The ideal scenario for buying pu-erh is to go in person to a Chinese tea shop and taste the teas to determine which you like before buying. The proprietors of these tea shops can be a useful resource for information on pu-erh, guiding you towards teas that they think you will like that are within your price range. But many people are not fortunate enough to live close enough to a Chinese tea shop so this is not an option. Fortunately there are some reliable online sources.
The most reputable online retailer that I know of for high quality pu-erh teas is Hou de Asian Art. Their top-shelf aged pu-erh cakes can run into hundreds of dollars, so they’re probably not a good route for initial forays into the world of pu-erh. But for dedicated pu-erh devotees and investors they can be an excellent source. Their online information about pu-erh teas is well worth a visit to their site in any case.
At a more proletarian level, both Tao of Tea and Rishi Tea have perfectly respectable and delicious pu-erh teas available for purchase online. I recommend the mini tuocha or “small bowl” types as a good starting point. They are easy to use and transport and will afford consistency in the amount of leaf used each time. These teas, and most other pu-erh teas, can stand up to five or more infusions. In my experience the second infusion generally exhibits the best flavor.
The video below provides a brief glimpse into a pu-erh factory on Nannuo Mountain in Yunnan, China. The manufacturing process is quite an interesting one.
The article about pu-erh titled A County in China Sees Its Fortunes in Tea Leaves Until a Bubble Bursts published in the New York Times this week is worth a read. I think it’s a little sensationalist and under-researched, but it is interesting. I just don’t think that they have a very good sense of the historical continuity of the tea industry in China.