Aged teas, or pu-erhs, resemble fine wines in that both are fermented, aged in cellars, and highly collectible, with scarce pu-erhs such as the 1949 commanding $400 per ounce. But Rod Marcus detects a similarity to a different potable, or rather, his palate does. “[Pu-erhs are] more like good Scotch. You can taste the earth in it,” he says. “And aged Scotches, like aged pu-erhs, are that much smoother than younger versions.” Marcus is the founder of Mitea, a 9-year-old Chicago company that imports aged teas; a network of collectors and tea masters in China, Canada, and London supplies him with elusive harvests. He regards tea brewed from the oldest pu-erhs as the connoisseur’s nonalcoholic beverage, and he is happy to tell others about it, even if his efforts ultimately leave less for him to enjoy. “People don’t know vintage tea exists,” he says. “It’s got a limited production, like a Cabernet or a Zinfandel. Once you drink it, it’s gone. Over time, the oldest vintages become impossible to get.”
The term pu-erh (pronounced pu-AIR) comes from the name of a county in Yunnan where tea merchants once congregated to trade. Yunnan’s moderate temperatures and its position 6,000 feet above sea level create an ideal climate for tea trees. Leaves intended for aging are harvested from plants that are at least a century old—some are approaching their second millennium. Cooked pu-erhs, as opposed to green pu-erhs, are roasted in much the same way as black tea. Both forms are misted with water, pressed into bricks, and cellared for at least a year in caves, where the leaves ferment. (The dates that are applied to pu-erhs identify the year in which the leaves were harvested.) The leaves yield a beverage that is mellower and earthier-tasting than nonaged teas. Because tea leaves readily absorb flavors, some pu-erhs are aged in bamboo shoots or pomelo rinds that produce woody plant notes or citrus hints, respectively; others are blended with wild rose petals for floral accents.
A 2002, pomelo-aged pu-erh is a favorite at Shanghai Terrace, one of several restaurants across the country that have begun serving these teas. Located in Chicago’s Peninsula hotel, Shanghai Terrace features 13 vintages, including a 1983 varietal for $150 per pot. In April, the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C., opened the Tea Cellar, which offers more than 40 types of teas, including pu-erhs housed in a glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled aging cave. In Manhattan, Mario Batali’s new Del Posto steeps 1978 and 1982 pu-erhs.
Marcus’ introduction to pu-erhs came 10 years ago, when he was importing cigars and wine. “Everything I learned in that field translated to tea because it’s an extension of taste,” he says. “It was wonderfully complex, of limited production, with aging ability. After I had a couple of pu-erhs I started training my palate. I fell in love.”
Park Hyatt Washington