Pu’er Tea and its double foray through history

Pu’er tea is more often than not forgotten due to the unusual technique of post-fermentation that gives the tea its unique characteristics. Both types, yes there are two, are incredibly similar, however, they have some key differences especially in their history with one a relatively new invention and the other a testament to the stand of time. I hope you find the contrast as fascinating as I do.


The Pu’er tea consists of two completely different categories. One is called “Raw Pu’er Tea” and another is “Ripe Pu’er Tea”. Raw Pu’er tea has a very long history and it was the tea traded through The Ancient Tea Route. Raw Pu’er tea is also the tea that many tea collectors are enthusiastically searching for. Freshly produced raw Pu’er tea; this form of the leaf is called Mao-cha. Pu’er raw tea is the semi-fermented tea; the tea leaf is yellowish green.

In contrast, Ripe Pu’er has a much shorter history compared to raw Pu’er. Ripe Pu’er was developed in 1973-1974 at the Kunming Tea Factory with reference to the process of ancient dark tea, such as Fuzhuan Cha, that is produced by mould fermentation. While the tea undergoes fermentation, the mould produces a certain organic acid that causes the pH of the tea to reduced, resulting in a complete fermentation within a much shorter duration. Hence, the colour of the tea leaves changes to dark brown and produces a mellow taste with a thick body. The good quality ripe Pu’er gives out a flavour like dried Chinese dates. In the overseas market, ripe Pu’er is generally more popular.

Historically, Pu’er tea was produced by the minority ethnics for their own consumption. Sometimes it was exported to Tibet, Mongolia or South East Asia. Pu’er tea was an important commodity trade where the Chinese merchants hired the local labourers as transporters and the Pu’er tea was carried and traded for horses or other commodities. The road used for this trade was called “The Ancient Tea Route”. It is sometimes deemed as the second Silk Road as it was a very important commercial route for them.

The history of Pu’er Tea can be traced back to “Pu Tea” of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) with the drying of leaves in the sun in Yunnan province. The plants in this region have large, soft leaves spaced far apart on large, tough stems. Today, Pu’er Tea with “large wild leaves” is highly prized. In Yunnan, we can still find a lot of old tea trees that are aged to about a few hundred years and where some are even aged up to a thousand years old or more.

There is a long history of exporting compressed, aged green Pu’er Tea, dating back to the 7th century. Needing a tea that did not spoil on the trip, various fermentation methods and compressed shapes evolved to make transport easier. It was found that tea actually improved with age, so warehousing became the practice. In Tibet, where beef and mutton and few vegetables were consumed and the coastal regions of Guangdong and Hong Kong consumed seafood-based diets, people in these areas found Pu’er Tea helped with digestion and provided important nutrients not available in their local diets. Pu’er was also very affordable, so drinking Pu’er Tea became popular in these areas and remains so today.

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In 862 CE, Fan Cheuk, a Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) scholar undertook a mission on behalf of the Emperor of Western China and Yunnan.  He wrote in his book Meng Shu (“Book of Uncivilized Peoples”), “In the mountain areas around Yin-sheng, people use no sophisticated methods to pick tea. They cook leaves mixed with ginger, pepper, spices and milk and drink it”.  Imagine the horror of the royal court accustomed to green tea hand-picked by maidens using golden scissors to select the most tender green tea buds and tips.

In 1391, in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE), the first Ming Emperor ordered the abolition of all moon-shaped, compressed tea because people were wasting too much time in its manufacture. Only loose leaf tea would be permitted.  The Ming Dynasty scholar Zhao Yuan wrote that Pu Cha had been already very popular and everyone drank it regardless of class.

Many Emperors drank Pu’er tea for longevity and especially liked the taste of the teas made with the finest tips. In the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), Pu’er tea from Simao in Yunnan became a tribute tea by order of Yongzheng, the second Qing Emperor. In the tribute, custom, tea regions were selected by the Emperor to produce tea to be offered as a gift to the royal court, which was a great honour and good for business. The last Qing Emperor Fu Yi (also known as Pu Yi) and the last emperor in China’s history said “Drink Loong Jien (Dragon Well Green Tea) in summer and Pu’er in winter.  Drinking Pu’er Tea is like being a member of the Royal Family”

In 1879, the British and French, forever in their quest for black tea, set up customs offices in Simao. Tea export increased and the ancient remains of the famous Pu’er Tea Horse Roads which radiated throughout Asia, carrying the horses and tea caravans are a national heritage.

Don’t forget to have some tea on me.

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