Pu’er, one of the most exotic teas, is green tea fermented with bacteria. Invented by Tang Dynasty traders, it is produced mainly from scrubby green tea trees that blanket the mountains of fabled Menghai County in Yunnan Province. Pu’er is pleasantly aromatic beverage that promoters claim reduces cholesterol and cures hangovers. The best pu’er teas are aged 20 to 60 years and has been described as being "like a monk — very plain, enduring."
Pu'er tea is sold as loose tea or pressed tea. Pu'er tea is considered different from other teas. The tea leaves are red brown. "Older is better." The older the tea the more concentrated the tea perfume is — and a better. About 20 grams of is used in 500 milliliters of boiling water. Boiling water can be added more than five times. This way drinking Pu'er tea more affordable.
The Jinou and Hani minorities are known in China for cultivating tea bushes that are the source expensive Pu’er tea. Some of the bushes are over 100 years old. Puer is known as “green gold." It was a key trading item on the ancient “Tea and Horse Route."
Pu’er has attained near-mythic status. A favorite of emperors and imbued with vague medicinal powers, Pu’er was supposedly invented by eighth-century horseback traders who compressed the tea leaves into cakes for easier transport. Unlike other types of tea, which are consumed not long after harvest, Pu’er tastes better with age. Prized vintages from the 19th century have sold for thousands of dollars a wedge. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 16, 2008]
Over the past decade, the industry has been shaped in ways that mirror the Western fetishization of wine. Sellers charge a premium for batches picked from older plants or, even better, from wild tea trees that have survived the deforestation that scars much of the region. Enthusiasts talk about oxidation levels, loose-leaf versus compacted and whether the tea was harvested in the spring or the summer. (Spring tea, many believe, is more flavorful.) If you study Pu’er your whole life, you still can't recognize the differences in the teas, one tea buyer said. . I tell people to just buy what tastes good and don't worry about anything else. [Ibid]
Ancient Puer Tea Area of Southern Yunnan
The Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The nominated property is located on the Jingmai Mountain in the southwestern border area of Yunnan Province, with widely distributed tea plantations. The Mountain has a declining trend from the northwest to the southeast. In about 180 A.D., a branch of Blang, an ethnic minority group, discovered tea when migrating to the region of Jingmai, and tried to cultivate tea trees in the forest because of limited land and the climate and soil conditions favorable for tea trees. In the 3rd century, Blang people gradually mastered the tea cultivation techniques, and began to domesticate, cultivate tea trees and trade tea products, thus started the 1800 years’ history of tea cultivation, settlement and development in this area and passed on from generation to generation. According to historical records, the earliest recorded tea market in the nominated area came out in 1139 A.D., and the tea trade flourished in the Qing Dynasty.[Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“In the nominated area, the highest elevation reaches 1662 meters (Nuogang Mountain) and the lowest 1100 meters (Nanlang Valley). Ancient tea plantations are mainly distributed in the mountain area of 1250-1550 meters above sea, and concentrates in three areas: Manggeng-Mengben ancient tea plantations, Jingmai Dapingzhang-Nuogang ancient tea plantations and Mangjing ancient tea plantations. In a total area of 1870 hectares, there are about 1.13 million ancient tea trees, of which the oldest tea tree has a history of 1400 years. Less than 10 percent of the tea trees are aged500-1000 years, about 30 percent are 300-499 years old, and the average age of the tea trees in the entire biocenosis is about 200 years. The nominated area is not only the largest and the best-preserved ancient tea plantation area of the region, but also the largest ancient cultivated arbor tea plantation of the world.
“The nominated area, which is the largest ancient artificially cultivated tea plantation in the world, witnesses the complete evolution of tea from wild growth to artificial domestication as an important life and culture resource of human being. Tea was also brought to every corner of the world through some important regions and international channels and made important contributions to the world's tea culture and the development of civilization. The Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain is a special cultural landscape with the thousand-years-old domesticated-cultivated ancient tea plantations as the core, including elements such as forest ecosystem closely related to the growth of ancient tea trees, native ethnic villages and rich folk cultures. It has great vitality even today.”
