Introduction

From: Puer Tea

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5 Introduction Tea has been familiar to me since my childhood in Kunming, Yunnan, in southwest China. At my family’s house there was always a tea jar. We drank tea often, though not necessarily every day or with every meal. Tea more than two years old or so had to be thrown away. As a child, I was taught to make tea whenever a guest came to visit. I would simply put some loose tea leaves in a glass and pour in hot water. The resulting brew would be a yellow-green color, and everybody recognized this as Yunnan’s green tea. Once the guest had drunk some of the tea in the glass, my parents would tell me to add more water so that the brewed tea would not become too strong, as the tea leaves were still infusing. The guest might not be thirsty, but he would take frequent sips nonetheless. My parents and the guest would talk about something apart from tea. In these conversations, tea was both important and unimportant. Like many people at that time, my parents and I were unconcerned about the difference between Yunnan’s Puer tea and green tea. My understanding was that green tea was the loose tea stored in a jar that we served to guests, while Puer tea (also spelled Pu’er or Pu-erh, and pronounced in two syllables) was compressed, usually into a bowl shape (tuo cha). The latter was more often given as a gift to friends outside Yunnan than consumed at home. I once found some leftover Puer tea in a cabinet. Each cake was shaped like a small bowl, half the size of a ping-pong ball. Out of curiosity, I took a cake and infused it. The color of the brew was similar to that of Yunnan’s green tea. But the compressed small bowl unexpectedly swelled up in the hot water to more than five times its original size. The brew was so strong that I decided I didn’t like it. I didn’t try Puer tea again until 2002, when I joined a film crew that was making a documentary about people involved in tea production in Simao and Xishuangbanna, two of the tea production areas in Yunnan (map I.1). The film director from Beijing continuously drank Puer tea that he had bought in Yunnan. The dry compressed tea and the brew he made were 6  x  Introduction both dark red. I asked for a taste. It was quite smooth, but it had an earthy smell. Another member of the crew, who was also from Yunnan, said it was moldy. Its color, smell, and taste were all new to me. The director said he drank the tea to control his high blood pressure. We later visited Yiwu, a township in Xishuangbanna known for its Puer tea (maps I.1–​ 2). There, local people showed us how to produce compressed cakes of the tea. This tea, in contrast to that which the director drank, had a “sunny” smell, and its yellow-green color resembled that of Yunnan’s green tea. Back in Kunming, the capital city, I soon heard more about Puer tea. Compressed into the form of a cake (bing cha or yuan cha), bowl (tuo cha), or brick (zhuan cha), it was selling exceptionally well at the time (figs. I.1–​2). I learned that there were two kinds of Puer tea: the green kind was raw tea (sheng cha) and the dark kind was artificially fermented tea (shu cha) (figs. I.3–​4). In addition, I was shown a third kind that was said to have been aged for over five years, sometimes for as long as several decades. This aged tea was developed from the first two kinds and was much more expensive. A popular saying was applied to Puer tea: “The longer it’s stored, the better it tastes” (Yue chen yue xiang). In other words, “The older the better.” The most precious Puer tea, I was told, was that from Yunnan, which is now collected by connoisseurs in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Puer tea made from older tea plants was also valued more highly, although this information was less accessible to ordinary consumers. Connoisseurs differentiate between forest tea (da shu cha) and terrace tea (tai di cha or xiao shu cha).1 Forest tea is tea produced from tall tea trees—​ often over one hundred years old—​ sheltered by the forest canopy, initially...


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