Strange Brew:The Story of Puer Tea 普洱茶

23 02 2010

Wild Tea Tree

by Jason C.S. Chen with Pierce Watters
©2010 Jason C.S. Chen

A young man learns from an honored master. An old tea gains the respect of the young.

In 1980, at the age of 25, I tasted Puer[1] tea for the first time. I was studying Art Restoration in Taiwan. My teacher owned an Asian gallery in the city of Tainan. My teacher was a devotee of fine and rare teas. Puer was just becoming popular among a small group of people, the artists of Taiwan. It was there on that beautiful island, and then, that I tasted this strange brew for the first time. I must admit I was impressed that my teacher would give me a cup of such a rare tea.

I was learning how to restore fine Chinese paintings and my Master, an expert in art and tea chose to serve this to me. I was intrigued. Puer tasted like no other tea. I began asking many questions of my teacher and his tea-loving friends. My first discovery was that this unusual tea had its own name. I knew green and black and, of course, oolong. But this tea was in a class of its own. It was Puer. Next, I learned that it was old tea! Most tea is prized for its freshness, but not Puer. It was valued for its age. My third discovery was that this tea was not grown in Taiwan, where most of our fine teas were produced in those days. It came from far away, from China in Yunnan province.

Wild Tea

Historical records show that tea was grown by the ethnic Pu people as early as the Shang and Zhou dynasties.[2] However, Puer first became widely known during the Qing Dynasty[3] in the Imperial Court in Northern China, because of its many health benefits.[4] It was also popularized then in Tibet and Mongolia. One thing all three peoples had in common, they ate a lot of meat. They ate almost nothing but meat. Puer was needed to soothe their aching stomachs.

Puer can be aged as are fine wines.  Like the antiques I was learning to restore, this tea becomes more valuable as it grows older. My teacher’s reverence for beautiful art was mirrored by an appreciation for fine tea. As I learned art restoration at my Master’s side, I also learned to appreciate the extraordinary qualities of Puer tea.

In 1980, China and Taiwan had very distinctive identities. There was not much communication between the two lands. Puer, especially aged Puer, was most difficult to find. It could not ship directly to Taiwan, but, rather, had to go roundabout by way of Hong Kong. Rarity made it even more sought-after.

Puer is grown in far south China where tea originated, in Yunnan province. The tea takes its final form in this same area in the city of Puer. The city of Puer is close to Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. All of these countries share borders with Yunnan province.

Ancient Horse and Donkey Road (Tea Horse Road)

The history of the development of the tea plant began in south Yunnan. From there, in the long ago, tea migrated to southeast China, Fujian province and Taiwan, where it eventually became oolong; then to the eastern part of the Yangtse river where it emerged as the finest green tea, and on to India, where black tea was born[5]. Wild tea plants grow in abundance in Yunnan province. Many existing plants, believed to be over 1,000 years old, are still healthy, and produce a very drinkable tea[6].

This ancient, large-leafed tea plant differs from the small, manicured plants which provide most of the world’s tea.[7] These wild plants, trees really, also provide the seeds from which green tea seed oil is derived. Green tea seed oil is a most remarkable, health-giving, and useful vegetable oil. But, that is another story. Tea plants are comparable to grapes: growers choose the right variety for the right tea. The large tea leaves have always been considered best for Puer.

The area of southern Yunnan has high mountains, 2,000-3,000 meters. The average elevation is 1,000—2,000 meters.  The soil is rich and the weather is warm, the perfect climate for very healthy tea plants. Like the tea that grows there, Yunnan[8] province is a most remarkable place.

Four rivers begin in central Yunnan and flow outward. Flowing North is the Pudujian which flows into the Yangtse river; East, Nanpanjian which flows into the Pacific Ocean at Hong Kong; South, Lanquanjian flows into Vietnam and becomes the Mekong river; and West, Nujian which flows into Myanmar (Burma) and becomes the Saarwunjian.  Many climates exist in the numerous elevations. The land flows from mountain to valley to mountain to valley. Almost anything can be grown somewhere in this wonderful province. It is thought that James Hilton’s Shangri-la was really in Yunnan.

Ancient Horse and Donkey Road

Yunnan is also called the land of four springs, meaning all of the seasons seem like springtime. The main city in Yunnan is Kunming which means Spring City. The old name for the province is Tian, the name of one of the famous lakes, and also means heaven[9]. An old Tea Master once whispered that the Garden of Eden, from the Christian Bible, was really in Yunnan.

