I bet everyone who's ever come in touch with Chinese tea culture has stumbled upon this name. Pu-erh, puer, pu'er, p'u-erh, or simply 普洱茶, this tea has as many faces as it has Latin transcriptions: from cheap grocery store "King of Pu'er" to super fancy tea cakes sold on an auction and seen as an investment rather than something meant for consumption. Ripe pu-erh is particularly beloved in Eastern Europe, while Germany and the USA are enjoying young sheng pu-erh. Inevitably, people ask us at our store if we sell any pu-erh. This presents an opportunity to talk about what defines a pu-erh and why this tea has earned itself such an international craze.
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What is pu-erh tea?
There are two ways to answer this question. One is to compare pu-erh tea to Irish whiskey or champagne. For a whiskey to be called "Irish whiskey" on a legal basis, it must "be distilled and matured on the island of Ireland" among other things. The same goes for champagne, where different regions of France dispute who has the rights to legally label their product "champagne". Originating in Yunnan, southern China, pu-erh is made from a specific variety of wild tea plant called Camellia taliensis, which is related to the widespread Camellia sinensis. It is also processed using specific technology that lends pu-erh its unique characteristics. Finally, it is the soil and climate that play a role in this tea classification. In other words, according to some, pu-erh tea must be produced in a specific part of Yunnan from a specific plant using a specific technological process. Following this logic, there's no pu-erh tea produced in Taiwan.
Yet we also see "pu-erh tea" from Laos, or from Malawi. Are these teas not real pu-erh? The second way of defining pu-erh is to look exclusively at the production technique used, ignoring the terroir and tea cultivar. If we use this definition, then Taiwan certainly produces pu-erh tea, albeit in minimal quantities. Do we consider it authentic pu-erh? Depends on the legal definition. For now, it's a heated topic, and we would rather call it "tea produced using the same technology used in pu-erh production". A bit clunky, but does justice both to the tea in question and the birthplace of pu-erh. Yet, Taiwan's contribution to popularizing this tea is undeniable.
Luckily for us, Mr. Yu published a research paper on that topic, asking: "How and why was Taiwan able to play such an important part in Puer’s globalization, and what we can infer from this interesting case?"
Pu-erh in Taiwan, pre 1990s
Originally, pu-erh was an export product for Yunnan. Small quantities of top grade tea were sent to Beijing as a tribute to the royal household during the Qing era, while the rest of pu-erh was exported from Yunnan to nearby Tibet, Guangdong and Hong Kong. The locals in Yunnan preferred green tea, and pu-ehr didn't become popular among them until the 2000s. In the 1970s, a few Taiwanese tea merchants imported small amounts of pu-ehr from Hong Kong to Taiwan. As China and Taiwan were at war at the time, the merchants could only bring what tea they could carry in their luggage. Some pu-erh also got to Taiwan through the sailors, who smuggled the tea for some stores selling Chinese antiques in Taiwan. Thus began the acquaintance of the Taiwanese with this tea.
These teas were mainly produced in the late 1940s and mid 1950s by the first Chinese state-owned tea farms. At the time, the tea vendors in Hong Kong knew that aged pu-erh tastes better and were attempting to sell it as "pu-erh inherited over generations" in their domestic market at higher prices. After the failed attempt, they turned to Taiwan, yet it took quite some effort to make the Taiwanese tea drinkers develop a taste for aged tea. For starters, the Taiwanese learned to shift their focus from fragrance and increasingly appreciate the "water quality" (水性 shuǐ xìng) of pu-erh tea. This was followed by a shift in the utensils used for preparing the tea: instead of solid clay teapots that were typically used for highly fragrant oolong teas, people began using pots made of soft clay that helped to brew pu-erh's smooth mouthfeel (口感 kǒugǎn).
Taiwanese are masters of fragrant teas, particularly oolong, which made aged pu-erh with its lack of fragrance quite unattractive for the local palate. But the 1970s-1980s were quite a dynamic time for the development of tea culture in Taiwan, and several factors played out in favor of the locals developing a taste for aged pu-erh.
