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Bold & Beautiful

For centuries, pu-erh tea has captured imaginations and provoked a devotion close to obsession.

 

Story by Deborah Parker Wong

Photos by Jeff Clark

 

The aroma of the tea is shockingly complex: piney, resinous and yet also marine, like a forested seashore. The first sip pulls away from the beach and into the woods: It’s vegetal, salty, woody and earthy. It leaves a mineral—almost metallic—finish that coats the back of the throat and lingers for several minutes. Ocean, forest, mountain, earth—this is pu-erh tea, one of the most obsessed-over and sought-after teas in the world, and one of the few teas that can improve with age. This particular batch, Hoffman notes, is from the 1970s; he has pu-erh that dates back to the 1940s. For Hoffman, as for many pu-erh enthusiasts, this tea is more than a mere beverage. “There’s a feeling in the body beyond the aftertaste of pu-erh that is almost emotional,” he says. “Above all, pu-erh is a texture.”


Hoffman’s introduction to tea came in the late ’60s, while he was living with Tibetan refugees in India. “My first memory is the musical rhythm that the domo, the tea churn, makes as the bamboo plunger works a boiling mixture of tea, yak butter and salt,” he recalls dreamily. “It’s very cold at 18,000 feet, and you know that if you get up you’ll be greeted with a steaming cup of hot, buttered tea.”

 

In 1967 he met the Dalai Lama, and in the swirl of that momentous occasion, he couldn’t help notice that the tea he was served afterward at the monastery was unlike anything he had tasted before. “It was much fuller, much richer, much more pleasant,” he recalls. “I—I don’t have adjectives for it. I didn’t know the name at the time. They just called it ‘Tibetan tea.’ But they showed me the bricks, and the mushroom-shaped cakes.”

 

These days, Hoffman is well-versed in pu-erh, and enjoying it on another mountaintop across the world. There, set into the hillside, are two heavy wooden doors decorated with hand-hammered iron handles. Behind them are a series of manmade, concrete-lined caves, stacked floor-to-ceiling with tea—more than 300 of them, including oolongs and black teas as well as Hoffman’s immense collection of pu-erh. He buys new pu-erhs for his collection with each new vintage. Some he keeps for himself; others he sells to collectors around the country. The oldest of his teas could fetch thousands of dollars a cake. “They are a great investment if you buy young teas and age them,” he says. “I heard a firsthand story of seven tea cakes being traded for a brand-new Toyota in Southern China.”

Years in the Making
From the beginning, pu-erh tea has been an esteemed brew. The very first book on tea (The Classic of Tea, written in the eighth century by Lu Yu, whom the Chinese sometimes call the “Father of Tea”) extols this tea’s virtue above all other varieties. Pu-erh gets its name from a city in the remote southern mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, but in truth it can come from anywhere in those mountains, where for two millenia tea from the broad-leafed Assam tea trees has been grown and produced. (Pu-erh-style teas have also been produced for centuries in the neighboring provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, and in the border areas of North Vietnam, but in 2003 the Chinese government defined authentic pu-erh as coming solely from Yunnan.) Tea plantations and wild groves are cultivated at altitudes in excess of 5,000 feet and flourish in Yunnan’s warm, humid climate. While the term “wild” is common in labeling, most older tea trees are cultivated trees that were left unmanaged for years and now grow naturally. One of Yunnan’s largest ancient tea plantations covers more than 10,000 acres in the old-growth forests of the Jing Mai and Man Jung Mountains. Yunnan’s oldest tea trees are treasured as living fossils: One of the oldest trees on record, discovered in 1961 growing on the Great Black Mountain of Bada San, is 1,700 years old.


The cultivation of pu-erh tea in China dates back as far as the first century, and as trade routes developed throughout Central Asia, tea was one of the first things to travel along them—as a Chinese proverb puts it, “Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one.” In order to make their tea easy to transport on these long journeys—it could take a year for a horse-drawn caravan to reach Tibet, for instance—the Yunnanese began compressing it into bricks, cakes, bowls and, later, fanciful shapes like mushrooms and pumpkins. These long treks to market also led tea merchants to discover that the broad, tough leaves of pu-erh trees had a singular ability to improve over time, becoming earthier and more complex. Eventually, the finest teas were intentionally aged to increase their value, and by the 17th century, aged pu-erh was being sent as tribute to the Chinese emperors.

