PuErh Tea History
PuErh tea has evolved over time, meeting the needs of disparate ethic groups who have treasured PuErh tea's ability to refresh, nourish, warm and invigorate.
Prior, and throughout the Qing Dynasty, the bulk of production was by individual farmers and small private family businesses. Because of the poor communications links, roads often being merely single tracks, most of the teas produced were transported by mule. Such transportation meant that it would often take weeks or months to reach the tea's final destination and pass through a number of traders hands. Over time tea was often pressed, often into bricks, to reduce volume and to increase the amount that the mules could carry. Compression had addition advantage that this meant that the tea was further protected from the harsh weather that may be encountered on the route and enabled the tea to be stored longer.
The 'Zhong' logo features the Chinese character for tea, Cha, at the centre, with eight Zhong characters forming a circle around the central character. Zhong, not only means, centre or middle, but is an abbreviation of the word ZhongGuo or China. This symbolism illustrates the distribution and spreading of Chinese tea, in this case YunNan PuEr tea to the eight points of the compass.
This fundamental change in tea production, bought many changes to YunNan PuErh tea. Tea cakes began to be individually wrapped in paper and featured the branding of the China Tea Corporation. One of the first products of the China Tea Corporation was the famous Red Mark PuErh Tea Cake. In today's mark this is a very much sort after cake that in the right condition can fetch a heady price. A later cake produced by the tea factories under the China Tea Corporation umbrella, was the Blue Mark PuErh Tea Cake, LanYin YuanCha.
During this period, there was no concept of storing and ageing PuErh and as such little traceability was kept as to when a certain tea was produced. Tea collectors over recent decades have slowly pieced together a PuErh timeline that tracks minor and major changes in processing, packaging and styles. For example there was a change in the use of the typefaces.
The creation of the CNNP saw the introduction of simplified Chinese characters on some of the tea cakes produced by some of the tea factories under the China Tea Corporation umbrella. Sometime after, Chinese PinYin was introduced and that the seven cake stacks, or Tongs, wrapped in bamboo began to be bound with wire, compared to the bamboo cords previous used.
In 1976 the CNNP began to introduce a system of trading codes or recipes. For the first time this allowed people, though this move was primarily for industrial purposes, to track the age of their PuErh tea cakes. This method of tracking PuEr tea recipes or tea blends were initially adopted by the KunMing Tea Factory, MengHai Tea Factory and XiGuan Tea Factory.
With these major changes in PuErh tea production management, overall quality remained fairly consistent. Centralised control and management, meant that although demand had grown, growth was steady and could be easily supplied from existing production capacity. The late 1990's was to change this, the production of PuErh and the PuErh tea market.
This period of time saw, for the first time the introduction of wild and ancient tea tree PuErh cakes. These pure wild and ancient tree PuErh teas had not been considered necessary or practical during the days of the planned economy. The first decade of the 21 century, saw the further opening up of the PuErh tea market and the popularisation that aged teas were collectable and would improve with age. This however bought with it investors who could see a market with opportunities for huge profits, and with them started a gold rush fever which resulted in a massive (PuErh) bubble.
Unfortunately this sudden demand drove up prices which drew many many forgeries. With teas being brought in from other provinces including FuJian, GuangXi, GuangDong. In the best case, teas were blended with local teas, in the worse cases there were cakes made with non tea leaves and treated with dyes and chemicals to give the cake the appearance of aged PuErh, which were then wrapped and packed in excellent copies of sort after teas papers. Although the market settled after the burst in 2009/10. There are still many forged cakes in the market place, especially in the large tea markets of GuangDong.
On the positive side of change. The start of the 21 century has meant the availability and choice in the PuEr tea market has blossomed. There is now much more availability of single source teas, improved blended PuErh teas and wild arbor teas.