Pu-erh had a special beginning. Originally, Puer was not sold in cake form[10]. A few hundred years ago, during the Qing Dynasty, when the tea began to be sent to Tibet and to Beijing[11], it had to be transported a long distance over many high mountains. Then the cake style came into being. The tea was pressed into a hard cake to make transportation easy.

The distance between Puer, Yunnan province, and North China and Tibet is great. This ancient route has a special name. It is called “The Old Tea and Horse Way” the ancient road for tea and horses. This is perhaps the second most famous mercantile route in China after the great Silk Road. The Old Tea and Horse Way is actually six roads.

Ancient Horse and Donkey Road

Journeying from Puer to Tibet along this road often took one to two years. The tea cakes were strapped to the backs of horses and donkeys and carried all the long distance to Tibet and to Beijing. Through spring and summer and autumn, through weather that was sometimes dry and sometimes wet, the pressed tea of Puer made its way north along the Old Tea and Horse Way.

Upon arrival in North China, and in Tibet, the owners of the tea would taste it before selling the tea. They began to notice that the tea now tasted much better than it did when it began its journey. After some study, the tea owners decided that perhaps, a sort of magic had occurred during the transportation.

The tea merchants began experimenting, looking for some way to produce this fine-flavored tea without having to strap it to a horse’s rear end for one or two years. Eventually there developed, in Yunnan Province, a special room for processing the Puer tea.

Dry air, then wet air, was used trying to duplicate the conditions under which the tea had been created. The results were very similar. Both produced better tasting tea. Next it was discovered that the longer the tea aged the better it tasted, and so the older a cake of Puer was, the more valuable it became.

In Yunnan, especially in Pu-erh, there grows a special type of spore that enhances the flavor of the tea. The processors of Pu-erh tea developed this to give Puer a very special taste. Attempts were made to recreate this process in other provinces without success.

In the mid-1970’s aged Puer became very popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Tea connoisseurs began to act a bit crazy about acquiring aged Pu-erh, especially the 30 and 40 year old variety.

Aged Puer is like aged wine. Different years have different flavors. The color after brewing is also important and distinctive. Different types of Puer produce gorgeous dark gold to deep brown colored brews. The flavor of Puer is incredible. It is unique. After one tastes a special Puer the flavor lingers on the tongue like a fine wine. It makes the brain very calm and the stomach smooth.

Ancient Horse and Donkey Road Map

The best Puer has two styles. One is green style, one is black style. Each group is separated into two subdivisions: dry and wet. Dry is pressed in a dehumidified area and wet is pressed in the presence of high humidity. Thus we have four different basic teas. Green takes a longer time to process than black style, longer to develop good flavor after fermentation. Dry takes longer to process than wet. Some manufacturers in Yunnan use a wet room to develop the tea.

Wet may be processed that way, alone, for one year. This can result in a Puer with the musty taste of mildew. More careful processing of the wet tea, starting with wet and moving to dry over a one year period produces a more balanced flavor. However, the most appreciated, the most valued, is Puer that has been processed dry, alone, for at least three years. This is the best. Even longer is better.

Aged Puer has become so popular that most Pu-erh now easily available is young. Fortunately, for Puer fans, the wet process produces a very drinkable black, young Puer tea.

If the original Puer material is good enough, the tea is delicious. Puer processing causes magic to happen. Average tea becomes good, good tea becomes great! After 10 or 15 years, the result is indescribable.

In Hong Kong and Taiwan, many people store Pu-erh to increase the flavor and the value. Some tea companies store Puer to ensure a high profit for the future. Puer is the only tea that becomes more valuable with age.

Puer may be found in  many different shapes. Loose tea, brick, mushroom shaped, round style cake, bamboo (filled with Puer). The best fresh leaf will usually go into loose and mushroom, second level will tend to be made into cake or into bamboo style. Although there are so many different shapes, after 10 or 20 years almost all of the tea becomes good. Like a student who studies for 10 or 20 years they become smarter. Pu-erh is very human-like, it becomes “smarter” with age.

The eventual quality is still determined by the raw ingredients. What is good? What is not good? Just like other teas, the bud is best. One bud one leaf is the very best; two, three, or four leaves is second quality; no buds, only leaves is third quality; mostly stem and broken leaf fourth quality. If the Puer has whites buds and whole leaves then the quality is good. In a new Puer,  the buds will appear more white An aged Puer has buds that are becoming a light brown.