Ancient Tea Trees in the Puer Tea Areas
According to the report submitted to UNESCO: “The region of Hengduan Mountains of Yunnan in China, is a world's biodiversity hot spot and place of origin and reservation for various species. In recent years, wild ancient tea trees of some 2700 years old, half wild-half cultivated ancient tea trees older than 1000 years and well preserved large ancient Pu'er tea plantations with tea trees of 100-1000 years old have been discovered in this area, making it one of the regions that practiced earliest use of tea resource and had significant influence on the tea culture of the world. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“Ancient tea trees grow extensively in secondary growth tropical monsoon evergreen broad-leafed forests in South Asia. Such forests have the arbor layer at the top, the shrub layer in the middle and the vegetation layer at the bottom. Tall arbors such as toona ciliata and ficus microcarpa grow in the upper layer; the middle layer is dominated byancient tea trees and decorated with lauraceae, ericaceae and other plants; and the lower layer is covered by gramineae and herbs such as ferns, galenicals and wild vegetables. Compared with common terraced tea plantations, such a special multi-layered ecosystem helps ancient Pu’er tea plantations with well-preserved soil fertility and effectively reduced disease and pest. The special way of tea cultivation in forests was created by human through persistent study of the nature.
“The Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain are cultural landscapes formed by adaptation to the nature under extreme conditions. The local people discovered, domesticated and cultivated tea to form a traditional way of ancient tea cultivation in natural forests which is still in use today, thus creating a sustainable ecological system and land use mode. The traditional protection by local people helps tea plantations of Jingmai mountain remain their vitality and free of damage in thousand years’ evolution. The landscape with coexistence of land and man has rich cultural significance in world's dryland terrace tea culture, reveals the law of association between man and land, development and protection, achieves the state of natural harmony, harmony between man and nature and harmony between ethnic groups, and stands as an outstanding example of mutual growth of nature and mankind.”
People and Villages in the Puer Tea Areas
According to the report submitted to UNESCO: “Over more than one thousand years, native people have built a close and friendly interaction with the ancient tea plantations based on discovery, cultivation and utilization of tea, thus forming a charming mountain settlement landscape and rich regional ethnic culture. The nominated property involves two administrative villages, namely Jingmai and Mangjing, with a total population of about 5,500 from more than 1500 households, respectively belonging to the Dai, Blang, Hani and Wa nationalities. In this region there are eight minority villages with distinctive characteristics generally built in area about 1500 meters above sea with sufficient sunlight, surrounded by forest, farmland, wild tea trees and wild animals. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“The villages have clear public centers-village heart. Residential houses are mainly two-storied pile-dwellings with a balcony for drying tea. Symbols of tea are often used on buildings as decorative patterns. Rich folk cultures are derived from tea production process, including religion, language, customs, architecture culture, vernacular literature, village regulations and so on...Therefore, the nominated area is an outstanding example of the agricultural landscape. It embodies ecological ethics of harmonious coexistence between people and between human and nature which have important outstanding universal value for common prosperity and development of the world in modern times.
“Since 1800 years ago, Jingmai people discovered and domesticated tea, and based on their respect to the nature, formed a millennium sustainable ancient tea garden landscape known as "living tea tree museum", which is a microcosm of the development of Chinese tea culture and civilization, an outstanding representative of the world’s tea culture, and a model of coexistence between man and nature. As one of the birthplaces of the world's tea culture, Jingmai Mountain is a part of the Ancient Tea-Horse Route, through which tea culture spread all over the world and made great contribution to the development of the tea culture and civilization. It is a historical testimony of the important contribution of the Chinese nation to the industrial development of tea, one of the major beverages of the world.”
