Pu-Erh is a river town — traditionally a catch basin — of sorts — for the teas produced in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region. Varieties of black (red) teas, green teas and fermented teas are produced here. The most famous of which is Pu-Erh, which occupies a category unto itself in the hearts and minds of tea collectors and enthusiasts.
While individual Pu-Erh teas can be made to fit into the categories of black/red (fully oxidized) tea or blue (partially oxidized), these categories are often too limiting and require too many qualifying statements for this to hold water over time. Pu-Erh is quite simply Pu-Erh. This is the consensus among top collectors in Asia — one which I share — and one which I have the honor of translating for the non-Chinese speaking world. Pu-Erh’s history is long an complex. It’s drinkable history goes back well into the 19th century, at least as far back as the 1850’s (far beyond depending on who you talk to). It is not uncommon to find tea trees dating back several hundred or even a thousand years, still producing sublime tea leaves.
While there may be common characteristics shared with other tea varietals form other regions, it is safe to say that you can only produce Pu-Erh tea in Yunnan. The main reasons are geographical and ecological (the unique boreal region). All tea plants will develop individual qualities based on where they are transplanted. Yunnan is a very special place, irreplaceable in much the same way the Amazon rainforests of South America are. Owing to biological diversity, climactic factors etc., Yunnan produces some of the most highly prized natural products in all of China — and in truth the world. Chief among these — along with various mushrooms, tobacco, grains, moonshine — is Tea.
Pu-Erh although seemingly a single varietal, is by no means a song of one note only. It possesses a symphonic expansiveness which — from personal experience — can occupy a lifetime of investigation. Each vintage, each harvest, tree, shrub or bush, produces a different one. The mixing of tea leaves, and pressing them into cakes or bricks produces such a wide variety of tastes and experiences, that writers have been busily trying to record snatches of this range of experience for centuries. The task of explaining what Pu-Erh tea is, will likely never be fully realized. For like fine wine, cigars, truffles, the task is never accomplished — like chasing the horizon over the next peak. It is best to sit down and enjoy a cup of this beautiful broth and find out what it is for you. To let the the tea reveal itself instead of pulling at her robes. Finding, within the vast range of Pu-Erh profiles, that taste which works for you, is a crowning moment. And though one’s tastes may change over the years, shifting or evolving, based upon new experience. You never forget first love, nor do you forget the first tea that makes you pause and go Ahh, so that’s what all the fuss is about. The leaf that launched ten thousand ships — so to speak.
All the tea in China then suddenly takes on a whole new meaning, right there, in the tea cup in front of you. It is almost magical — transcendently ordinary — perfect simplicity, stillness in the midst of the storms that sometimes form around us. A most simple alchemy of leaf and water, but a most pleasurable one. The process of tea, though it takes on many forms, is designed to hold the world at bay for a moment, just long enough for us to be able to return to ourselves; and set out again secure in the knowledge of who we are. It is a process both ancient and modern, timeless we could say. It is one that appeals to all walks of life, and is available to whatever degree one wishes to partake of it. For some it is a Coney Island of the mind. For others it is a filling station to get through the next set of exams. It is a way to unwind after work, between work, with work — as I’m doing now. It is, in short, what you want it to be. Tea is not a replacement for coffee, or wine, or beer, as some try to paint it in the modern age. It is simply an excellent accompaniment to water. Not in competition to other beverages, but simply an alternative. It goes well with many foods and drinks. It does fine on it’s own. Tea is what you make of it. Though there are principles of preparation, guidelines for producing certain effects in the brew; there are no rules.
For me, the true spirit of afternoon tea first dawned on me, sitting in a roadside tea shop in Asia, sipping a dark tea that seemed so dark it might swallow me. My conclusion, years later, is that perhaps it did. While I have preferences towards certain teas, and respect for a wide range of good teas the world over. Pu-Erh is my favorite, it is the Tea that I always look to for a sense of completion, of homecoming, of reward. Raw Pu-Erh, Ripe (black), aged, antique, new. There are many variations within this grand-dame of the tea world. Pu-Erh may not be for you. Though, if you’ve read this far, it more than likely is — or will be.
The process of Cha Dao is simple. Subtle to the point of being easily missed by a great many. However, good tea — taken quietly at home, in the office, or with friends in a tea house. Often leaves one with a sense of balance and perspective unexpected in common hours. An island of zen amidst a sea of activity. Tea time is that perfect moment of stillness, between stimulus and response. The time taken to sharpen the axe, before we go about the business of chopping wood — or so the saying goes.