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Sometimes with cooked (fermented) Pu Erh tea, you may notice an unpleasant and fishy smell or taste. While this luckily is not extremely common, it could easily throw you off cooked pu erh tea. Not everybody likes Pu Erh tea that tastes like fish.
Even if you got your hands on one of these disgustingly fishy teas, do not believe that every cooked Pu Erh tea will taste like that! There are a few possibilities as to why this taste and smell has developed and even some things you can do to repair your tea and to avoid such tea in the future.
SHORT ANSWER – Help! My Pu Erh Smells Fishy!
Cooked Pu Erh tea can smell and taste funky, fishy or like dirt. Low quality cooked Pu Erh most commonly displays these unpleasant notes. With better production and storage methods and age a high quality cooked Pu Erh tea will taste rather earthy, wooden and sweet with notes of dark fruits.
What Causes Pu Erh To Taste / Smell Like Fish?
How Cooked Pu Erh Tea Is Produced
Cooked Pu Erh was invented in the 1970s by one of the largest producers of Pu Erh tea, the Menghai Tea Factory. Since raw Pu Erh tea gains in quality with age, they developed a process to speed up the aging process through controlled fermentation of the tea before pressing it into cakes, bricks or Tuo Cha.
For the bitter, astringent and harsh taste of young raw Pu Erh to mellow to sweeter and more pleasant notes, the tea is laid out in large piles in a humid, warm room. These conditions allow for micro-organisms to thrive, which in turn break down and create new aromatic compounds.
This fermentation process does effectively change the smell and taste of the resulting Pu Erh tea. While a properly aged raw Pu Erh will often have floral, medium-ripe fruit and sweet notes, cooked Pu Erh will most often gain earthy, wooden, dark fruits and sweet notes if produced correctly.
Low Quality Of Cooked Pu Erh
Not all cooked Pu Erh teas are created equal! Higher quality productions of cooked Pu Erh tea that have been properly fermented and stored exhibit a pleasant earthy and fruity smell and taste. Low-quality productions may have experienced mishandling or faulty processes, resulting in a funky and unpleasant taste.
Cooked Pu Erh tea that comes in small Tuocha, which are somewhat formed like a mushroom and often portioned for a single cup of tea, are of the lower end most of the time.
Another indicator of low quality is a tea without known origin – a no-name tea. These types of cooked Pu Erh teas are most commonly associated with the fishy taste you might have experienced.
Too Young Cooked Pu Erh Tea
Cooked Pu Erh teas that are less than one or two years old will have a distinctive acidic and funky smell and taste. Through correct storage with enough ventilation, most manufacturers try to eliminate this before selling the tea.
The intense taste that comes from the micro-organisms that are still alive in the tea will diminish over time. If the tea is not stored above room temperature and with very high humidity, the fermentation process will slow down and allow for the taste to mellow. With age a cooked Pu Erh tea will get sweeter, mellower and generally more pleasant – just as raw Pu Erh does.
Sanitary Conditions While Fermenting
The high humidity and temperature that are necessary for the fermentation process to properly change the Pu Erh tea come with a substantial risk of bacterial or mold contamination. It is wanted for some bacteria and enzymes to develop and grow within the tea, though.
If the manufacturer does not handle the tea properly and introduces external and unwanted micro-biological contaminants to the tea piles, the taste may be affected negatively. Just as humans are inherently good at smelling bad bacteria and mold in food, we will be able to smell contaminants in tea as unpleasant or even gross.
Any extremely funky and unpleasant smell may be an indicator of contaminated tea. If you do not trust the vendor, manufacturer or the tea itself, I would recommend you to listen to your nose.
After the fermentation and pressing of the cooked Pu Erh tea, the tea is commonly stored between a few months and two years. This allows the tea to lose some of the unwanted smell and taste resulting from the fermentation and become a pleasant tea.
If the storage conditions are too humid, too warm or the tea is exposed to unwanted smells from ist surroundings, the resulting tea may absorb smells or further develop fermentation-related taste.
The tea must be stored under less humid, dark, cool and well-ventilated conditions to develop a rounded high-quality smell and taste.
Is It Only In Your Mind?
Sometimes when you taste tea, you will taste exactly what you expect. If you think about cherry and cranberry while tasting cooked Pu Erh tea, you will be more likely to pick up on those notes. It is not quite possible to be unbiased when trying a tea, as you will always have some expectations of both smell and taste.