One way of judging the quality of Puer is in the classification of flavors. These are:

Orchid, Lily, Camphor Wood, and Palm. These descriptive words are meant to be evocative of the flavors so named. A highly prized and rare Orchid Puer will remind the drinker of the scent of a beautiful orchid. Each flavor is beloved by the Puer connoisseur.

You may also judge a Puer by its color. If, after brewing, it is a beautiful gold or a dark red, you probably have a good Puer. However, if the color of your tea is black or muddy-black, you do not have a good Puer.

Finally, and most important, you judge Puer by the taste. A good Puer tea is smooth on the palate. It will be sweet and it lovingly coats the tongue. The taste will be lingering and your mouth will be sad when it says goodbye. A good Puer may be brewed as many as seven times and still remain sweet, although the color will lighten with each steeping.

A bad Puer, on the other hand will be overly astringent. It’s musty flavor will make your tongue uncomfortable and your mouth unhappy. It will kill your appetite.

Puer is very good with meat. It is an effective digestive aid. Try Puer after a fine meal. This is a wonderful tea to serve at a barbecue. Puer also is a great addition to the fire when smoking meat or fish. For weight loss, Puer is always the first choice.

Puer is good with cream and sugar and makes an excellent breakfast tea when served this way. It is also sometimes flavored with chrysanthemum flowers.

When brewing Puer tea, you may use a Yixing clay pot which is good for holding the high temperature. Boiling water is very important. Aged Puer needs a high temperature to wake up the tea. Puer may also be brewed with a traditional Gaiwan, or any good tea pot. It is excellent when brewed in the Gongfu (Kungfu) style. For this method you must train with your local Tea Master. If no local Tea Master is available, or time is short, you may use the TeaMaster™ tea brewer which closely simulates the Gongfu method.

In a regular tea pot, use one gram of Puer for every 30 cc’s of water (please use good water), and brew for 3-5 minutes. If the Puer is aged, brew a little longer, if it is young, be kind and brew a little bit shorter. If the Puer is the green style, brew this at 200oF. Brew black Puer at 210oF. If the Puer is aged, rinse with boiling water to just cover the leaves, then discard the water. Now proceed with your brewing.

The true origins of tea are lost in the legends of time. One thousand years ago, the great sage Luyu described and codified the brewing of camellia sinensis. Over the ensuing millennium, tea styles such as green and black and oolong were perfected. When the Jurchen (Manchu) people established the Qing Dynasty and ruled from the Northern city of Beijing, tea was shipped long distances to satisfy the rulers. Thus, a new and mysterious tea style was born. Young tea was prized but aged tea became valued. In the cosmology of the once and forever that is China, the Middle Kingdom, Yin becomes Yang and Yang becomes Yin. Both old and new deserve respect.

Today, when youth is most desired, try the old, try Puer, and balance will be achieved.

[1] Puer is a name involved in the growing and marketing of tea for so long, it fades into fable. Puer is a city, a mountain, and a tea. The name has several spelling variants including Pu-erh, Pu’er, Pu-er, Puer. The author prefers “Pu-erh.” [The editor has change this to “Puer” to aid pronunciation. “Poo-urr” not “Poo-air.”]

[2] Shang Dynasty 1766 B.C.E.—1121 B.C.E.; Zhou Dynasty 1100 B.C.E.—256 B.C.E. (Although dates vary somewhat, by source.)

[3] The Qing (Ching) Dynasty, 1644-1911C.E.,was founded by the Jerchen people of Manchuria. It was the last feudal dynasty in Chinese history. During the Qing Dynasty, some of the highest highs, and lowest lows occurred in Imperial Chinese history.

[4] Along with the many health benefits derived from drinking any tea, Puer is also valued for lowering cholesterol and is popular in China as a weight-loss tea.

[5] In China black tea is usually referred to as Hong, red. This is either because of the lovely red edge that develops during processing or because of the beautiful red color of the beverage.

[6] The oldest tea tree is believed to be 3,400 years old.

[7] All tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant. The large, tree-like plants are old and wild, while the new, domesticated plants have been bred to a smaller, more manageable size.

[8] Sometimes translated as Beautiful Clouds in the South.

[9] The characters for lake and heaven are different, but are pronounced the same.

[10] In olden times throughout China, tea was pressed into cakes, but this practice ended when it was found that loose leaf tea produced better flavor.

[11] Beijing was the capital city of China during the Qing Dynasty.


Tea by any other name…a rant.

