds and re-experience some of our favourite teas and even new ones with “beginners senses”. Enjoying well known experiences and feelings with a sense of renewal.

Autumn is therefore not an end of something but the beginning of a new season and with this I always find a small fast from tea helps to transition into this with renewal.

In approaching days I plan therefore not only set up some Winter teas but initiate the new seasons ahead with some Autumn tea.

1990’s Lao Cha Tou

In my previous post on Cha Tou I stated that the best Cha Tou are ones that are smaller in size, however it is not unusual to get some the size of large marbles. I therefore thought it would be good to review some bigger “marble sized” Cha Tou.

Because the larger Cha Tou takes longer to age I have specifically selected an older tea for this review.

The Cha Tou are from the ripening process of a Xiaguan production from the 90’s that have had some storage in Shanghai for at least 10 years.

The Cha Tou are typically the size of small Chinese dates (2-3cm in length) but vary in size as well as compression, as to be expected from this type of material.


As you can appreciate from the photos the Cha Tou don’t have a uniform shape but I suspect they were picked out and graded by size so they all have roughly the same size and weight and all have some evidence of spores from storage which may make a welcome contribution to the final brew.


I did the customary two rinses, followed by a good 10 second steep in the gaiwan.


Despite fairly tight compression the nugget did show signs of opening up, this was somewhat assisted however by ensuring the water was as close to boiling I could achieve between kettle and gaiwan.

In the brew I used borehole water which is softer than most tap waters and free of chlorination. This yielded the taste of traditionally stored Puerh well without any undue “funky” flavours. The initial aromas were delicately of damp wood.


In later steepings the colour of the brew deepened, likely due to the nugget opening up further, however there were still some compact leaves in the gaiwan that benefited from being teased out.

Overall brews 1-6 were fairly consistent with some loss of profile beyond brew #7. There was no astringency when pushed a little harder and longer in the gaiwan and quite light in delivery with the woody and camphor notes that is not also unlike an aged Liu Bao.

Having read Varat’s review of a 1990’s Xiaguan ripe brick production I can certainly detect some similarities as well as that typical Xiaguan smokiness.

Despite being fairly large in size for Cha Tou I was still able to enjoy and get a fairly decent brew. I think there is a balance between size of Cha Tou and the age of the material, it would be interesting to undertake some comparison testing, comparing age and size and brew effect. I suspect there is some middle ground to be have with Cha Tou whereby the size and the age mediate the taste.

My theory would be the older the Cha Tou the better but size having a negative effect on this, such that +10 year old Cha Tou material would be definitely worth sampling, but keep it below the size of a finger nail as a rule of thumb.


Cha Tou – Review

Cha Tou 茶頭 form naturally during the fermentation process of Shu Puerh as a result of the pressures of compression and the heat that occurs. Typically the wet pile processing of Puerh involves deep large piles of leaves that are turned regularly over the fermentation period, “Cha Tou” are the leaves that get stuck at the bottom of the pile and ball up and get stuck together forming hard nuggets of tea.

Literally translated as “Tea Head” you can get the impression of them as little lumps appearing in the sea of tea material during fermentation like heads bobbing.

It is suggested that the best Cha Tou are ones that are smaller in size, however it is not unusual to get some the size of large marbles that are tightly compressed and balled to such an extent that its almost impossible to unfurl them without breaking them up. I have witnessed a Cha Tou the size of a baseball that could have take out any major league player at 50 yards!!

The tightness of compression and size often leads to Cha Tou taking longer to age or change with time, whilst this may seem a good prospect it is often this reason they are somewhat under-rated in the world of Puerh.

As part of my tea samples generously gifted by  Aprtea there were some samples of a tea labelled;

“2008 Glutinous Rice Scent Tea Fossil Puerh Cooked Tea Broken silver”

I understood it from the label that “fossil” was a translation of Cha Tou , almost describing the process of unearthing some relic of the tea at the bottom of the wet piling process, like a fossil, formed from the pressure of the upper layers of material.

Hence I was keen to try!

The actual size of the Cha Tou are equivalent to the size of a dried wolfberry (Goji) and fairly consistent in size and shape.


I did the customary 2 washes which then delivered a steaming golden brew


Later brews delivered darker liquor as the nuggets expanded a little and delivered their full composition of flavours and aromas.

First impressions were of a deep aroma of cooked sticky rice that floated up from the steaming bowl that was then met on initial tasting with memories of congee (a type of rice porridge) with a savoriness that almost felt I was able to taste the traditional addition of fermented tofu that is found in many of my favourite congee recipes.

The flavour of glutinous rice aroma and tastes comes from the addition of Semnostachya Menglaensis a plant indigenous to Yunnan. When the leaves are crushed, a characteristic smell of basmati rice or pandan leaves soon develops. It is a lovely “homely” smell of cooked rice that makes your mouth waters at the edges and I can definitely understand why this plant was first added to tea material. For a culture whose history is one of repeated famine and warfare, a tea that satisfies the mind and belly with flavours of cooked rice might just have made the difference between “hope” and “loss” in hard times. However, even in good times this herb is a welcomed addition, many local beliefs suggesting that its ability to detoxify and cleanse the body only adds to its value.

