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Sometimes you are bound to come across a Pu Erh tea that doesn’t produce an enjoyable tea. There are a couple of ways that you can get your Pu Erh tea to taste better. I have listed some methods I have personal experience with and which I want to share with you.
Pu Erh tea can have an intense bitterness or taste far too strong. Some taste notes and smells can be funky and weird. With cooked Pu Erh tea you might even taste plain fish in your cup!
But Pu Erh tea can taste delightful if the production of the tea, the storage conditions, and your brewing are on point. While you can not influence the production of your teas, you can adjust your storage and brewing techniques to yield yourself a much better cup of Pu Erh tea.
SHORT ANSWER – Main Options To Make Your Pu Erh Tea Taste Better
- Use Gong Fu Brewing Methods
- Rinsing Your Pu Erh Tea
- Try Later Infusions
- Lower The Water Temperature
- Adjust Your Steeping Time
- Use A Different Brewing Utensil
- Change The Leaf-To-Water-Ratio
- Aerate Your Pu Erh Tea
- Age Your Pu Erh Properly
- Try Additives
- Consider Creating A Blend
Let’s start with brewing techniques and slight variations that will give you full control and allow for a better Pu Erh tea experience. Most strong, bitter and musky taste profiles can be changed through these methods.
Afterward, I want to talk about unwanted taste that can not be solved with better brewing methods. Specifically, weird smells like seaweed, fish and sometimes undefinable notes can often be overcome.
Increase Your Control With Gong Fu Brewing
There are two major ways to produce delicious tea from Pu Erh tea. One is the traditional Chinese Gong Fu brewing technique and the methods more common in the west like using a teapot or a teabag.
There is a stark difference in the teas created by these two methods. Gong Fu brewing uses small brewing vessels and high leaf-to-water ratios. With Gong Fu brewing you will have many small infusions of your tea that slightly differ in taste from one to the next.
The teapots or Gaiwans used for the traditional Chinese method are often only between 80 and 150 mL (3 to 5 fl. oz.) in size. That is for a single person. For two or more people, you will need a brewing vessel larger than 200 mL (7 fl. oz). The amount of tea leaves is higher than what you would use for a regular western teapot, still!
With the western methods, you will use lower leaf-to-water ratios and larger containers to brew your tea. While this is more comfortable for large amounts of tea, you have much more control over the outcome of your tea if you use the Gong Fu brewing technique.
I recommend using Gong Fu brewing techniques for your Pu Erh tea, as a slight variation in the brewing parameters like water temperature, steeping time or even the time it takes to pour the tea can cause very different outcomes. For tea that is hard to brew, you need this kind of control.
Rinsing Your Pu Erh Tea
There are various good reasons for you to rinse your Pu Erh tea, which you can read up on here. But the rinsing process influences the taste of your Pu Erh tea, too. There are differences between the effects on raw and cooked Pu Erh tea to consider.
Raw Pu Erh tea tends to taste bitter with the first few infusions. A prolonged rinse can dissolve some of the bitterness and wash it off. The resulting tea will not taste good, so be sure to discard that. The following infusions will have much less bitterness and astringency.
On the other hand, cooked Pu Erh tea tends to produce funky and musky notes with the first infusions. Depending on the strength of the brew you create, that can be extremely overwhelming!
I recommend doing a 20-30 second rinse with boiling water when brewing cooked Pu Erh tea. The tea that follows after the rinse is sweet and often reminds of stone fruits. The taste of barn and compost that some cooked Pu Erh teas produce is nothing I enjoy, honestly.
Try Later Infusions Of Your Tea
As an extension of the previous point, you must know that the taste profile of you Pu Erh tea heavily changes with the number of infusions. The first infusions are the most intense, often having either astringency with raw Pu Erh or the musky taste of mushrooms with cooked Pu Erh.
Late infusions tend to taste mellow and vegetal with raw and delightfully sweet with cooked Pu Erh tea. I recommend you try tasting an early infusion against a late infusion side by side to get a feeling for this development.
Depending on the tea, the unwanted taste profiles could completely vanish and be replaced by the most delicious one you have tasted. If the bad taste doesn’t come from some sort of bacteria or mold, you should try tasting the later infusions of your Pu Erh tea.
Lower The Water Temperature
The water temperature is an important factor for the taste of your tea. With boiling water, you will generally dissolve more taste compounds from the tea leaves, no matter what they are.
Most compounds are much more soluble in hot water and te you make with boiling water will naturally be the strongest tea possible. If you want your tea to be less strong, try using a temperature around 140 °F (60 °C) and go higher if your tea and taste allow it.
Furthermore, bitter compounds and tannins are far more soluble in hot water. This is one of the reasons green tea is not recommended to be brewed with boiling water. And remember that raw Pu Erh tea is technically classifiable as green tea, too!
With cooked Pu Erh tea it is still easier to use the rinsing method to remove the musky and unwanted taste rather than lowering the temperature in my eyes, but be sure to experiment for yourself.
Adjust The Steeping Time
The extraction of compounds responsible for the taste of your tea takes time. The more time you give your tea to give flavor to the brew, the more intense it will get. Both desired and unwanted parts of your tea will end up in your brew in high concentrations.
With Gong Fu brewing you will be able to quickly determine whether you want your tea to be more intense or less intense. You can adjust your steeping time between the infusions. With the regular western approach to tea-making, you will have far greater waste potential.
There is always the option to go a different route with the steeping time, though. If you greatly reduce the water temperature and raise the steeping time, you may discover that your tea tastes much better. Just keep in mind that it may be risky to cold brew Pu Erh tea.
