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It is common practice to rinse Pu Erh tea at least once before you start brewing. You might have started this habit without truly understanding why you would want to do this.
Rinsing your tea is part of traditional Chinese tea ceremonies, but has important reasons for casual and everyday tea brewing, too.
SHORT ANSWER – Rinsing Pu Erh Tea For Safety Reasons
Everyone should rinse their Pu Erh tea properly before drinking the following infusions. In the traditional Chinese tea ceremony, the first infusion of most teas is discarded for cultural reasons. Most western tea enthusiasts rinse their tea for reasons related to hygiene, health, and safety.
In the following paragraphs, the cultural and health aspects of rinsing you Pu Erh tea with boiling water will be further explained in detail.
The Cultural Aspects Of Discarding The First Infusion Of Pu Erh Tea
When brewing tea in a traditional Chinese manner, it is common to discard the first infusion. This is often done by pouring it on a tea pet or the teapot that was used to make the tea. Only with very expensive teas, the rinse is sometimes tasted, but this is still considered bad manners.
After a few seconds of steeping, the tea is first poured inside a fairness cup (Gong Dao Bei), where both the color and smell of the rinse can be perceived. Some people will then pour the tea from the fairness cup into the drinking cups in order to pre-warm them.
Aging Clay Teapots
If the tea is poured over a clay tea pet or a clay teapot, the organic compounds of the tea will to some extend stay behind on the surface. As long as the owner takes care to prevent mold or mineral stain, patina is considered a good thing by most enthusiasts.
After lots and lots of tea sessions, the clay will become shiny and can even be polished with a soft piece of cloth. After many years there will be an obvious difference between a new teapot and one that has been used countless times to brew tea.
Teapots that have been properly used and have been properly taken care of will be considered much more valuable by tea enthusiasts and – of course – the teapots owner.
Calling your Pu Erh tea filthy or dirty may sound wrong to you, but hear me out. Most Pu Erh teas originate from rural villages and factories in Yunnan, China.
Most shops and vendors keep an eye on hygiene and care for their tea. It is impossible to know where and how the tea was produced, though. Often sand and dust from the factories’ surroundings get between the leaves. The resulting Pu Erh tea cakes then contain dirt, too.
Through a quick rinse of your Pu Erh tea, you remove most of this dirt. Even though the first infusion is the most thick and complex, you need to consider your health. It is not healthy to drink old dirt from other countries.
Pu Erh is a special type of tea, which is not roasted or steamed as much. Within the tea, there will be enzymes still active, but also bacteria and fungi. You would want these to be active and alive to some extent for the aging process of your tea.
In order for the Pu Erh tea to be completely safe to drink, you pour boiling hot water over your leaves. The rinsing does not need to be extensive, it just needs to properly heat the leaves.
Cooked And Aged Pu Erh Tea
You need to be especially careful with aged and cooked Pu Erh teas. Aged Pu Erh tea ages through the growth and reproduction of microorganisms. In order for them to grow you give them adequate temperature and humidity.
Over time both cooked and raw Pu Erh tea will grow bacteria and mold to some extent. Cooked Pu Erh is intentionally kept hot and wet in order for microorganisms to grow way faster. You will always need to rinse cooked and most aged Pu Erh teas.
Young Raw Pu Erh Tea
You can argue that young raw Pu Erh tea is relatively safe to drink without a rinse. You will need to deal with some dust, sand and maybe even a bug between the leaves. But neither bacteria nor mold will have had much time to grow.
Unwanted Taste Profiles
Cooked Pu Erh tea and aged Pu Erh tea from wet storage conditions tend to have intense flavor. Through one or more rinses, you can skip some off tasting infusions.
You can directly start your sessions with the sweet and fruity taste that later infusions provide you. Most people that I know like to rinse their cooked Pu Erh tea two times for ten to fifteen seconds. Aged Pu Erh tea is rarely rinsed more than once and only for a few seconds.
With young Pu Erh tea, a quick rinse mostly removes dirt. While bitterness is a dominant flavor in the first infusions with some young Pu Erh teas, you will lose many complex flavors by rinsing too much.
Some people do not want to rinse their Pu Erh tea. Maybe you yourself think that this might be a waste of tea? There are both cultural and real-world reasons for rinsing your tea every time.
Culturally it is considered bad manners to not discard the first infusion when brewing Pu Erh tea. You can also use the rinse to age your clay teapot or share it with a tea pet.
From another point of view, it makes sense to remove dust and dirt. Most Pu Erh tea cakes contain sand, dust and even smaller insects. A quick rinse will remove this and you can enjoy a clean cup of tea.
Aged and cooked Pu Erh tea contain microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, you need to remove. If you do not use boiling hot water and discard the first infusion, you might risk your own health.
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.