Pu’er: Myth of Origin & Reality of Blending

yumcha_outdoor1950

Open air yumcha “daipaidong” in the 1950’s. Such eateries played major role in the social fabric for the lower class in those days. Since a majority were refugees running away from communist rule, most people at that time were not rich. Notice the very dark colour tea in their tea cups.

Differentiating facts from myths

The pu’er that I have grown up with in Hong Kong has never been a production purely from Yunnan, regardless of all the fabricated history about the tea that you may have read elsewhere.

“It is a fact that the craft of post-fermentation originated in Hong Kong…” expressed Zou Jia Ju, Chairman of the Yunnan Tea Association, in a conference on the Yunnan origin designation. That was because Hong Kong was the single key market for pu’er tea in the very beginning, and from there spreading to the rest of the world. It was the only market, and then the re-export center.

That is why people with some age and who grew up drinking the tea have an understanding of it very different from what recent marketing has been propagating. Even today, when Yunnan is fully capable of selling the tea to whoever they want on this planet, over 80% of pu’er produced in this gigantic southwestern province is sold to the other side of China in Guangdong, the province immediately north of Hong Kong (1).

Since the beginning, Guangdong has always been the support centre for pu’er supply to Hong Kong. The raw materials has logically been fetched from the vicinity. When Zou Bing Liang, the grand-daddy of modern pu’er began studying the post-fermentation process, he came to Guangdong and Hong Kong to do so.

How real is the claim of the origin?

“Starting from the 1950’s, Mainland China had practiced ‘planned economy’. Since there was no instruction for Yunnan to produce pu’er tea for export, and more because people in Yunnan did not drink this tea, so there was no production for this commodity. It was the Guangdong Tea Import and Export Company (a national institution in Guangdong province at that time) that organized the piled-fermentation technique to produce the tea to sell to Hong Kong. The raw materials came partly from Yunnan, where they were instructed to sell a portion of their sun-wilted raw tealeaves to Guangdong. Other sources came from Guangdong locally, and also from Vietnam. Since then, Guangxi, Hunan, Sichuan followed to use ‘small-leaf types’ for the pile-fermentation process to produce for export.”
— Yang Wei Ren, Rediscovering the Origin of the “Maturation Craft” of Yunnan Puer Tea, Kunming Tea Culture Development Council, downloaded May 12, 2009 ( translation by Tea Guardian )

Master Zou Bing Liang inspecting two batches of maocha for blend

Master Zou Bing Liang inspecting two batches of maocha for blending to make shengcha pu’er tea cha bing

There has never been a pu’er drinking culture in Yunnan

Yunnan is planted more with other commodities than tea trees. As a matter of fact, for every acre of tea, there are more than 8 acres of tobacco (2), amongst other major commodities such as grains, sugarcanes, rubber and coffee. Contrast this with the situation in Fujian — another major tea production province, where fruit is a major commodity — for every 3 acres of any fruit, there is 1 acre of tea! (3)

There has never been a strong local pu’er drinking culture to give soul to its production in Yunnan. Tea has always been a thing for trading rather than part of life, unlike the neighbouring Sichuan, or far out east in Guangdong, Fujian or Zhejiang. In Yunnan, tea used to be those dark compressed tablets to trade with the other ethnic groups or foreigners in the old days, or black tea for export during the Second World War. (4) It is only in very recent years that one sees the popularity of pu’er tea surpassed that of green tea. That is because of the surge of new pu’er tea companies and then slowing down of national pu’er sales, they have infiltrated almost everywhere in the province to push for local business.

Tealeaves are collected outside of Yunnan

Although the wakening of the tea industry in Yunnan to the price potential of pu’er tea has attracted a lot more people to produce the raw materials for the last two decades and some, during the height of price speculation between 2005 to 2008, leaf collection agents were active in provinces as far east as Fujian, and as south as Laos and Vietnam. Obviously local production was not catching up with what seemed to be an ever expanding demand to make more compressed tea to wholesale to the tens of thousands of teashops old and new to stock up to the ceiling with them. In turn, they need to feed even more individual “collectors” believing in the myth that these cha bings ( tea “cakes”, so to speak ) would always appreciate in value.

Trans-region raw material collection activities made a great impact on other teas, throwing off the margins for some of the pre-orders and forcing up market price. The regions most affected by this have been Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Fujian.

That is also why pu’ers produced between this period are to be more doubted with claims of pure origin, although whether the pu’er “cake” in your storage will appreciate in value depends on a lot more other things than this.

footnotes
1. Liu Min (reporter), A Future Quality Standard for Puer Tea, Sina Finance 2006-03-01
2. Perhaps due to the sensitivity of the issue under strong anti-smoking sentiments, the latest figure searchable for tobacco in Yunnan is 42 million acres in 1997. While in 2009, when Chinese officers announced that tea production had recovered, the area for tea was 5.2 million acres. Tea data obtained from Yunnan Tea Trade Association, writer Ding Qiang. Tobacco figure from the Agricultural Department, PRC.
3. Fujian is a much smaller province than Yunnan and the most important “garden” crop (i.e. agricultural products from the slopes) is fruit, so it is used to compare with tea rather than tobacco, which is much smaller in the province. Data obtained from the Ministry of Land and Resources of the People’s Republic of China: Land Use General Planning for Fujian Province (1997~2010). Both Fujian and Yunnan are considered major tea provinces.
4. Read more about the origin of dark tea in this chapter: Dark Tea: Origin; more about the history of black tea in Yunnan in this chapter: Black Tea: Dianhong
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