“The Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain, integrating natural forest, the ancient tea garden landscape, modern terrace tea landscape and coexistence of traditional residential villages and natural mountains, is an outstanding representative of agricultural landscape of dryland terrace tea culture. People of various nations live in traditional villages in harmony for generations together with development of tea mountains, reflecting the common value and social cohesion based on tea culture and having significant influence on the local village planning still today. In the preserved traditional residential buildings, the religion systems and traditional customs of the ethnic minorities are integrated into the village planning and architectural design, the tea culture is blended with ethnic faith and daily culture, and tea is symbolized and mixed into architectural design and ethnic costumes and culture, reflecting local distinctive features of local tradition and tea culture. Ancient tea gardens which exist for thousand years, as well as the mountain residential buildings and traditional culture highly mixed with tea culture and local natural environment witness the evolution of the regional civilization and culture based on tea industry, reflect the achievements of tea culture combining both material and spiritual civilization, highlight the example of coexistence between human and the nature that reaches an ideal state of natural harmony, man-nature harmony and ethnic harmony.”
Puer Tea Area Animism and Coexistence
According to the report submitted to UNESCO: “Local people not only believe in Buddhism, but also believe in the "tea ancestor". A grand ritual will be held each year for their ancestors who discovered tea, and in each tea plantation, a most exuberant tea tree will be worshiped and respected as a "tree of tea spirit". A series of village regulations are formulated and played an active role in protection of the ancient tea plantations. Therefore, the nominated area is the most typical place reflecting harmonious relationship between human and land.
“Native minorities live here in harmony and develop the tea culture of the region, which shows integration of the national culture based on the common value of "tea". The protection and management rules formulated and executed by local people created the ethnic religion and tradition closely related to tea culture, had profound influence on the development and transmission of tea culture, and serve as indispensable intangible heritage demonstrating the development of tea culture and the graceful vision of harmonious interpersonal coexistence.
The nominated area, on the basis of the belief in "animism", created unique techniques for artificial cultivation of tea trees under forest system, a technology of land use adapted to natural condition on different altitudes, and a town and village construction technology in harmony with the environment and the tea culture, thus forming an unique mountain landscape integrating "human, land, tea, forest". It is a typical example of the harmonious relationship between man and nature showing the great wisdom of human to know, to respect and to use the nature. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
Based on specific natural conditions of the primitive forest and the cultural background of "animism" belief, the Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain, with its historical ancient tea culture and the ecological value of harmony between man and nature, form an ancient tea garden ecosystem which is on the basis of respecting natural resource and sustainable development. Under extreme conditions of mountains, local residents strictly protect primitive forest, forming a unique vertical land-use pattern, create a technology of planting tea in forest, develop unique ancient artificial tea forests in natural forests, and form a local tea culture landscape of Jingmai style. The coexistence of forest and tea garden, as well as the rules formulated to protect the landscape and ancient tea garden, set an outstanding example of land use, and reflect the ecological ethics of respecting nature and harmony between man and nature, and have important inspiration for the development of world ecological civilization.
Pu’er (Simao) and Pu'er Tea Expo Garden
Simao (300 kilometers southwest of Kunming) is the home of The China Pu'er Tea Expo Garden One traveler wrote in the China Daily reported: “The Tea Expo Garden in Simao brings the world of Pu'er tea to life. You can spend a whole day at the Garden, learn how to pick tea leaves-in the old days you had to be a maiden and get to the plantation before sunrise-process it by hand, make different shapes of Pu'er teas, such as cakes, bricks or loose-leaf, and finally engrave a tea pack with your own name or the name of the person you want to gift it to. The process of tea production has turned the garden into a giant tea amusement park. The experience is not complete without a tour of the tea museum and a visit to a mock home where a dozen ethnic Lahu youths will serve you tea the way it has been done for hundreds of years. [Source: China Daily, June 11, 2009]
“Pu'er is a special kind of tea grown in southern Yunnan. The tea is so well-known that the local authorities decided, a few years ago, to change the name of their hometown from Simao to Pu'er. Actually, it is more complicated than that. A smaller town used to be called Pu'er, and the name was taken over by Simao, the city with wider jurisdiction including that town. Anyway, I was sitting inside a teahouse in a tea garden. Not just any tea garden. The biggest of its kind in the whole world-20 hectares of mountain slopes of tea plantations, at 1,700 meters above sea level.
