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.
“Shops that sell pu’er 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 Yunnan’s Lancang River, and only the leaves picked from there can be eventually called pu’er.”
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.
“The leaves are then sent to a city called, well, Pu’Er, 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. “It’s enjoyed slowly, with family or close friends. It’s not something that’s 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.
“That’s when it dawns on me. The people along the Lancang River see how much work goes into making pu’er. They’re part of the process. They spend years cultivating the tea. For them, it’s not an afterthought during mealtime. Pu’er 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.
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.