 

Pu-erh comes in two basic styles: raw (sheng) and cooked (shou). All tea starts as sheng, when green tea leaves are wilted, fried, rolled and sun-dried. Then, there’s the option of “cooking” the tea into shou, a process invented in the 1950s but popularized in the 1970s as a way to imitate the long aging process of raw tea. (Today, cooked pu-erh is more popular than raw in Hong Kong.) The tea ferments in a warm, humid environment for up to one year, in a process that deepens and mellows the flavors and adds increasing amounts of complexity to the tea. Whether raw or cooked, at this point, the pu-erh—which has a distinctively astringent and tannic character—can be sold loose. Normally, however, it is compressed into salad-plate-sized cakes (or, sometimes, bamboo stalks, baskets or even hollowed-out pomelo grapefruit) and allowed to sit for years for what is essentially an extended microbial fermentation. Just as a wine can evolve over time, pu-erh flavors can change dramatically as the compressed tea and the beneficial fungi it harbors continue to interact.

 

Traditionally, this aging took place in mountain caves, but today most tea merchants use temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses. It can take up to 30 years for a pu-erh to be considered fully mature (though some tea pros think it shouldn’t age more than 15 years); when it reaches that point, the resulting brew tastes pungent and earthy, but also clean and smooth, reminiscent of the smell of rich garden soil or an autumn leaf pile and often with roasted or sweet undertones. Roy Fong, who markets his own custom brand of pu-erh as part of his San Francisco-based Imperial Tea Court, believes good-quality cooked pu-erh peaks at 20 years. “There is something magical that happens with shou after 20 years,” he says. “It becomes soft, smooth, silky and rich, and some teas can have delicate plummy and almond notes. They are still youthful and retain their floral qualities, but they are highly concentrated, with distinct layers of flavor.”

Coming to America
Despite its low profile in the U.S., pu-erh is not a newcomer to the West; it most likely made its first appearance in America in the late 19th century with the wave of immigrants who arrived from China’s Canton province to build the railroads. Tea merchant Roy Fong, who owns the Imperial Tea Court and operates tearooms in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, calls pu-erh the birthright of every Cantonese. “During my childhood years in Hong Kong, whenever tea was served, pu-erh was the automatic choice,” he says. “I think there would be violence if cooked [pu-erh] were ever banned in Hong Kong or Southern China.”


Meanwhile in America, pu-erh spent decades mostly confined to Chinese restaurants. But in 1993, when Fong opened his first San Francisco teahouse on the assumption that it would mainly attract Chinese ex-pats, he was surprised to find that 90 percent of his clientele was Caucasian. Not only that, many were interested in pu-erh, and willing pay market price for aged varieties—which, at the time, could cost up to $180 a pound. Around the same time, David Lee Hoffman began importing and selling pu-erh through his own company, Silk Road Teas. (Hoffman has since sold the company but still offers many of his teas for sale through it.) At first, his primary customers for the aged pu-erhs he brought back from trips to China were Asians who were already familiar with the style. He gradually introduced his Caucasian customers to it as well. “They either loved them or they hated them,” he recalls. “There was very little gray area.”


Hoffman explains that most Americans, if they’ve tried pu-erh at all, have only sampled poor-quality pu-erh. The tea’s pungent earthiness can be jarring for people who expect a delicate or sweet brew. Fong likens it to strong cheeses, or tannic wines—if you’ve spent your life consuming cheddar and jug wine, you’re going to be thrown by them. But just as Americans have grown to appreciate Roquefort and Pinot Noir, in the past decade interest in pu-erh has increased. “The public is becoming much more sophisticated about their tea,” says Hoffman. “They don’t have to be convinced that pu-erh is worth pursuing.”


The Pinot Noir of Teas
Indeed, that pursuit can get pretty intense. Seattle-based media consultant Charles Munat has spent about 10 years and upwards of $1,000 on accumulating prized pu-erhs. “I have a 1987 dark pu-erh I picked up in Beijing a couple years ago—that one is a real winner,” he says. “I’ve got cakes that won’t be ready to break into for another four or five years.”


Munat acknowledges that he’s gotten his share of puzzled looks over the years when he explains his hobby. “Occasionally you get questions: ‘You can age tea? You spent how much on it?’ But despite the price, the ration of pleasure to cost is actually quite reasonable. A pound of tea, even if I’m drinking it every day, will last me for months.” That’s a better cost return than wine collectors can hope for, he notes, adding, “People don’t think twice about starting up a wine cellar.”


Munat began drinking pu-erh seriously about a decade ago, attracted by the way aging changed the tea’s character. “It’s an entirely different flavor,” he says. “The aging process gives a caramelly, sweet note that you normally don’t find in tea and makes it more complex.”