“I had four kinds of tea in front of me, prepared by a young lady dressed in an ethnic costume. One was green tea, the kind I grew up with — I'm from Hangzhou, the place of the Dragon-Well (Longjing) green tea, one was black tea, or if you use the literal translation from Chinese, red tea, and there were two kinds of Pu'er, one with hot water and one with cold water. Green tea has a fragrance that rushes through your body. You'll feel fresh. But after two or three refills of water, it turns tasteless. Black tea comes on strong. It has a burning passion, so to speak. Pu'er has a somewhat "dull" first taste, but then it gets to you and grows on you. It won't wear out after two dozen refills. In fact it becomes more and more "tasty".
“Gradually, I began to associate green tea with an adolescent, with youthful freshness to delight you. Black tea reminds me of all those mature women in Desperate Housewives, in their prime and armed with all the knowledge of the world. Pu'er, by comparison, is like an old sage, with white beard flowing and sporting a white gown and making utterances that take days to decipher. It's like Confucius or Lao Tzu talking to their disciples, or for that matter, Yoda dispensing gold nuggets of wisdom, reversed sentence structure and all, to Anakin.
“No wonder Pu'er is the only tea that grows in value with age. For green tea, the shelf life is only one or two years. This special quality of Pu'er turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. A few years ago, speculators created a bubble out of Pu'er tea. Then, like everything else, it plummeted back to earth, hurting a lot of tea farmers in the process.The best way to enjoy Pu'er is not as an investor, but as someone who takes pleasure in sipping quality tea.
Tea and Horse Route
The ancient Tea and Horse Route (beginning in Simao (Pu’er) is also called the Tea Horse Trade Route. CRI reports: “The over 1,800 year old Tea and Horse Route starts from Simao, a place that has been famous for its Pu'er tea, in southwest China's Yunnan province. The Tea and Horse Route, or simply Tea Horse Road, goes from its southern end to Southeast Asia, connects Beijing from its north and zigzags to Tibet from its West. [Source: CRI August 17, 2009]
The road had long been an important trade route in history, along which the local rich Pu'er tea was carried out of the country for border trade, together with China's culture. Pu'er tea, in fact, is everywhere in the air in and around Simao. Thus if you have the chance to travel to Simao then a visit to the Tea Horse Road is a must. The Banjiu (meaning "turtle dove") slope section is a key part of the Tea Horse Road from its south to north. It's also the best preserved section that contains the richest part of the ancient tea horse road's culture. It's called a "living fossil in Chinese, even world, transportation history."
“It was a rainy day when we arrived at Pojiao village in Simao to recall what the horse caravan in the past must have gone through, though we were without horses or heavy load of bags, but with just empty hands and good sports shoes. Walking on the zigzagging narrow stone road, I saw parents saying goodbye to their children with tears in eyes, girls waiting for their beloved one's return on Shi Pinghe Bridge and horses and cows moving slowly toward the north. I could also hear the sound of small bells on a horse lingering in the valley.
“It was along the Tea and Horse Route that tribute tea was sent to Beijing long ago. On the distant journey, the tea inevitably became wet and hot due to the rain fall and the sun. Accidentally, the post-fermentation of Pu'er tea was discovered and made the tea well-known. Countless stories occurred along the Tea Horse Road.
In rain, the road became slippery and we walked slowly and carefully. Some people asked how long we would have to walk and after walking about three kilometers along the road we decided to go back. I couldn't help myself thinking about those ancient times. Facing challenges from the weather, bad roads, bandits and homesickness, these horse caravans had to have been strong-minded, brave and persistent. I couldn't help but admire their courage that we often failed to have today.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in September 2022