Pu'er Tea Dragon Pearl Balls

China is the world’s leading tea producer. India is second. Sri Lanka and Kenya are large producers. China exports around $100 million worth of tea every year. A lot of the tea produced in China is consumed domestically.

In 2009, tea is grown on 1.86 million hectares in China, the largest amount of any country in the world. China also produced the most tea that year, harvesting 1.35 million tons. More than 80 million people work in the tea industry as farmers, workers or sales people. [Source: Ben Yue, China Daily, March 28, 2011]

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: One of the most famous teas in China comes from the eastern city of Hangzhou, a place called Dragon Well that sits in the hills. If you visit Dragon Well, you can experience the making of tea firsthand. Farmers roam the steep hills terraced with tea bushes carefully picking delicate buds, placing them in a big woven basket. Once the basket is full of tea leaves, the farmer carries it down the mountain and begins the drying process. As you stroll through the small villages, you will see large heated shallow cone-shaped vats that the tea leaves are hand dried in to make tea. Rough hands swirl the leaves around and around the rim, releasing a musty fragrance as moisture is released from the leaves. It seals in the flavour which is released when moisture is added back as the tea leaves are seeped in hot water to make tea. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Tea is usually at auctions in the country of origin or at commodity markets in Europe or the United States and simple sold in deals made between producers and buyers. In the old days tea was sold in chests and buyers drilled holes in the chests to sample the quality.

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) China, 1380615 , 1275384; 2) India, 871615 , 805180; 3) Kenya, 374331 , 345800; 4) Sri Lanka, 344995 , 318700; 5) Turkey, 214386 , 198046; 6) Viet Nam, 189331 , 174900; 7) Indonesia, 163297 , 150851; 8) Japan, 104462 , 96500; 9) Argentina, 82270 , 76000; 10) Thailand, 66636 , 61557; 11) Bangladesh, 63868 , 59000; 12) Malawi, 52112 , 48140; 13) Uganda, 46340 , 42808; 14) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 45842 , 42348; 15) United Republic of Tanzania, 37671 , 34800; 16) Myanmar, 28686 , 26500; 17) Zimbabwe, 24139 , 22300; 18) Rwanda, 21612 , 19965; 19) Mozambique, 18257 , 16866; 20) Nepal, 17493 , 16160;

Good Websites and Sources: Book: “All the Tea in China” by Kit Chow and Ione Kramer; Wikipedia article on History of Tea in China Wikipedia ; Rare Teas holymtn.com ; 19th Century Tea Trade in China Harvard Business School

Traditional Chinese Tea-Growing Family

Picking Pu'er tea

Fan Zhen wrote in the China Daily: Ma's family has been growing tea for more than three generations. Because of their limited income, they haven't opted for mechanization yet and thus preserve the most traditional tea-making craft: from plucking and withering to rolling and heating, everything is done by hand. Ma lives in one of China's biggest tea-production provinces where tea is a traditional business for most households. Each year tons of tea leaves are outsourced from this small piece of land that enjoys a warm climate, abundant rainfall and a hilly landscape that provides rich yellow and red soil suitable for growing tea.[Source: Fan Zhen, China Daily, February 28, 2014]

“Sellers pay a premium for batches picked from older plants or, even better, from wild tea trees. But usually they only pay for the common batches at the end of the year. This makes life difficult for the traditional tea farmers like Ma. As the booming tobacco industry spreads to rural areas, a lot of farmers are now growing tobacco instead for higher and more immediate profits. The changes to the natural environment are obvious. The color of the soil has turned black, and discarded plastic mulch is not an uncommon sight.

“Some farmers even secretly cut down the trees on the mountains to fuel the heaters used to dry the tobacco leaves following harvest. "After a few visits, I've noticed the river in front of Ma's home has had a dramatic fall in its water level and the water is not clear anymore, " Yu says. To keep Ma's family in the tea business, Yu and Yu's cousin Xing Yiqi volunteer to help them pluck leaves every spring, promise them immediate payment and, most importantly, learn the craft from the family. "We want to send the message that their craft is not only precious as a tradition but also has high economic value on the market, " Xing says. "We sold 140 kg of tea last year and brought 30 percent of the profits back to improve their farming facilities and living conditions, " Xing says. "A virtuous circle based on trust-that's what we try to create, at least starting from this one family."