Munat even belongs to a small, informal group of pu-erh loyalists—dubbed with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek grandiose name of the Greater Northwest Pu-erh Council—that meets a couple times a year to try each other’s teas and admire members’ handmade clay Yixing teapots. “We’re pretty seriously addicted tea-drinkers,” he says. “There’s a guy in our group who used to drive a schoolbus, and he managed to scrape up the money to visit China twice and bring back hundreds of dollars’ worth of tea.”


In Santa Cruz, California, David and Marilee Wright, owners of Chaikhana tea shop, are the founders of a private tea club called the “Empty Boat” whose members gather regularly to enjoy tea, particularly pu-erh. Wright says that part of pu-erh’s attraction is its purported health benefits—studies have suggested the tea can help lower cholesterol. Americans are also drawn to the peacefulness of the tea ritual. Empty Boat meetings are held in a cultural center where computers, cell phones—even clocks—are discouraged. “People are seeking a place where they can connect with each other,” says Wright. “The teahouse has traditionally been a place of retreat.”


At the same time, technology has been key in boosting pu-erh’s popularity—namely, the Internet. Fong says he started noticing his American customers becoming more knowledgeable as more information became available online. “That’s where it sprang up like wildfire,” he says. Indeed, a host of tea-centric blogs post reviews of pu-erh. Then there’s the Puerh Tea Community group at Livejournal.com, where more than 250 members (both long-time pu-erh collectors and newbies) debate tea quality, aging and prices and post photos of their latest discoveries.


Pu-erh has also finally broken out of the dim sum houses. Alice Cravens, tea buyer for Chez Panisse and dozens of fine-dining restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, says pu-erh has pairing potential far beyond Chinese food—she likes to suggest it to restaurants that offer lots of wood-fired dishes, like grilled lamb. “Red-wine drinkers gravitate to the robust flavors and wine-like tannins of these rich, intense teas,” she says. “Pu-erh teas exhibit aromas and flavors that are found in wines like Pinot Noir: earth, forest floor, mushroom and even barnyard.”


Pu-erh’s also made its way onto bar menus. The tea is a principle ingredient in drinks at New York hotspots like the Pegu Club and the Flatiron Lounge. Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons has offered various tea cocktails, including the Hot Iced Tea, made with pu-erh, orange bitters and whiskey that was infused with Himalayan long peppers. “The pu-erh tea really grounded the drink, and gave it a smokiness that helped mellow the spiciness of the peppers,” says bartender Johnny Edlund. “It worked out really well.”

The Price of Fame
There is a downside to this new popularity: As pu-erh’s profile has risen, so have prices. Vintage teas from the 1960s (known as “Masterpiece Pu-erh”) can command as much as $3,000 to $5,000 per cake. Unsurprisingly, these prices have attracted the mercenary. For example, Hoffman first encountered fake pu-erh in 2000. “I was given an example of what was supposedly old tea from the 1950s and recognized it as a forgery immediately,” he recalls. “The more you learn about tea, the easier it is to pick up incongruities in aged teas. Legitimate aged tea has a certain taste profile that you can’t replicate by forcing aging on a tea.”


Since then, Hoffman’s seen it all, from cheap knock-offs to factories that deliberately falsify the date on the ticket pressed into each cake to identify its age. And he’s not the only one to spot this ugly trend: Many of the posts on that Livejournal discussion group involve asking or warning about forged or poor-quality teas.


And then there are the people who, while honest, have come to appreciate pu-erh only as an investment, buying up choice cakes to age and sell for a profit later. “This scenario happened all over China,” says Fong. “Not only professionals were stockpiling pu-erh, but real estate developers, housewives, store keepers—just about everyone!”


Charles Munat has witnessed the result. “Things you could have gotten for $100 five years ago now go for $500 or $1,000,” he says. But there may be a silver lining to these years of hoarding. “What goes up too fast without a good reason comes down just as fast,” says Fong. “Those who sold their houses to stockpile pu-erhs are forced to sell at low prices, and stores who sell pu-erh without enough knowledge go out of business. All of these factors have helped drive the price back down for the last year or so.”


No matter what happens to prices, Americans seem thirstier than ever for pu-erh, and it will be up to those early fans of the tea to help educate the rest of the public. More and more Americans are immersing themselves, drawn by the mystique, the ritual, the prestige and, above all, the flavor—that nuanced, earthy complexity that makes pu-erh unlike any other tea. As Munat says, “You’re probably not going to find groups to get together to drink oolong. It’s like the difference between wine and grape juice. You wouldn’t create a group to taste grape juice.”

 

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