The Three Eras of Pu Er Planting
This is essential to understand the Pu Er phenomenon and critically view the many claims about Pu Er.
-Tea as a vital part of the local people (800-1800 years ago)
The province Yun Nan, where Pu Er comes from, is home to about 30 different ethnic groups including Thai, Ha Ni, Yi, Ji Nuo, Bu Lang, etc. Most of these cultures have a long tradition of cultivating and making tea with history goes back as far as 1800 years ago. In 1950, when an official counting was done, there were still 20-500 acres of very old tea trees that were planted by the ancient ancestors of these people in varies mountains in southern Yun Nan, many are over 1000 years old. A much reduced number of them survived to today but still almost every village has a few tea tree from this era and are often crowned as the king tea trees. Teas from these trees are rare and often protected.
-Tea as a large-scale government sponsored activity (1415AD – 1913AD)
Even though there has been private trading of tea for horses from Tibet and Si Chuan since the 1100s, it is not until Ming and Qing Dynasty that a large scale organized activity of tea planting and official trading for horses started. It is long considered a brilliant political policy by historians - as a measure to cover war needs of horses, to maintain attachment of Tibet, to unite a very diverse boarder region, and to increase tax for the central government. The record in 1950 shows that there were still over 100,000 acres of tea trees from this era. Today the number is reduced to half, of which about 30,000 acres are from Ming Dynasty, mostly in the Meng Hai/Meng La region (15 Ancient Mountains). The highly desired old tea trees or big tea trees are usually from this era.
-Pu Er Bubble
Due to war and a series of unfortunate events, large scale tea production in Pu Er halted for most of the first half of 1900s. After 1950, there were again some organized tea activities but very minimal. Pu Er starts to surface the market again in late 1990s, but it is not until 2003 that producers paid attention to Pu Er again. By 2005, Pu Er was the talk in the tea industry and its unique history and demographic had captivated the market. By 2007, Pu Er price had increased more than 100 to 6000 folds, with many claim it as the most valuable investment one can make. However, in 2007, the “Pu Er Market” crashed and price dropped drastically. This is known as the Pu Er Bubble. Building up to the Pu Er Bubble, large amount of older tea trees were cut off to move space for the plantation teas known as Tai Di Cha. Not only many low quality Sheng Pu were produced to meet the demand of an irrational market, many Shou Pu were also produced and sold as an “aged” Sheng Pu. These low quality teas are still circulating in the market, and a large quantity of them were sold off to Hong Kong, Korea and the US. 2009 is often referred to as the year that Pu Er starts to be “professionalized”, where the producers are more expertised and consumers more educated. The Pu Er phenomenon had kick-started a new aging practice in Chinese tea drinking, which was NOT a tradition in China before.