9 08 2009

[This is a cross-post from]

 Tea refers to the agricultural products of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water, and is the colloquial name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself.  After water, tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. It has a cooling, slightly bitter,  flavour. Wikipedia

(Note: the sections following referring to brewing and enjoying tea apply to Chinese tea, meaning tea grown in China or Taiwan.)

Sniffing Cups

Sniffing Cups Photo: Craig Gibson

Of late, I have had a number of discussions on tea that did not include a discourse on variety and flavor. Sooner or later, in conversation, the fact arises that I am training with a Chinese Tea Master. Someone will say, “Oh, I had a lovely rooibos tea this morning.” I no longer argue. But, folks, if the beverage is not based on the plant camellia sinensis, it is not tea!

Blame the early importers of tea. Someone asked a Chinese local, “What do you call that stuff?” The reply, “Thé.” Welcome to the slippery slope. This was a local colloquial nickname for tea. The Chinese word for tea is “Cha.” 茶 The Japanese word for tea is “Cha.” Or if it is a particularly good tea, “O Cha.” But we had to go and screw things up and call it “tea.”

What about herbal teas? No, sorry, that is not a tea. Rooibos is not a tea. There is a nice French word for almost anything brewed in hot water: “Tisane.” You had a lovely rooibos tisane this morning. “How was your chamomile tisane?”

Listen, unless camellia sinensis is present, you are not drinking tea! Interestingly, when I have the audacity to correct slurpers of various concoctions, they either grow angry or refuse to hear me. I am not speaking ill of any of the beverages, I am merely giving them their correct names.



So, as of today, I am undertaking two missions. 1. I shall do my utmost to never ever remark on the name of someone’s drink. Don’t even get me started on Martinis and the sludge that bears that once noble name. 2. I am beginning a campaign to change the English language name for the camellia sinensis plant and any beverage brewed from it to “Cha.” Now wouldn’t that be simple? We give the tree and drink its true name back, and that leaves “tea” to everyone else in the world.

When I was little and sick I was given a beef “tea.” My organic gardening guru brews up all sorts of “teas” to encourage plant growth. Yes! Take it, take the word, keep it, call cats “tea” and dogs “coffee” for all I care. Just refer to the plant and drink as “Cha.” Isn’t that a nice sounding word?

While we’re at it. I no longer want to hear about any tea, any cha that anyone drinks and considers lovely that comes from a tea bag. Or any cha that is brewed in a tea ball. God save us from all of these devilish contraptions that get in the way of drinking a good cup of tea cha.

Silver Needle Single Bud, Awakened

Silver Needle Single Bud, Awakened Photo: Craig Gibson

Briefly, the cha ball, when used with loose leaf tea, usually stops the tea leaves from properly rehydrating because they cannot expand completely as they absorb the water.  The Chinese call this initial reabsorbtion of water, “Awakening the Dragon.” What a lovely image. But, if you cruelly imprison your dragon, it will never lift its head up and spread its wings (If you are imagining a Western dragon), or stretch out its powerful limbs and give you the utmost and best cup of Cha. Instead you get a wimpy little chihuahua of a dragon and a poor cup of cha.

Now, consider the tea bag. First the bag. They range from unbleached to bleached cotton, to silk,to plastic. Plastic? And the contents–in the tea industry, the designation for the camellia sinensis that goes into tea bags is FNG. So, what does “FNG” mean? It is an abbreviation that became a sort of acronym. It is far enough removed from its source that we forget the origin. It’s kind of like not seeing the pig slaughtered. FNG is an abbreviation for “fannings.”

Hm-m-m. That’s a curious word. Why would that word be applied to tea? I’ll tell you why. Originally, the loose leaf tea, the good stuff, was fanned with a…well with a fan. And the dust that blew off, probably onto the floor, this dust was swept up and put in tea bags for the rubes. Yum!

Now, modern tea bags do not contain floor sweepings, I hope. In fact, some “premium”–I put premium in quotes because any tea bag tea being premium is doubtful, in my deranged mind–some premium tea bags contain high quality tea. During tea production a certain amount of the good stuff, the loose leaf tea, some of those leaves get too broken to sell as loose leaf and these get turned into FNG.

I occasionally drink tea bag tea. In the airport, what other choice is there? Tazo makes good tea bag tea and so does Stash. But at home? No thank you. Depending on the brand, you can wind up with more stems than leaves and no buds whatsoever. 

On the road, and I travel a lot–on the road I bring along my own loose leaf tea and some contraption or other for brewing it. I like the TeaMaster Brew-cup. It’s portable, easy to clean, has enough room for the Dragon to awaken, and makes a darned good cup of tea. That said, I use a polycarbonate cup. My family doctor, a fellow Tea-head, will only use the glass version.