“They say they do not deny the benefits of mechanization of the tea industry, but they just want to preserve this craft for people still curious about the stories behind food and encourage the artisans to pass it down. "Traditions are never abstract. They are the daily things that we've been doing for generations. Like the root of the tree of culture, if it weakens, the tree won't be healthy enough to blossom and bear fruit. It will still survive but be just as fragile as those floating duckweeds, " says one of her customers, He Tingzhen, a guqin (Chinese zither) teacher.

“Yu's favorite tea is from a wild tea shrub opposite a waterfall more than 1,000 meters above sea level on the mountain. Every time she brews it, she recalls the eye-catching clear stream, the breeze in early spring that stirred the green tea buds and brought along the fragrance of the neighboring flowers-and how later uncle Ma happily talked about their new house while rolling the leaves like a tai chi master. "It's all in this one cup of tea."

Making Traditional Chinese Tea

“Step 1) Plucking: The leaves are harvested by hand, usually ranging between just the unopened bud to the top three leaves and the bud, depending on the kind of tea being created. [Source: Fan Zhen, China Daily, February 28, 2014]


Hani Village

“Step 2) Withering: The leaves are laid out to wilt and wither for several hours to prepare them for further processing. Tea leaves, even fresh tender ones, aren't very pliable. Without withering, they would crumble when rolled and shaped. During withering, the leaves are very gently fluffed, rotated and monitored to ensure even exposure to the air.

“Step 3) Rolling: This is where thousands of varieties in tea appearance are created, and also where the process of developing flavors is started. The softened tea leaves are rolled, pressed or twisted to break the cell walls of the leaf, wringing out the juices inside. This exposes enzymes and essential oils in the leaf to oxygen in the air — the start of oxidation.

Step 4) Oxidation: After rolling, the leaves are laid out to rest for several hours, allowing oxidation to take place. Oxidation is the process in which the oxygen in the air interacts with the now-exposed enzymes in the leaf, turning it a reddish-brown color and changing the chemical composition. This step also has the greatest impact in the creation of the many wonderful and complex flavors in tea. The length of this process depends on the style of tea being produced and the ambient conditions at the time.

“Step 5) Firing: The final step in the production process is to "fire" or heat the leaves quickly to dry them to below 3 percent moisture content and stop the oxidation process. A good, even drying with very low residual moisture also ensures the tea will keep well.

Pu'er Tea

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."

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.” Accounts of the health benefits and medical use of Pu'er tea have been documented in various ancient scripts and famous books throughout Chinese history. This tea is strongly believed to have wide ranging health benefits including diabetic control, prevention of heart disease, aiding digestion and losing weight. Pu'er tea has been popular in China for over 1,700 years. For centuries it was given as a tribute to the Emperor and high ranking officials within the imperial courts of China and the frequency of the tributes gave it the title "Tribute Tea". Tea is one of three most popular drinks in the world, along with coffee and cocoa. And Pu'er tea has of course been considered the king of teas. [Source: China Daily, June 11, 2009]

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.

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.

Rise of Pu'er Market in China

From 1999 to 2007, the price of Pu’er, increasedtenfold, to a high of $150 a pound for the finest aged Pu’er. Pu’er became the darling of the sipping classes in recent years as this nation’s nouveaux riches embraced a distinctly Chinese way to display their wealth, and invest their savings. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 16, 2008]

Fermented tea was hardly the only caffeinated investment frenzy that swept China during its boom years. The urban middle class speculated mainly in stock and real estate, pushing prices to stratospheric levels before exports slumped, growth slowed and hundreds of billions of dollars in paper profits disappeared over the past year.

In the mountainous Pu’er belt of Yunnan, a cabal of manipulative buyers cornered the tea market and drove prices to record levels. Many investors were led to believe that Pu’er prices could only go up.

Farmers bought minivans, manufacturers became millionairesand Chinese citizens plowed their aavings into black bricks of compacted Pu’er. The saying around here was “It’s better to save Pu’er than to save money,” said Wang Ruoyu, a longtime dealer in Xishuangbanna, the lush, tea-growing region of Yunnan Province that abuts the Burmese border. Everyone thought they were going to get rich.

