Pu’erh is an unusual and highly unique tea. It is a tea genre accompanied by both a long rich history as tribute tea and also closely associated with the wild and dynamic nature of modern China. Pu’erh cha is frequently marketed as “traditional” and often accompanied with marketing buzzwords like “Ancient”, “Wild” and claims (many ridiculous and unverifiable) of very old trees. These days, there’s a ton of pu’erh being produced and sold by a number of different producers and vendors, operations ranging from the very large to the very small. Things weren’t always this way. This article will examine some of the trends and changes within the pu’erh industry post-PRC.
|Old School Pu’erh
|Red Mark Zhong Cha
|New School Pu’erh
|Big & Small Productions
|2007 Lao Banzhang from 400 Year Old Trees. Dry-Stored.
Old School Pu’erh: Big Operations
Before the formation of the PRC, there were a number of pu’erh producers. Many of the most famous operations were centered around Yiwu and the six famous tea mountains. Some of the most famous operations were Songpin Hao, Tongqing Hao, FuYuan Chang, etc. During and after WWII, the Chinese pu’erh industry was consolidated into larger organizations. The organizational shift put more of a focus around Menghai County and away from Mengla County (the greater Yiwu region). This fluctuated a bit over the years, but the major factories were all large operations (Kunming Tea Factory, Menghai Tea Factory, Xiaguan, etc.). Depending on the exact period, quantity was a major emphasis, making the harvesting of older or wild trees oftentimes impractical. Teas were usually blended and were seldom marketed as being from a single region, let alone a single village or tree. The previously hot areas of production (Yiwu) either didn’t cultivate tea or simply sold their raw materials (maocha) to the major factories for further processing and pressing.
Note: Many of these famous pre-PRC pu’erh producers (Fu Yuan Chang, Songpin Hao, etc.) have had their brands recreated as modern new school pu’erh operations.
About Traditional Storage
Despite being produced in Yunnan, old school pu’erh was rarely stored or consumed in Yunnan. In the old school world of pu’erh, most storage and consumption of pu’erh was done in Southeast Asia, with Hong Kong acting as the pu’erh storage, distribution and consumption hub. Tea was usually sold by the jian (42 cakes), directly to large vendor operations. During this period, there was no concept of hobbyists buying cakes straight from the factory or aging their own tea.
Storage during this time was almost entirely what is known as traditional storage (covered in depth here). This is one of the most misunderstood ideas in the tea community and is often demeaned as simply “wet storage”. Traditional storage involves packing a ton of tea into a ground floor unit. This unit will usually be quite wet and damp, usually more humid than the outside environment. Tea is moved around and rotated so each tea is exposed to slightly different humidties and temperatures over its tenure in the ground floor unit. Tthis type of storage only takes place for a relatively short amount of time (1-2 years). The pu’erh is then moved to much drier storage for several more years.
Note #1: Traditional Storage is different from Hong Kong home storage!!!
Note #2: Essentially all of the famous examples of aged/benchmark tea before the famously dry-stored 88 Qing Beeng underwent some form of traditional storage (Red Label, Blue Label, Yellow Label, etc.). There are very few verifiable examples of dry or home storage from this period.
Note #3: Iron cakes, highly compressed beengs, were created partially to endure and reduce aging during this process.
The 88 Qing Beeng: Dry Storage
The 88 Qing Beeng is several famous batches of Menghai Tea Factory’s 7542 (from 1988-1992) stored by Best Tea House proprietor, Vesper Chan. The cakes were stored on the 10th floor of a high-rise building in Hong Kong with very little human intervention (source). These cakes would go onto fame in the early 2000s. Their drier storage resulted in a slower, more complex aging. More can be read about these cakes and their rise in fame (and price) in the past 15 years. It’s also worth noting that Chan was not the only advocate of dry stored pu’erh, although certainly one of the largest, most visible examples.
Note: The rise of dry and home storage is also sometimes attributed to the internet age and the rapid spread of information.
Hobbyists and Home Storage
The 88 Qing Beeng had perhaps its most significant impact, by encouraging alternatives to traditional storage techniques. The first was the storage practiced by Chan, usually referred to as dry storage. It’s important to note that Chan’s original dry storage still took place in the hot and humid Hong Kong and not the cold and dry climates of North America and Europe. The Qing Beeng and dry storage also helped to support and popularize the idea that individuals could store and age cakes in their own homes (traditional storage is not viable for most home setups). With increased interest in both pu’erh and the possibilities of home storage the market began to open up with increasing sales of tongs and individual cakes.
Note #1: The advent of home storage allows for an infinitely wide variety of different home storages. Results also vary significantly!
Note #2: Western-facing vendors often create loosely compressed cakes to allow for easier aging in these cool and dry environments. A reverse of the take on iron beengs and more humid storage.
The Opening Up of China & Single Origin Tea
It’s important to note that nearly all of the famous aged teas between the 1950s-1990s, Red Label, Blue Label, 88 Qing Beeng (7542) were all blends (think about that before writing off blends completely!). The Qing Beeng was even a Menghai plantation blend (tai di cha)! If all the famous teas were blends from the biggest factories, how did all this xx village and yy village from 3,000 year old teas that dominate today’s vendor speak begin?
- Competitive market. More vendors/pu’erh producers. As China began to privatize and reduce restrictions on the tea industry, both small and large pu’erh producers started to popup. Many of these had previously been a part of one of the larger factories. Haiwan, Mengyang Guoyan and Six Famous Tea Mountains were all founded by ex-Dayi employees.
- The marketing of smaller vendors. A vendor like Dayi has no issue getting mao cha from all around Yunnan to blend. This is far more difficult for smaller businesses, and resulted in strong marketing pushes for specific areas and regions.
- A demand for specific regions. In Zhang Jinghong’s Puer Tea Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic she refers to a group of “Taiwanese madmen” who came to Yiwu in the early-mid 1990s, shortly after the reopening of China to acquire tea. The Taiwanese were driven by their desire to find aged tea similar to the famous Songpin Hao and Tongqin Hao cakes (pre-PRC Yiwu blends). To their dismay they found that tea production had nearly completely stopped. Still, this group helped to re-develop the infrastructure for small operations to restart tea production within Yiwu (now a very hot region).
- Quality takes a greater emphasis. Quantity often took the frontseat before the 1990s. However in the 1990s and 2000s, with a growing Chinese middle and upper-class and direct access to the more affluent tea communities in Southeast Asia, the market for premium young tea has dramatically increased. Charging larger amounts for young tea significantly diversifies and expands the market for premium pu’erh, otherwise a finite amount of aged pu’erh.