Going back to the brew; the steepings were fairly consistent throughout which may have to do with the fact that due to the level of compression the Cha Tou takes time to unfold, if at all. This provides for a consistent slow release of flavour and aroma that does not fluctuate too much between steepings. In this sense Cha Tou can be perfect for practicing brewing techniques without impacting too much on the experience.

Equally there is a certain density in the flavours and aromas of Cha Tou brews that makes you feel that you really are tasting something quite solid and strong, indicative of the experience of the tea material itself in form and shape.

Probably gram for gram it is slightly more expensive to brew up Cha Tou material as it loose leaf, but this is perhaps balanced out by the fact that you can easily infuse it many more times in a session.

In my fantasy tea dominated world , influenced by Hong Kong Cinema, anime and steampunk adventures I imagine Cha Tou to be a precious tea substance carried around by secret agents in small intricately carved wooden boxes. I therefore think having a small area of you own tea collection dedicated to Cha Tou is equally a precious idea.

More Cha Tou adventures to come………


Tea and Qi, Cha Qi and beyond

Qi character for Qi articleCha Qi is a term that is used so often in the tea community but not always easy to grasp. It would perhaps take a great tome of work to elucidate and explain both what it is and why its important. We would of course have to start in explaining what Qi is which itself would require immense reference to historic and cultural ideas and developments.The Chinese term Qi 氣 has absorbed, in the course of its long existence, numerous conceptual layers that cannot be expressed by one distinct meaning.

I therefore have to initially apologise that I can only touch upon such a topic lightly here, however I hope it might arouse some thoughts like the stirring of tea leaves in a bowl from pouring of water.

The Taoist alchemical text of the Quegu shiqi (卻穀食氣) “Eliminating Grain and Eating Qi” locates the context of Qi and food.

“Those who eat grain eat what is square; those who eat Qi eat what is round. Round is heaven; square is earth.”

The text outlines a method for replacing food with Qi. We must also consider that it sits within the Taoist idea of cultivating Qi as both a means of transcendence as well as spiritual development such that “eating Qi” may reference Qi cultivation practices above all else (i.e. qigong, nei dan).

However, we can suggest here that the value of Qi is both as a substance and a quality. In food the Qi is the level of “life force” that nourishes the individual in gross and subtle ways. In fact in some texts Qi is analogous with the word for food, in the sense of “that which nourishes/sustains life”

Therefore we can infer that Cha Qi is both the quality of a tea’s “liveliness” as well as its ability to nourish us. We have all maybe experienced a tea that has been either badly stored or over-processed , that tastes flat and has no “liveliness”, equally we have all perhaps experienced a tea that has no nourishment and does not add anything to our present physical experience of being. In this way we can correctly state that such tea lacks Cha Qi.

Opposed to this are the teas that give us a feeling of nourishment, that are lively in the cup and mouth and have a real physical presence in the body. Such teas we can describe as having strong or present Cha Qi.

In the Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經) , an important text in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi can be perceived in the movement of energy from one point to another, from one form to another and influences or moves,  hence “gives life to”. This is more in keeping with Confucian ideas of Qi being breath or “vital air” that moves and is transmutable. In small seal script, an archaic form of early Chinese calligraphy, the character for Qi certainly denotes visually vapors arising from food that confer its vitality.


Whilst even earlier, Qi is denoted by the following character:


which suggests something subtle contained within, a subtle yet vital substance perhaps?

If we image a steaming bowl of tea we have all this going on:


Both the heat energy as steam and the aromas is perhaps our initial experience of Cha Qi, as the power of both the scent and bouquet of tea has the energy to both move us and generate a physical response whilst also giving us a feel of the vitality or liveliness of the tea. Let us remind ourselves about my earlier posting on tea aroma and the fact that there are aromatic chemicals in the tea bouquet that have documented physical effect (“Tea Chemistry & Aroma”).

Something we cannot objectively and empirically point out during a tea session but is experienced is the effects of a specific tea, which might make us think of something subtle contained within the brew alike the character 300px-气-bronze.svg.

In the pivotal Taoist text, the Tao Te  Ching 道德經, the words;

the Sage wears rough clothing, but carries jade inside”, 

becomes an analogy for understanding Cha Qi in the context of Tea as the Sage.  That is to say, through all our standard senses we can understand and perceive the subjective nature of any tea but something within the tea, that is precious like jade is secreted, this being the Cha Qi. Similar to jade it is invaluable and exceeds the mundane. Like the use of powdered jade in alchemical formulas to lengthen life and confer strength, equally mysterious and enriching is the Cha Qi. 

If you expect to find it by looking for it you might miss it but otherwise Cha Qi remains something that defies description but nonetheless delivers a highly subjective and potent experience in a good tea session.