Try Using Another Brewing Vessel
You might think that the water temperature and steeping time are the two most important factors to determine the strength and taste of the brew. You would not be wrong, but the vessel you are using to brew the tea may be equally as important to consider.
Glass and porcelain naturally is quite thin, while clay teapots and Gaiwans have much thicker walls. The thickness of these walls determines how long heat is contained. The thin walls of glass and porcelain teaware quickly lose the heat of your water while you still are steeping the tea.
The thick walls of clay teaware have much higher heat retention and allow your tea to be brewed at higher temperatures for longer. If you want to get a stronger tea or want to extract the last bit of taste from your tea leaves, thicker brewing vessels are the way to go.
Finding The Ideal Leaf-To-Water Ratio
There is no generally ideal leaf-to-water ratio when preparing Pu Erh tea. Some enthusiasts use 7 grams of tea for 100 mL of water (1/4 oz per 3.4 fl. oz) while others use just a fourth of the amount.
The leaf-to-water ratio alone does not determine the taste of your Pu Erh tea. If you want you Pu Erh tea to taste better, you will need to determine your preferences. Short infusions with high amounts of tea leaves will yield much more tea and a more complex taste profile.
Lower leaf-to-water ratios will result in a more mellow and sweeter tea. You will not get as many infusions out of your tea session, but the tea will not be as demanding.
If you just want to enjoy a cup of tea, I recommend using lower amounts of leaves. If you truly want to experience all the nuances your Pu Erh tea has to offer, you should try the higher ratios.
Aerating Your Pu Erh Tea
There are two occasions on which aerating your Pu Erh tea makes sense. Either just after purchasing (or as soon as the tea arrives) and if there are unwanted smells to the tea.
Cooked Pu Erh tea often has some maritime smells of seaweed and fish to it, especially if you have got yourself a younger one. This is somewhat normal with young cooked Pu Erh tea and can be overcome in various ways. If you want more information on fishy Pu Erh tea, I have written an article on this you might be interested in.
The easiest method to remove the fishy smell is to place the tea cake, chunk or leaves out in the open. After one or two days most of the aroma will be gone. Be careful not to have your tea close to smelly places like the kitchen!
Other unwanted smells can result from the storage and transport that preceded your ownership. Every Pu Erh tea cake that I buy will be aerated for a full 24 hours before being placed in a storage container with teas of the same type. If you find your tea to smell weird, try this method before throwing it out!
The downside to aerating your tea is for one the loss of aroma which is given off. Just as the unwanted smells do, the good ones can disappear if the tea is left out for too long. Primarily, the tea will lose floral notes through this, which is found in raw Pu Erh tea, but rarely in cooked Pu Erh.
Keep in mind that the air in the place you aerate your tea may be too dry. Inside most western homes the relative humidity gets much lower than the desired 55-60% minimum for Pu Erh tea storage. The loss of humidity can cause your tea to taste less complex and less intense.
Aging Your Pu Erh Tea
Both cooked and raw Pu Erh tea will taste better with some age. Young cooked Pu Erh tea has the often described compost, barn, and sometimes fishy smells to it. Young raw Pu Erh tea will be much more bitter than most people like their tea to be.
With age, both Pu Erh tea variants will develop a more mellow taste. Cooked Pu Erh tea loses much of the wet and musky taste notes and will yield a honey-sweet and fruity tea if properly stored.
Raw Pu Erh tea will lose much of the bitterness but often retains the vegetal and floral notes. Furthermore, raw Pu Erh tea tends to develop a less intense, but noticeable sweetness with age.
The longer Pu Erh tea is stored, the more the taste profile is changed. If you want to age Pu Erh tea yourself, you should be careful with both temperature and humidity. Keep in mind that loose Pu Erh tea ages faster than compressed Pu Erh tea. Here is a guide on loose Pu Erh tea storage.
Try Additives Like Milk And Honey
Both the bitterness and astringency of raw Pu Erh tea and the compost-maritime taste of some cooked Pu Erh teas can be mellowed by the addition of milk. Milk has for a long time been used to counteract bitterness in black tea, so it makes just as much sense to use it for Pu Erh tea, too.
Honey acts as a natural sweetener to counter astringency and bitterness and adds some acidity too. The taste of cooked Pu Erh tea does not work well with the addition of honey in my experience. There is just something odd to tea tasting like wet wood with sugar.
Other additives like household sugar, oat milk, cream and whatever you can come up with might be good to experiment with. If you find something new that tastes incredibly good, I would love to hear it!
You Could Create Your Own Pu Erh Tea Blend
I know some of my readers are fans of blended and mixed teas containing fruit, herbs and the like. With the mixing of different kinds of tea productions, flowers, fruits, and herbs you can achieve taste combinations that are not possible with tea only by itself.
There are many options, but to counteract the bitterness of raw Pu Erh tea, sweet fruits and flowers could be added. To avoid musky taste with cooked Pu Erh tea, you could mix it with another type of tea to lower the concentration and add some additional flavor with herbs or flowers.
If you do not have experience with mixing and blending tea, you could always ask your local tea shop for advice. Many shops have some kind of blend they have created on their own and would be glad to help you out with your experiments.
There are quite a few things you need to keep track of when brewing Pu Erh tea. At first, this may seem overwhelming, but over time you will get a feeling for the various things you can do to adjust the taste of your tea.
If your Pu Erh tea has some weird taste or smell that is not changing through adjustment of the brewing methods, there is the option of aerating or aging the Pu Erh tea, which generally results in a more mellow tea.
Additives and blending is an option I would only consider if you want to experiment with that type of thing. There are far better teas to blend than Pu Erh tea in my experience.
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.