Pu’er Tea: The Treasured Cup of the Yunnan Province

Bordering the Tibet plateau, Vietnam and Myanmar, the Yunnan Province of China produces close to 15 percent of the country’s teas with an output of 238,340 metric tons in 2011. There are many green and black teas, some white teas and the legendary Pu’er teas. Legendary because Yunnan’s traditional tea districts are home to several colorful ethnic minorities, who have been harvesting these teas for many centuries, for their own consumption and for trade with Tibet. The ancient “Tea and Horse Road” leaves from the south of Yunnan and climbs up to the Himalayan plateau towards Lhasa, where the pressed tea cakes and tea bricks have been traded for horses since the 8th century AD.

When China started to restore its tea traditions in the 1980’s, after the awes of the cultural revolution, Pu’er teas were highly in demand. Gradual privatizing of the tea industry together with intense planting of new tea gardens has designed the pattern of today’s Pu’er tea market. Furthermore, new legislation was introduced by the end of 2008 bestowing a PGI-Protected Geographical Indication- on Pu’er teas together with the requirement that these teas are exclusively produced from the “big leaf tea tree” variety and includes sun drying as one of the processing steps. Bearing in mind this basic definition, it is important to note that there are many distinct types and qualities of Pu’er teas.

Puer1The most distinctive quality is linked to age; that is, the age of the tea tree on one side and the age of the vintage tea cake on the other side. As Yunnan province is one of the cradles of the tea plant, it is home to several very old tea forests with many very ancient and wild tea trees. They cover about 14,000 hectares; spread over dozens of named and famous tea hills near to dozens of minority villages. These forests are mainly located in the three traditional Pu’er tea districts of Lincang, Simao, and Xishuangbanna. Tended and harvested by the village people as a cottage industry for many hundreds of years, the leaves picked from the old wild trees have gradually generated the legendary fame of these teas.

Estimated to have grown here between 600 and 1200 years ago, there are also some isolated “tea ancestral trees” in this area, which have been carbon-14 dated to be over 2800 years old. These trees are celebrated through annual worship rituals and impressive landmarks, which may only be discovered after hours of driving on vertiginous small mountain roads. Because the old wild tea trees have prospered in a totally natural and unspoiled environment, without any fertilizing or other treatments, their leaves have developed exceptionally complex and rich tastes, varying from one small terroir to the other amongst the tea mountains and tea villages. Most of these teas will be custom made and volumes are tiny, from a few to some dozen kilograms. Picked from March to November, the finest are the spring picks, followed by the autumn and summer harvests. Some will be single crop, while some will be blends. Some will be marketed in the same year, yet the finest may go to be stored in a Pu’er cellar to become a “vintage tea.”

A second distinction is based on the processing method with the traditional “raw Pu’er” or “sheng Pu’er” on one side. This is basically a green tea that used to be stored for maturing. On the other side is the new industrial process for making “cooked Pu’er” or “shu Pu’er.” This industrial process was developed by the big state-owned Menghai factory in the 1970’s with the objective to accelerate the maturing process. The many years of storage have been replaced by “wetting and piling,” which generates fermentation in the leaves that remain damp and under cover for 21 to 40 days. The microbial activities and the chemical changes induced in the leaves darken their color to a deep dark brown and give a mellow pleasant earthy flavor to the cup.

One more distinctive feature is according to the shape of the teas, which are either loose leaf or pressed leaves. The pressed leaves are traditionally shaped into tea cakes-bing cha-with the most current weight of 375gr; tea nests-tuo cha-weighing generally 100 gr and tea bricks-zhuan cha-that weigh up to one kg.

To underline the incredible complexity of these teas one must also remember the plant varieties, not all of them are green leaf teas, there are also “purple silk” Pu’er teas and a light green Pu’er leaf variety that will give “white Pu’er.” Consumers are therefore sometimes overwhelmed by this unending range of Pu’er varieties. Normally the labels of the cakes will state on the front side whether it is “raw” or “cooked” Pu’er tea, from which factory/brand and the weight. On the back, is the date of production, a key element for appreciating product quality and price. There may be more details, such as if the tea is from a wild tea tree, if it’s a spring bud harvest or from a special terroir, etc. All these elements tend to explain the sometimes quite high prices.Puer2

Being such a legendary tea, beautifully wrapped Pu’er teas are often used as a state gift and prestige present for foreigners. When attending tea fairs in China there are always opportunities to sample as all the companies will run several tasting tables during the day to allow visitors to experience cup quality. A trained Pu’er taster will have been educated for several years in order to be knowledgeable about all the products’ subtleties.

There are some exceptional vintage cakes on the market in Europe, which have probably been stored in cellars in Kanton and which fetch impressive prices. The industrial plantations of Pu’er tea colonial gardens in the 1950/60’s today produce a quality product and cater to more than 75 percent of the demand. These genuine old tree teas are estimated to represent about 15 percent of the current Pu’er output. The range of high quality Pu’er teas is available to the West is on the rise. More and more tea connoisseurs are tempted to discover and explore these terroir and vintage teas, which proudly stand up to their “treasure cup” reputation.

This article was written by Barbara Dufrene and was first published in Tea and Coffee Trade Journal in April of 2013.