If you have had a negative experience with a fishy-smelling cooked Pu Erh tea you will naturally come to expect the tea – or maybe even all cooked Pu Erh teas – to smell and taste somewhat like fish. You could try to think of earthy and wooden notes or focus on the sweeter and fruity ones.
How Can You Salvage Your Fishy Pu Erh Tea?
Brewing Methods – Amount And Rinsing
With cooked Pu Erh you often have some kind of funky damp hay, earthy or otherwise darker notes. If you want your tea to taste milder, sweeter and more like overripe fruity, you can try to adjust your brewing methods.
The first thing you can do is reduce the amount of tea you use. With less tea in your teapot, you will have less intensity in the resulting brew, which can be a good thing if your cooked Pu Erh is very young. You could try with one or two grams per 100 mL and adjust from there.
I would highly recommend you to thoroughly rinse cooked Pu Erh tea once or twice for twenty seconds for the fishy and unpleasant taste to be washed off. Later infusions of cooked Pu Erh are commonly the sweetest and easiest on your taste buds.
Ventilating And Aging Your Tea
You can get rid of funky and fishy smell in your cooked Pu Erh tea! If your tea is not already loose, you could break up the tea cake and store it in a dark, cold and well-ventilated area.
If you store the tea in an air-tight container, you should regularly ventilate that, too. Most of the unpleasant smells that result from mishandling during the production and storage of the Pu Erh will over time diminish.
If your tea is not getting better within half a year, you just wait another six months. It could take up to two years for a truly bad cooked Pu Erh to become a pleasant and well-rounded tea. With age, the Pu Erh teas taste will naturally mellow and transform to sweeter and more fruity notes.
What You Can Do To Avoid Fishy Pu Erh Teas
Vendor And Brand Choice
If you have bought a fishy cooked Pu Erh tea, chances are that you chose to buy no-name products or from a vendor that only sells small amounts of cooked Pu Erh. With larger vendors that have some experience in choosing the cooked Pu Erh teas that they sell, you can expect the tea to be better.
Another thing you can pay attention to is the branding of the tea you buy. If you buy tea from one of the large tea factories like Dayi or Menghai Tea Factory, you can easily research and know what to expect from the tea you will get.
If the cooked Pu Erh tea is sold under a specific brand that you know others enjoy and trust, that also is a good indicator for better teas. Try to avoid any tea you do not know the source or vendor enough to trust them.
Always Sample Your Teas
If you want to buy tea from an unknown source or a new vendor, you should always try to order samples first. It is far easier to live with a few bucks spent on a nasty sample rather than spending one hundred on a tea you will never enjoy.
There may be vendors that are not offering samples for their tea because the tea is either too cheap to justify the production of sample packages or the vendor generally does not want to offer samples. Many people want to try different teas and I’m sure you could find someone in the tea communities that would be willing to share a cake or two with you in a collective order.
Try Raw Pu Erh Tea
If you still do not enjoy cooked Pu Erh tea even though you have tried everything you could – or maybe you have just given up on it completely – I would recommend trying raw Pu Erh tea that has aged for a few years.
Even though raw Pu Erh tea tastes quite different, you will then know what Menghai Tea Factory tried to produce when they first invented cooked Pu Erh tea. Also, I believe it is always good to try and give different tea a chance.
Raw Pu Erh tea can be bitter and astringent, but will rarely develop a funky or fishy taste if it isn’t stored in very humid regions.
Try Loose Cooked Pu Erh Tea
As loose Pu Erh tea generally ages faster and through this process loses unwanted smells and taste, you might want to try loose cooked Pu Erh tea before completely giving up on it.
The loose variants will commonly taste very earthy and wooden with some acidic notes. The chance of buying a fishy cooked Pu Erh tea is a lot lower with loose Pu Erh.
Is Pu Erh That Smells Like Fish Safe To Drink?
While the smell and taste of cooked Pu Erh tea may be unpleasant and you might not want to drink the tea, you will not be dying if you do. If you properly rinse your tea and use boiling water, you should be completely safe.
What Other Unpleasant Taste Can Cooked Pu Erh Have?
Cooked Pu Erh tea can have very uncommon notes. You may find that your tea tastes like fish, wet dog, compost, dirt, damp hay or like the inside of a stable. This is a result of the forced fermentation process that cooked Pu Erh goes through and will vary in intensity between teas.
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.