Vice Puerh Misunderstandings

Correcting Puerh Misunderstandings, A Helping Hand for Vice

My Job Application for Vice’s Chief Puerh Editor

Recently a Puerh article from Vice garnered a few shares in online tea circles, leading to e-mails in my inbox asking about the validity of many of the claims in the article. After a cursory glance at the post, I noticed at least a half-dozen factual errors, along with several misrepresentations of the situation of Puerh in Yunnan. Not that I would expect a first time Yunnan visitor or Vice’s munchies section to be factual authorities on Puerh tea, as it is an admittedly dense topic to gloss over in a short travel log. Unfortunately, the article got a few facts wrong and Vice is a lot more widely read than my piddly little blog. Hence this post, which will try to clear up some of these Puerh misunderstandings from the Vice article quote by quote.

Bingdao Puerh Tea
Bingdao Spring Fresh Leaf from 2015

“Shops that sell puer dot the city, but vend the same stuff that’s sold in any grocery store around the country.”

The only Puerh that typically makes it to grocery stores with any regularity in China is Colourful Yunnan, which is basically Puer Lipton. Kunming has two sizable tea markets, Jinshi and Kangle, both of which have far more Puerh tea variety than any grocery store or even specialty tea shop. Other cities like Simao or Menghai are also full of tea shops. Perhaps the author ran into some low quality shops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grocery store with fresh spring raw maocha [loose Puerh tea] or 30 varieties of raw Puerh, both of which are commonly found in most Kunming shops.

“Yunnan lacks airports, so traveling from one town to another requires spending twenty-odd hours on a sleeper bus.”

This adds flavor to the story, but conveniently ignores that there are airports in Xishuangbanna (Jinghong), Simao, Kunming, Lincang, Baoshan, Dali, Lijiang,… I am getting tired of typing city names. Suffice it to say there are plenty of airports. And if you take a twenty hour sleeper bus, it is probably because you are trying to save $5 instead of arrive at your destination. Either that or there was a miscommunication when buying your ticket, as express buses are extremely common.  I get it, the whole “Yunnan is poor and look at the difficult route I painstakingly traveled” narrative falls apart if you can take an 8 hour bus, but still; you can get to Lincang or BanNa from Kunming in less than ten hours, even with a flat tire factored in. Rent a car and 7 hours might cut it. Or you could fly.

“No teas is served…I ask if I could have a cup of tea. The cook laughs as he turns and saunters back into the kitchen.”

I’ve never been to a restaurant or truck stop in Yunnan that didn’t have tea. Granted, I have not been to every truck stop across the province. And when I ‘ve had tea, it was never excellent quality Puerh tea. However, it’s free and standard with any purchased meal at a restaurant. Also, why would anyone expect or search for good tea at a truck stop or restaurant?

“Tea trees grow along Yunnans Lancang River, and only the leaves picked from there can be eventually called puer.”

This is an oddball definition, even allowing for the nuance and disagreement around the subject. This definition would exclude several major tea producing areas which are not along the river, such as many of the tea mountains throughout Xishuangbanna, Yiwu, and Yibang.  This is a more accurate Puerh definition, for the interested.

Lancang River Puerh Vice
A photograph below Xigui, on the Lancang river, taken in Spring 2015

“The leaves are then sent to a city called, well, PuEr, where dozens of manufacturers produce their own blends according to recipes passed down for generations. The leaves are fermented for at least three months and up to several years, ending up as either sheng (raw) tea or shou (ripe) tea.”

Again, this ignores a gigantic portion of the Puerh producing world; Xishuangbanna and Yiwu come to mind. Most of the more notable factories and productions from throughout history are not from Puer city. Puer city was actually a recent name change and a plot to gather more tea tourists, most of the best Puerh tea is nowhere near Puer city. I am also not sure what three months refers to – but there is not really a time limit involved in any case. Some Guangdong clan purists will demand a certain amount of age for raw tea before it is deemed truly Puerh.

“Because tea is kept as something special here,” one says dismissively between hits. “Its enjoyed slowly, with family or close friends. Its not something thats just part of a meal.”

This adds some magical mystique to the narrative but it is not grounded in truth. People have, share, and sell tea everywhere in Yunnan. It’s ubiquitous at meals or tea tables with both friends and strangers alike. I am curious if the author visited any tea mountains on the journey.  Tea plantations should have had tea everywhere in March. Any tea farmer would happily brew samples for a traveler in an effort to sell some tea or just to be polite and have a chat. Even during off season, any restaurant or shop will gladly serve tea, even to sworn enemies. Never underestimate the power of pleasantries to take precedent over a feud.

“Thats when it dawns on me. The people along the Lancang River see how much work goes into making puer. Theyre part of the process. They spend years cultivating the tea. For them, its not an afterthought during mealtime. Puer tea bulbs are more like Murano glass vases than the loose leaves you might have in your pantry.”

Again, pretty story, just totally false. Tea farmers will (and gladly do) sell their tea to whoever wants to purchase it. This is how they earn their living. After all, staring at your glass vases and never selling them is a pretty bad business model. It’s not Fabergé eggs, it is tea. Any farmer can spare a few kilograms for casual drinking, even if it is lower grade Huangpian.

 “I try to take in the aroma of the land, but all I can smell is exhaust.”

What better tried and true way to end an article on China than the smell of exhaust fumes? Because China = pollution, amirite!? The air in the tea mountains is some of the freshest, most fragrant air I’ve ever encountered. However, that is tough to fit in with the 20 hours bus ride and poverty theme, so I understand the editorial choice.