Many had never experienced the kind of prosperity common in China’s cities. Villagers built two-story brick homes, equipped them with televisions and refrigerators and sent their children to schools in the district capital. Flush with cash, scores of elderly residents made their first trips to Beijing. Everyone was wearing designer labels, said Zhelu, 22, a farmer who is a member of the region’s Hani minority and uses only one name. A lot of people bought cars, but now we can’t afford gas so we just park them.

Collapse of the Pu'er Market in China

Then suddenly the prices of Pu’er fell to far below its preboom levels. The collapse of the tea market turned thousands of farmers and dealers into paupers and provided the nation with a very pungent lesson about gullibility, greed and the perils of the speculative bubble. Most of us are ruined, said Fu Wei, 43, one of the few tea traders tosurvive the implosion of the Pu’er market. A lot of people behaved like idiots. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 16, 2008]

The rise and fall of Pu’er partly reflects the lack of investment opportunities and government oversight in rural Yunnan, as well as the abundance of cash among connoisseurs in the big cities. Wu Xiduan, secretary general of the China Tea Marketing Association, said many naïve investors had been taken in by the frenzied atmosphere, largely whipped up by out-of-town wholesalers who promoted Pu’er as drinkable gold and then bought up as much as they could, sometimes paying up to 30 percent more than in the previous year.

He said that as farmers planted more tea, production doubled from 2006 to 2007, to 100,000 tons. In the final free-for-all months, some producers shipped their tea to Yunnan from other provinces, labeled it Pu’er, and then enjoyed huge markups. But with no empirical way to establish a tea’s provenance, many buyers were easily duped.

When values hit absurd levels the buyers unloaded their stocks and disappeared. The market was sensationalized on purpose, Wu said, and when the buyers unloaded their stocks the market was saturated to an extreme level and prices crashed.

Consequences of the Collapse of the Pu'er Market

For tens of thousands of wholesalers, farmers and other Chinese citizens who poured their money into compressed disks of tea leaves, the crash of the Pu’er market has been nothing short of disastrous. At least a third of the 3,000 tea manufacturers and merchants have called it quits in recent months. Farmers have begun replacing newly planted tea trees with more nourishing — and now, more lucrative — staples like corn and rice. Here in Menghai, the newly opened six-story emporium built to house hundreds of buyers and bundlers is a very lonely place. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 16, 2008]

Very few of us survived, said Fu, 43, among the few tea traders brave enough to open a business in the complex, which is nearly empty. He sat in the concrete hull of his shop, which he cannot afford to complete, and cobwebs covered his shelf of treasured Pu’er cakes. All around him, sitting on unsold sacks of tea, were idled farmers and merchants who bided their time playing cards, chain smoking and, of course, drinking endless cups of tea.

Dozens of vibrantly dressed women from Xinlu sat on the side of the highway hawking their excess tea. There were few takers. The going rate, about $3 a pound for medium-grade Pu’er, was less than a tenth of the peak price. The women said that during the boom years, tea traders from Guangdong Province would come to their village and buy up everyone’s harvest. But last year, they simply stopped showing up.

Back at Menghai’s forlorn tea city, Chen Li was surrounded by what he said was $580,000 worth of product he bought before the crash. As he served an amber-hued seven-year-old variety, he described the manic days before Pu’er went bust. Out-of-towners packed hotels and restaurants. Local banks, besieged by customers, were forced to halve the maximum withdrawal limit.

People had to stand in line for four or five hours to get the money from the bank, and you could often see people quarreling, he said. Even pedicab drivers were carrying tea samples and looking for clients on the street.

A trader who jumped into the business three years ago, Chen survives by offsetting his losses with profits from a restaurant his family owns in Alabama. He also happens to be one of the few optimists in town. Now that so many farmers have stopped picking tea, he is confident that prices will eventually rebound. As for the mounds of unsold tea that nearly enveloped him, the best thing about Pu’er, he said with a showman’s smile, is that the longer you keep it, the more valuable it gets.

Image Sources: University of Washington, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Beifan.com; All Posters com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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