Pu'er is a major kind of postfermented tea and is made with a “large leaf” variety of Camellia sinensis (C. sinensis assamica), whose distribution is limited to the mountains of southern Yunnan, China. The quality of Pu'er tea is believed to increase with storage (aging, maturing) because of postfermentation by microbes. The effect of storage period (from < 1 to 192 mo) on the bacteria and fungi in Pu'er tea was investigated by a culture-dependent and a PCR-DGGE method. The individual numbers of fungi and bacteria decreased with increasing storage time and were significantly greater in ripened tea than in raw Pu'er tea. Both methods indicated that yeast, Aspergillus spp., and Penicillium spp. were the dominant fungi in almost all the samples. However, the common bacteria detected by the culture-dependent method were species of Pseudomonas, Achromobacter, Alcaligenes, Sporosarcina, and Bacillus, whereas those detected by PCR-DGGE were species of Staphylococcus, Arthrobacter, and Streptomyces. According to ordination analysis, bacterial community structure differed between ripened and raw Pu'er tea. Bacterial diversity was positively correlated with aging time, while fungal diversity in both raw and ripened tea increased during the first 60 mo of aging and then decreased. Changes in polyphenol content were correlated with the changes in fungal diversity. These results suggest that the relationship between storage time and the quality of Pu'er tea is complex and involves changes in polyphenol content and microbial abundance and diversity.
Aging time is considered to be the main factor determining the quality and value of Pu'er tea. The current study demonstrated that polyphenol content and fungal diversity of both raw and fermented of Pu'er tea increased during the first 60 mo of aging and then decreased, while opportunistic, pathogenic bacteria were detected in the tea that was stored for more than 120 mo. The results do not support the view that Pu'er tea quality continues to increase with long storage times. The dominant fungi detected in this study may have potential application in the postfermentation of Pu'er tea.