Helping to Spread Correct Puerh Tea Information

Articles like this are obviously more story telling than dissemination of Puerh tea information, so, why do i care? Puerh is a topic with plenty of strong opinions, so usually I don’t nitpick (openly, anyway). I only take issue when the information mixed in with the story is blatantly false. Obviously a first time Yunnan tea tourist who hops on a bus from Kunming and doesn’t have any connections is not going to stumble upon old arbor Yiwu reserves. I’ve been here for ten years and need to knife fight for what little old arbor Yiwu I can get. But, finding Puer tea in general should not be difficult with the right approach.

Xigui Puerh Tea Misunderstandings
Xigui Old Arbor Tea from 2015, Overlooking the Mighty Lancang

The author’s trip in Yunnan is the equivalent of me going to California and taking a Greyhound bus from San Diego thinking, “I heard Napa Valley has some good wines!” Then visiting gas stations and truck stops along the route. Finding no wine and concluding, “Man, the wine here really sucks! I asked some guys smoking outside of the gas station about Napa wine and they told me that they only drink wine with close friends. Guess I am f&*%^$d! Also, LA has smog.”

In any case, an article with this lack of research and cursory understanding will probably pass muster with the casual Vice crowd, but it results in the spread of misinformation to potential Puerh tea drinkers and e-mails from confused readers in my inbox. So, next time Vice or any other magazine wants to run one of these pieces, please just shoot me an e-mail and I can guest edit/fact-check the piece. You can preach whatever narrative you want, but at least clean up the “only trees from near the Lancang river are Puerh” bits so that tea drinkers don’t get the wrong idea.

  • Cwyn

    Read your piece here and thought, oh great here we go again but just no straight razors to slit my throat after. I haven’t read this Vice thing before but they also have another article “How Iced Tea Can Kill You” or some such. Vice seems like National Enquirer with better photos.

    • Arimal

      Their video journalist are actually doing some good legitimate reporting work in dangerous areas, unfortunately the print side of things is not held to the same standard.

      • TwoDog2

        It’s interesting how hit and miss Vice seems to be. I have seen some really interesting pieces from them over the last few years, but this article seemed like it wasn’t even edited.

    • TwoDog2

      Maybe they meant Ice-T? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice-T

  • Squirrel

    People who really enjoy pu-erh and have surfed the web will discard this cheap elucubration anyway.. For the rest…let them dwell in ignorance, lest they drive the prices up >:)

    • TwoDog2

      I suppose any Puerh drinker will dismiss the article, I just think it might mislead potential Puer drinkers who are interested and trying to find valuable information about Puer tea

  • Robert Godden

    Never heard of Vice, but enjoyed your article nonetheless

    • TwoDog2

      Thanks!

  • http://www.teaformeplease.com/ Nicole Martin

    There was so many things wrong with this article. Thanks for clearing it up for them! A former employer of mine made a similar claim about Yunnan not having transportation. She characterized it as a third world country. That does a disservice to the region and it’s tea.

    • TwoDog2

      No problem, thanks for reading

  • Tea

    Is there any advice you have for first time travels to xishuangbanna I am planning a trip and outside of booking a tour with an agency I am not sure where to start. I want to taste the local foods and see mountain landscape on the cheap.

    • TwoDog2

      Can’t say I really know any tourist agencies off hand, but if you are in Northern cities like Kunming, Dali, or Lijiang they have very decent tourist infrastructure and beautiful mountains. Going to more remote tea areas might be challenging without language ability. Jingmai is upping its tourist game lately too

  • ian

    Love the Napa wine analogy, hilarious.

    I will say when I lived in China it was hard as hell to find decent tea at first, even with some passable Chinese. I feel like it took a good week just in the city to find a decent shop or two and then a little bit more effort to make them realize I wasn’t a tourist looking for a jin of jasmine to give as a gift. The good tea for me was found in the most random places, from the fruit guy who had tea farmer relatives or some totally out of the way shop that seemed totally unassuming and maybe like someone’s garage. I can’t even imagine trying to source decent (and decently priced maocha). It’s an admirable pursuit indeed, and much appreciated on this end. Looking forward to your ’15 picks 🙂

    • TwoDog2

      Thanks! Still busy picking through teas now – they should be out in a couple of months, allowing time for resting the leaf and pressing

  • miig

    great work! Thanks a lot.

    • TwoDog2

      Much appreciated

  • http://WorldVitae.com/ Toffler

    Hilarious! Thanks for that. Unbelievable what gets printed with little (um, no?) editorial fact-checking (SMH). Just wish I had read the original Vice article first to laugh all their untowardly missteps.

    • TwoDog2

      It really does seem like a website as big as Vice would have at least a couple of people vetting articles and checking facts. Maybe the information out there online is too scattered for them to make sense of

  • http://psychanaut.wordpress.com/ Nick H

    Vice is a sensationalistic s-pot.

    Keep up the good work, 2dog.

  • http://laconic-prolixity.blogspot.com/ Christopher D. Walborn

    I’ve just begun reading the Jinghong Zhang book you recently reviewed, and noted (p. 11) that she says that the tea was named after the town, which was “a center for goods and taxation in Southern Yunnan since the early seventeenth century (Fang Guoyu 2001: 427-428; Xie Zhaozhi 2005: 3; Ma Jianxiong 2007: 563).” Wikipedia indicates that Pu’er was renamed to Simao in 1950, and then back again in 2007—no doubt following the Pu’er bubble, as you say. So, it seems that the tea was named for the city, and then the city returned the favor. Or something. None of which, of course, reduces the fumble of the Vice article, but I found it interesting.

  • Jiang Hu Tea

    This two articles together where really amusing… thanks for the very good text.