Brief History of Pu-erh
Yunnan is the home of pu-erh tea, and more importantly it is the birthplace of tea itself. This south western province of China is nestled in the tropical lushness bordering Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. According to Chinese documents, tea was discovered by the legendary Chinese Emperor, Shennong in 2737BC.
While the earliest beginnings of tea remain shrouded in myths and legends, we know at some point in history Yunnan and perhaps the neighboring province of Sichuan were the only regions growing tea in China. Tea cakes from Yunnan travelled to various parts of China and Tibet. The routes out of Yunnan followed by the caravans carrying tea formed the Ancient Tea Horse Trails, parts of which still exist. These routes went up into Tibet - and further into Bengal in India - and Central China. Traders on Ancient Tea Horse trail also carried salt, wool and ponies.
One of the hubs of the Trails fell in town called Pu-erh from where the tea takes its name. But in 2007 the name of the town was changed by the local government to Ninger. Pu-erh is now the name of the entire district and the district headquarters, both of which was earlier called Simao.
Pu-erh tea reached great popularity during the Han Dynasty (206BC - 220CE). However, after the collapse of the dynasty tea cakes went out of favor. The reasons are not very clear why that would happen except that tea was now being grown in other parts of China, and it did not have be transported over long distances. Hence no need to compress them into cakes. Loose leaf tea had arrived. The first emperor of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Yuanzhang outlawed compressed tea altogether citing unnecessary burden that it imposed on tea makers.
Manpo Village in Xishuangbanna. By User:Doron - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1702211
It was small mercy that Yuanzhang's edict did not reach Yunnan due to its remote location and also the region was not completely under the control of the imperial court.1 Although the cakes continued to be pressed in Yunnan it's currency2 and prestige steadily declined. By the close of the 20th Century pu-erh was just a ghost of its former self, being peddled as an inexpensive trinket for tourists visiting Yunnan. The Yunnanese did not drink it either thinking it to be an "inferior" tea compared to the loose leaf style pioneered in the eastern provinces like Fujian.
Things dramatically changed when in 1994 Taiwanese tea connoisseurs arrived in Yunnan. These tea enthusiasts from the rebel nation had come upon vintage tea cakes sold off by residents of Hong Kong who were relocating ahead of the Chinese takeover of the island in 1997. When the Taiwanese first came to Yunnan with their new acquired tea cakes the locals had no idea what they were talking about. The Taiwanese wanted to know where they could find similar cakes whose source they had traced to Yiwu in Yunnan.
An Akha woman in Xishuangbanna. By Henrik Hansson Globaljuggler - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5607234
In Yiwu the guests from Taiwan were met with general bewilderment. Cakes were no longer pressed in this run down village which had seen better days. No one had much knowledge about pu-erh tea in general although old tea trees were still in plenty and the villagers continued to make maocha, the raw material for pu-erh. The locals were astounded to hear the prices pu-erh tea that was once made in their area was fetching in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Finally, two men in their sixties were found who had worked in a pu-erh factory that once existed in Yiwu. With their help, the Taiwanese tea experts and their aged tea cakes, a process of "teaching, learning, and imitating began."3 This was the start of the revival of pu-erh tea in Yunnan which we are benefiting from now.
Pu-erh Sub-Regions in Yunnan
Some of the prime pu-erh manufacturing areas lie along the Mekong river in districts of Xishuangbanna, Simao and Lincang. Ethnic local minorities like Bulang, Deang, Wa, Hani and Jinuo along with the Han immigrants are involved in the pu-erh manufacturing and trade.
Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan. By Jo Schmaltz - originally posted to Flickr as Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8108826
Yiwu, Menghai and Lao Banzhang are some of the most famous and sought-after places for pu-erh lie in Xishuangbanna. Rivalry between these sub-regions is understandable. However, it does come as a shock to learn that the folks from Yiwu, specialists in the sheng (raw) pu-erh "despised" shu (ripe) pu-erh that Menghai specialized in, raising fears that such tea was "unclean and harmful." 4
Other areas in Yunnan notable for pu-erh production include Lincang, Dehong and Pu-erh (Simao).
A view of Pu-erh City. By Jo Schmaltz - originally posted to Flickr as Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8108826
Historically, pu-erh from the Six Famous Mountains now all located in Xishuangbanna were highly prized. They include:
Production in Mangzhi and Youle have considerably declined over the years, and the fame of Six Famous Mountains don't seem to have the draw of the yesteryear.
Map of Pu-erh growing regions in Yunnan. From Puer Tea, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang
In recent times another set of six mountains have emerged to claim the mantle. These new mountains are:
With this we conclude our introductory series on Pu-erh tea. In our main blog we will continue to feature various pu-erh that we offer. In the process we will learn and share this wonderful tea together. If you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to submit them below.
1,3,4. Puer Tea, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang
2. Pu-erh tea at one point was used as a currency. You could use it to pay for many essentials including Tibetan ponies.
This is first of a 3 part series on Pu-erh tea.
Pu-erh is fermented and aged tea that comes in a compacted form. Produced exclusively in Yunnan, the South-Western province of China, the tea is produced in two broad styles - raw (sheng), and ripe (shu). Sheng pu-erh is left to ferment naturally, while the fermentation in ripe or shu pu-erh is done in controlled factory settings.