Tempest over tea: What is the true Puer?

Seven Cups is gearing up for another trip to Yunnan. The article “Tempest over tea: What is the true Puer?” from the China Daily seems especially relevant. It talks about the first fallout from China’s new tea export laws.  We’re sure this is the beginning of many controversies to come since China is trying to reverse the culture of deception that characterizes the international tea industry. These are same changes in Chinese law mentioned in the Seven Cups Tea Blog in the form of a press release earlier in 2009, China Beefs Up Its Export Law (blog post no longer exists). It’s interesting that the laws are mentioned in passing but not the focus of the article, and it’s a mystery to me why the Chinese government has been quiet about these laws. The only reason we know about it is because we have a Chinese export license and were informed about the law change in the spring of last year.

What export laws?  Didn’t hear about the toughened Chinese tea exporting laws? Yeah, well, they haven’t been reported in the press, even in China.  The story was refused by the ‘World Tea News’, the marketing newsletter of the trade show, The World Tea Expo.  The law change was mentioned by the Tea News website in the UK. Puer gold for makers of Posh’s weight-loss tea as China outlaws copycats. However they did not report the sweeping changes to the Chinese law, where authenticity of origin of the tea is only a small part.

The issues being referred to in this story come from a fifty year old practice of selling ‘puer’ to older Chinese citizens in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, that was not in fact authentic puer tea.  It is generally believed that puer is good for your health, especially for the elderly.  This tea that comes from ancient trees and bushes in the tropical microbe-rich rain forest of Yunnan does acquire special qualities in aging as a result of the action of the microbes on the tea over many years.  The varietal that authentic puer comes from does not exist in Guangdong where the climate and soil conditions are very different.  The Guangdong Tea Procession Association is basing their claim to the name ‘puer’ because of their more than fifty year old practice of making fake puer, but this is viewed as ironic by many people that know puer tea well.

Don’t be surprised if the international tea community sides with Guangdong.  The international community would love to be able to call teas produced in Africa and South America (the source of 65% percent of the tea imported into Europe and South America) the same Chinese names that have become so famous.  There are few in the international tea business that like to see China setting the standards of the many different varieties of tea that it produces, because the demand is growing by leaps and bounds, while commercial tea is struggling to stay alive.  The famous Chinese varietals can not be successfully grown outside of China, evidenced by the English who tried and failed in the 1840’s in India.

China’s new laws require all tea to be identified at its source, tested for contaminates and checked for quality using objective standards established by the Chinese, in addition to demanding qualifying producers to closely document their farming and production processes (including providing soil and water samples). We can only hope that other countries will follow.

It might take a while though, because exporting these laws that open the door to a transparent supply chain are apparently unknown to consumers and the tea companies that supply them, not to mention the press that reports on industry issues.


*Please note that the featured image seen here on the Seven Cups website is from the China Daily website for the article “Tempest over tea: What is the true Puer?”