West Lake Dragonwell Dry, Note: All buds

West Lake Dragonwell Dry, Note: All buds Photo: Craig Gibson

Strange interlude: And what makes a good, dare I say “great” loose leaf tea cha? 1. Lineage. What varietal did the leaves come from? In what region of China is it grown? 2. Process. Organic or “Organic Process” preferred. Good soil. Now the nitty gritty–3. Leaf style. Part of this is determined by the type of tea. Compare Mao Feng green with Dragonwell (Longjing) green. The best tea is all buds. In my opinion, the finest tea in the world is Yin Zhen Bai Hao from C.C. Fine Tea. This is usually called Silver Needle or Silver Needle white, and it is all buds. Oolong tea is traditionally one bud two leaves. Good to great tea is either all buds, one bud one leaf, one bud two leaves…and one bud three leaves is debatable. Anything past that: Phooey! 4. Freshness, includes storage methods.

So, in bagged tea you don’t know what you are getting. It may even be adulterated, cut with some kind of filler.

As to freshness, smell it. If it smells lovely and fragrant it will probably taste that way too. Which means you should purchase tea someplace that allows you to smell what you are buying. This eliminates the supermarket. I have seen tea shops that sold very nice high quality loose leaf tea, except they didn’t turn it fast enough and it became old and stale. It oxidized. It became dry and crumbly. No aroma, no Qi. 氣 Smell it. And if you buy it from a nice tea shop, you can probably buy a cup of it first and taste it.

To finish this rant, I recently heard “I drink a lot of tea every day. I can’t afford to buy good tea.” Westerners tend to brew their tea once, let the tea sit in the water forever until it is strong enough to repel sharks, and then discard the leaves. Proper Chinese brewing puts the water on the leaves for the minimum time required to extract that flavorful goodness (Awakening the Dragon can be used to get the leaves in the right mood to be drunk.). A good Chinese tea cha may be infused anywhere from 4-7 times. Notice and enjoy the differences each infusion offers. A GOOD Chinese Cha will still offer flavor even after the color of the liquor begins to fade.

My Favorite Yixing Pot

My Favorite Yixing Pot

The easiest way to brew a good cup is with a French Press. Tea Masters often use a traditional Gaiwan for themselves. The Chinese Gongfu (Kungfu) method using an unglazed clay pot (Yixing Clay only! Otherwise beware of possible lead contamination in the clay.) may ultimately be the most satisfying. I have a tiny pot about the size of my fist. Two grams of cha suffice to provide me with a satisfying experience. There is available a porcelain brewer called the TeaMaster Automatic Tea Brewer, that emulates the Gongfu method and is a good way to start enjoying Chinese tea.

Gaiwan Photo: SJS Chen/Wikipedia

Gaiwan Photo: SJS Chen/Wikipedia

Name it right, brew it right, and as my Cha Shifu (Tea Master) says, “Tea makes a Happy Day.”

Rant addendum: 99% of all white tea sold in the US is not. At best it is green.

The following video advertising Japanese tea is hilarious, but note that they are only picking leaves, no buds. Third rate tea. It should be left to the bugs.


Gongfu Brew

25 03 2009
This is my favorite little pot.

This is my favorite little pot.

I broke my handiest TeaMaster Automatic Tea Brewer. Foolish mishanding on my part, but I cracked that lovely Dehua porcelain. So I went back to my Yixing clay pot, the pot that Cha Shifu gave me all these years ago, the one I have woefully neglected in favor of the easiest way to brew a good pot of Kungfu tea this side of Mars.

So I am brewing up some White Peony white tea. I cheated and skipped a lot of steps like heating the pot and awakening the dragon. Cover the bottom of the pot with great C.C. Fine Tea Bai Mu Dan and add hot water.

I am about to sample the second infusion and see if I still have the knack. [pouring, sipping] Oh yes, the lovely orchid taste of true white tea. I might have added a wee bit too much tea to the pot, the brew is just a tad astringent. Or, my water might have been just a tot too hot. But it is swell, nonetheless. Double-swell. And this is White Peony made from the sweetest spring leaves, not from the usual summer picking.

When all the world goes to hell in a hand basket, as long as you have a good Yixing clay pot,  good tea leaves, and some lovely water…oh, and a heat source…you can always brew a good pot of tea.  Here are Cha Shifu Jason C.S. Chen’s instructions for brewing a good pot of tea:

Tea makes a happy day.