History of Puer Tea
The most famous tea from Yunnan is Puer. Yunnan also produces green tea, jasmine tea, and black tea. Yunnan province is in south west China and the origin of tea can be traced there. There are a number of trees in Yunnan that can be dated back more that 2000 years. The rain forests of Yunnan are rich in diversity, a majority of the flowers that we grow in the US can be traced back to Yunnan.
The Origin of the Name Puer
Yunnan began to process tea in the Three Kingdoms period (220-360). Allegedly, at this time Zhu Ge Liang from Sichuan, a clever tactician, encouraged the Yunnan people to cultivate tea to improve their lives. Still, Yunnan people call Zhu Ge Liang their tea god. He is still prayed to in the south of Yunnan where he conquered more that 2000 years ago. This is the area of Xichuanbanna and the six famous mountains. At the heart of Yunnan’s south west is the city of Puer, the base of the province’s ancient tea market, and from where “puer tea” derives its name. (The city Simao in 2007 changed its name to Puer, and should not be confused with the ancient city). From Puer city, tea was distributed to Tibet, and South East Asia on “tea horse trading roads.” The rough terrain of Yunnan demanded efficiently packed tea, so compressed cakes of tea were wrapped and tied into stacks of seven and enclosed into a bamboo shell. For this reason, certain puer cakes are commonly labelled “Qi Zi Bing” or literally Seven Piece Cake. Carrying tea though the humid rain forest over the long, hard trading routes may have encouraged natural fermentation.
People collect puer tea for three main reasons, which include enjoyment of the tea, overall health benefits and the investment potential. It became popular outside of the traditional markets of Tibet and Mongolia, where for many years it was exchanged for horses, when it became sought after in Hong Kong for its health benefits, and for its mysterious quality of slow, natural fermentation, that causes it to improve with age. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of the old cakes were destroyed increasing the rareness of aged puer. In 1973, a process was invented to create fermented puer in about 60 days.
Camellia Sinensis Assamica and Puer Tea
Now the popularity of puer has spread from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, to Taiwan, Beijing, Shanghai and South East Asia. The popularity of puer has even started to spread to the US and Europe. All puer tea starts out the same. The basic ingredient is called mao cha. Mao cha is harvested and allowed to dry in the sun. Yunnan is the only tea growing province in China that has a lot of high altitude sunshine and blue skies. One of the side affects of all this sunshine is some very large leaf tea plants.
All tea originated in Yunnan, but you might be surprised to know that the tea plants are called Camellia Sinensis Assamica. The reason is that when the British found the variety of tea growing in India they named it Assamica and believed that it was wild, but it had actually been planted along the old Silk Road that ran from Yunnan and Burma into Assam. Even though the origin issue has been cleared up, the ancient tea trees in Yunnan have kept the inaccurate name.
The Myth of the Wild Tea Trees
A lot of puer produced is said to be made from wild tea trees, but this is not the case. Wild tea trees are known to make people pretty sick sometimes, and what is called “wild” by puer makers is in fact old tea trees that have been cultivated, and are usually over a hundred years old. The age of the tree can be determined by measuring the trunk. Trees have very often been cut back drastically to increase yield, and more bushes are being planted at break neck speed. Planting tea is helpful to the the environment in Yunnan that has suffered from the burning of forests to plant sugar cane. Sugar, though a profitable short term crop, quickly depletes the mountain soil and erosion can quickly wear away the topsoil from whole mountain sides.