As Mr. Yu describes it, the "'Taste of aging' was identified and promoted in Taiwan as a delicacy deserving of appreciation that we saw a revival of Puer production and market expansion in the mid-1990s. As the stores of aged tea gradually decline due to continuous consumption, the potential value from long-term stockpiling of newly produced Puer continues to attract numerous collectors. This greatly pumps up the amount of Puer tea being traded (but not drunk) and makes new Puer tea an ideal target for investing. With the popularization of the 'taste of aging,' the Puer market has been greatly invigorated. Age becoming the key factor in assessing Puer’s value has encouraged people to trade the tea like stocks or futures. And as this flavor category has come to play such an important role in the globalization of Puer’s commodity chain, just how to reproduce the 'right' aging and how to stockpile new tea to duplicate the flavor of the aged tea that hit the market in the 1990s has become an important concern. Since most consumers today have not actually tasted the 'antique tea' that gave rise to the Puer fad in the mid-90s, they all expect that their stockpiled tea will eventually develop an appreciable and valuable flavor. This collective effort to reproduce the 'taste of aging' has been based on a communal imagination of Puer’s unique flavor, helping Puer to spread from rather limited consumption areas to various parts of the world in less than twenty years."
Taiwan further continued to set new trends for appreciating old trees or ancient trees (古樹 gǔ shù) and yixing pottery in the 1990s, thanks to both market power and their ability to establish and promote categories for sensory evaluation of tea. Taiwanese tea merchants profited drastically from buying off stored pu-erh tea and yixing pots in Hong Kong before its handover to China. By developing a taste for aged tea, ancient trees and dry storage, which inevitably started to run out as the demand grew and there wasn't nearly enough supply to satisfy it, Taiwan set off a chain reaction, with Korea, China and the rest of the world following suit on the pu-erh craze, which resulted in the high prices on the market today.
Pu-erh fad: why Taiwan?
Compared to Hong Kong, where, in the 19070s-1980s, the tea culture was limited to restaurant tea houses, where pu-erh's role was complimentary to the small dim sum dishes, Taiwan's emerging tea art culture (茶藝 chá yì) offered fertile ground for exploring new dimensions in tea, such as the "taste of aging" or (陳年, chén nián). Cheap prices and abundance of material after China and Taiwan resumed active trade made it possible for the Taiwanese tea merchants to explore the quality of age pu-erh teas, discover what flavors and characteristics were available and what defines a "good" and "authentic" flavor of aged pu-erh.
The developed standards for evaluating aged pu-erh spread to the consumers through various means. At the time, the Taiwanese government promoted oolong in an attempt to increase domestic consumption and improvement in quality. The traditional literati tea art movement combined with the fresh ideas from the younger generations in the 1980s, and new methods of preparing tea were developed, along with new designs for tea accessories and rethinking the social context in which the tea is served. This led to experimenting with tea as performative art and an elegant event for people to attend.
The longing for nostalgia and fascination with China among the Taiwanese, known as "China fever" (中國熱 zhōngguó rè) have also contributed to the popularity of aged pu-erh in Taiwan. Vendors selling antique goods advertised this tea to their customers, actively contributing to the overall information flow that tied the "taste of aging" with Chinese culture and longing for the past.
After the 1990s, the global pu-erh market shifted from Taiwan to Yunnan and Guangdong. This happened as the amount of aged pu-erh declined, and the consumer focus shifted to new, young pu-erh tea, oftentimes with the goal of aging the tea. However, even this trend is influenced by Taiwan, since it is there that the standards for dry storage and aging of pu-erh were established.
Tea in the context of cultural globalization
Taiwan's adoption of aged pu-erh and its consequent globalization show that culture is a dynamic substance able to spread, localize and mutate. Regardless of whether driven by profit, nostalgia or joy, the Taiwanese made pu-erh—a tea that was not originally part of their culture—a global phenomenon. This in turn gave rise to new teas being produced with a technology similar to pu-erh in places like Malawi, Laos, etc. enriching the global tea market and giving a chance for new tastes and cultural trends to develop.
Shu pu-erh has been taking Eastern Europe by storm since the 2010s, quickly gaining popularity to the point where it is casually featured in songs and movies, and listening to hip-hop while boiling shu in a large glass teapot on a gas burner has become a social activity in many tea clubs (more on that in a future article). In Western Europe, the tea community is experimenting with ways to age sheng pu-erh such as using a cigar humidor, to achieve the "taste of aging" with their tea cakes in the future. These are just some of the examples of the localization of pu-erh as it enters other tea cultures and transforms under their influence.
We at XianCha Tea encourage new developments in the world tea culture. It is not a static substance, and the tea community should not be afraid to try new things. The key is to give proper credit to the source and not label things as "traditional Chinese" if they are not. However, doing things differently and not following the "traditional" standards should not be frowned upon. As you can see, many of these standards have also been a novelty not that far back in history.
This article is based on the following sources:
Chen et al. Genetic diversity and differentiation of Camellia sinensis L. (cultivated tea) and its wild relatives in Yunnan province of China, revealed by morphology, biochemistry and allozyme studies (2005)
Yu, Shuenn-Der Taiwan and the Globalization of Puer Tea: The Role of the Taste of Aging (2016)