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In the Leaves

Pungent, earthy Pu'er tea is China's new hip beverage-and investment.

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Pungent, earthy Pu’er tea is China’s new hip beverage—and investment.


Emerging from these lush, mountaintop-terraced tea fields—broken only by lilting groves of bamboo and quaint wooden farmhouses—an ancient brew is taking China by storm.

As she pours the pungent deep burgundy tea into carefully prepared cups, Li Limei recalls that, just three years ago, few people were interested in old, out-of-the-way Pu’er and the tea it has produced for centuries. Li owns one of two dozen tea shops that now line the main road going through Ning’er, a sister city of Pu’er, from which the tea draws its name. She brusquely explains the properties of the tea, its desired peaty smell and how to look for a clean, transparent reddish color and deep, earthy flavor.

“It should taste very natural and rich,” she instructs novice Pu’er drinkers.

Even as Chinese green tea reaches into mass markets in the U.S., China’s tea aficionados have moved in a new direction. Following a plethora of media reports about its health properties, coupled with an increase in personal wealth and disposable income, a passion for Pu’er tea has swept through the country’s hippest spots. Pu’er tea has gone from a 2 percent share of the total market to 8 percent in the last few years.

“If you start to drink Pu’er tea, it’s like drinking a strong alcohol, and it’s difficult to go back to other, weaker types of tea,” says Che Gang, a Beijing tea shop manager and cafe owner.

China is a nation where eating often is likened to religion: Food and drink are serious businesses. Chinese scientists claim Pu’er tea lowers cholesterol and aids in weight loss. Well-known Chinese models and actors have become Pu’er devotees, and that high-level attention has added to the demand from the nation’s growing wealthy and middle classes in search of new, culturally relevant ways to demonstrate their sophistication. As a result, Pu’er tea has reemerged as a hallmark of personal taste.

Though teas on the market vary widely and fakes are becoming rampant and hard to spot, experts say true Pu’er refers to a fermented red tea—most often contained in a cake—made of sun-dried and naturally processed leaves grown in the clean, unpolluted mountains of this central part of Yunnan Province.

“Pu’er is like fine wine, and the best wine comes from Bordeaux,” says Wu Xiduan, secretary general of the China Tea Marketing Association.

Wu’s organization is developing standards for Pu’er tea, a hefty task, given the proliferation of competitors entering the market. Several tea manufacturers believe they can replicate the Pu’er process with leaves grown elsewhere, or that young, unfermented tea grown here also should be given the lucrative label. Hence, fake tea is a common problem. The new standards will include guidelines for raw varieties and aging, and grading according to whether fermentation is natural or aided.

It’s not difficult to see why tea companies outside of Yunnan want to get in on the Pu’er trend. Pu’er dealers have replaced green tea and wulong tea shops at Maliandao, Beijing’s main tea market, and Pu’er is creeping into Shanghai. High-priced Pu’er shops line the shores of Green Lake Park in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.

Nationwide, the tea’s price has been increasing at roughly 20 percent a year since 2003, with prices set even higher for aged tea. The tea has been popular for many years in wealthier Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, and China’s new Pu’er fever is pushing the price up even further.

One industry group says the average price has increased tenfold from 2005 to more than $100 a kilogram this year. Though some health experts say the benefits deteriorate after more than a decade of aging, there is no denying the older the tea, the higher the price it can fetch. Recent reports have a businessman paying 1 million yuan, or $135,000 at current exchange, for 65-year-old tea, among other examples. Chinese investors, looking for alternatives to the stock market, have taken to collecting the tea because it appreciates in price with age.

Part of the lure of Pu’er for Chinese consumers also lies in its history. Though the exact details are somewhat unclear, it is most often said the tea was developed when dealers riding the Old Tea Horse Trail—a trading route going through Yunnan into Burma—found the tea in their bags had fermented by the end of their long journeys. The specialty tea became a favorite of the emperors in Beijing, so the lore goes.

At the Nowhere Cafe, a Mod-ish Beijing eatery, Che shares his passion for tea with fellow young trend-seekers. Coffee might be dominating the scene these days, says the 31-year-old Che, but tea will return to the top. “People are paying more attention to their health now, and tea is a part of that,” says Che.