Pu’er tea cakes are more expensive than gold. Unlike green tea, which loses its fragrance over time, the darker leaf patties of pu’er can be stored and aged like wine, and have become an investment vehicle and a cautionary tale about commodity bubbles. In the bigger picture, they have become a reflection of modern China. Before pu’er became a cult, it was just a hot cup of tea.
When did everything change? Twenty-five years ago, pu’er was popular in Hong Kong, southern China and Tibet for cutting through heavy meals, but the dark tea definitely wasn’t expensive. Pu’er was a functional drink, a crude tea made with large tea leaves that smelled like a dank warehouse.
In 2007, businessman Zhang Qiming opened Shanghai’s Da Ke Tang as a “living room” for his tea collector friends. Wine was becoming a common investment item during this time of economic upheaval, so it made sense that another commodity entered the market. The idea of strategic aging for investment and flavor was alien in Hong Kong, where most of the tea was stored and consumed. Ignore the fact that two tea drinkers will rarely agree on what makes a good pu’er, or what makes one suitable for storing.
“In 2013, a singular tong sold for a staggering ¥10.3 million (£1.03 million); they supposedly dated from the end of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century.”
Financial controls on investment in China are tight, and the options for where to stash new money created by capitalism were limited. And now here was a possible investment that was not just steeped in Chinese culture, but also gave the buyer some social status, professed to be good for your health, and, assuming the worst, was drinkable. The bubble grew fast. By the end of the year it had burst and scores of traders and tea companies were left with tons of overpriced tea.
The next several years were headlined by the collectors. The 2007 crash squeezed a lot of speculators out of the market, and the government crackdown on corruption and spending that started around 2012 didn’t help. But auctions continued to generate crazy prices. In December 2009, several 2kg cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves—a package known as a tong—sold for ¥2.13 million (£215,000). In 2013, a singular tong sold for a staggering ¥10.3 million (£1.03 million); they supposedly dated from the end of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century.
Zhang (pictured above) is part of this collector circle, and Da Ke Tang is part business, part showcase. The teahouse’s first floor salon is lined with discs of pressed teas dating back to the turn of the 20th century, supposedly valued up to two million yuan. The collection, behind glass, is divided into pre-Communist China and post-Communist China, and as there has been a lot of development in pu’er in the last hundred years, the collection is a short history lesson unto itself.
The potted history—ignoring just a few millennia—goes like this. Tea had been grown in what is now southern Yunnan province for centuries, mostly by ethnic tribes more closely related to those in Thailand or Laos than China, but the first tea brands didn’t start until 1733, when the Han Chinese began getting into the market.
For the next two hundred years or so, pu’er was made by hand with tea leaves picked from wild trees, associated with specific mountains, and sent across China on caravans. The tea would age naturally, though not strategically, and it wasn’t an investment – though certainly some traders would have thought differently if they knew how much they sell for these days, when the older teas are considered drinkable antiques. Da Ke Tang’s most expensive tea comes from this period: a Song Pin Hao from the early 1920s that sells at ¥100,000 (£10,100) for eight grams – enough for a pot of tea for up to three people.
“If it’s any consolation, the leaves are brewed several times over the course of a session.”
In 1949, the Communists took over China and modernised the pu’er system. Small producers were absorbed into state-owned factories and the “one mountain, one flavour” philosophy was abandoned. The new government emphasised quantity over quality.
The next big change came in the 1970s. The legend goes that what started in Yunnan as a green tea packed onto the side of a mule would end up as a black tea after going through the rain and sun on its long treks.
But by the 1950s, trains had replaced caravans and tea arrived in Hong Kong after just a few days – too young and astringent for Cantonese palates. So they stored the tea or mixed it with water to spark fermentation, mellowing out the tea in the process. In the 1970s, the state-owned factories in Yunnan sent teams to southern China and Hong Kong to learn this new method to accelerate the ageing process. Before this, pu’er was divided into raw tea and aged tea; after it became known as raw tea, (sheen cha), or “cooked tea” (shoo cha): the two major cults today.
The collectors, investors, posers and general public didn’t come in until later. Hong Kong tea warehouses, worried about the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China began clearing out their stock and found tea from as far back as 100 years stashed in the corners – a perk of bad inventory management and the source of the collectors’ market today.
At Da Ke Tang one evening, I sat on the old couches for a few hours, nursing a ¥200 pot of sheng cha and a ¥120 pot of shoo cha, while the waitresses in silk qipaos brought over plates of snacks. It was like picking a Jacob’s Creek from the wine list of Le Gavroche. For someone not yet a member of the cult, and still immune to its crazy price logic and endless debates, it was just fine. I snacked on sunflower seeds and dried tomatoes, and the tea didn’t taste like status or history or monks picking leaves from ancient trees in the moonlight. It tasted like, well… tea.