The tea from Shangri-la

Dusty old tea cake or priceless antique? Amongst the kitchen rubble, Christos finds a pat of pressed leaves and shares the Pu-erh infused stream of consciousness that follows.


Ming Dynasty vase used as an umbrella stand sells for £43 million.

That was the headline that popped into my head when I found a cake of dusty old Pu-erh amongst my kitchen cabinet’s flotsam and jetsam. Imagine my glee. A Pu Erh tea disc in a tea auction held in China during 2013 fetched more than £1 million!

To be fair, that said tea dates from the Qing Dynasty, so it’s a veritable antique. In the current market, most commonly seen Pu-erh tea cakes are between three to ten years vintage: my greed knows its bounds. In a recent 2016 price report, some of the Pu-erh tea of the 1990s vintage cost roughly between £100 to £200.

I’ve no recollection of how this stroke of good fortune was bestowed on my mother and myself. Mother is a coffee lady, maybe sometimes tea, but definitely not Pu-erh tea. A tea that had its coming out party in the West only a few years ago. No doubt helped by Victoria Beckham’s proclamation of its wonder.

Reportedly excellent for promoting fast metabolism and indigestion, I am intrigued by what drives the price of Pu-erh tea. The simple equation of supply and demand doesn’t fully explain it. Sure, demand has steadily grown over the last few years with awareness in the West, as well as the growing affluent class in China. But supply has never been a problem. Aside from a presumably finite tea leaf supply from old tea trees and wild tea trees that range from hundreds to thousands years old, new harvest has been robust.

Besides, most of those auctioned with a princely sum are not from these old trees. In fact, there was a glut of production of Pu-erh tea during the tea bubble of 2007 and 2008. From over 200 tea factories in 2007, only about 40 remained after the bubble burst. By 2009, only less than 20 maintained full year tea production, including the four main government linked factories: Menghai tea factory; Xiaguan tea factory; Kunming tea factory and Pu-erh Tea Group.

Pu-erh as a speculative financial product
Provenance, age, leaves from particular trees and workmanship are already well documented to be crucial factors in determining the price of Pu-erh. The provenance within different Yunnan regions and different trees are worthy of a book on botany itself. As I dug deeper, I was surprised that in China, some banks had even packaged and introduced Pu-erh tea as wealth management financial products in recent years.

Similar to gold ETF (exchange traded funds), these Pu-erh ETFs are traded like a company’s stocks. It’s not surprising since two most popular food products in coffee beans and soya beans are already traded. The first such product was launched by Construction Bank of China in 2009. As recent as 2011, Commercial Bank of China had packaged gold and Pu-erh into a financial product, though I have little clue on how it works beyond my understanding of ETF. Logically thinking, this surely contributes partly to the price increase in Pu-erh with a nation known for its penchant for a game of dice.


Golden Melon Royal Pu-erh from Imperial Palace Museum (source: screenshot from a Chinese documentary)

The priceless undrinkable tea
Pu-erh is much more than just an artificial construct with an appended number displayed on an electronic board. It’s a living, breathing product. Over the course of history, the recorded writings about the tea, its enjoyment and as tributes to emperors had added cultural values to the tea beyond mere product value. In 1960s, when historians of the Imperial Palace Museum cleaned its inventory, among the tea tributes were Pu-erh. The oolongs, Longjings, Tie Kuang Yins and others had disintegrated to dust, save for the Pu-erh.

One of its type is called the Golden Melon Royal, reportedly insured for a sum of £2.5 million pounds. It has survived nary a scratch, but the elephant in the room – is it still drinkable? According to tea experts, probably not. Since it had been stored underground, tea experts surmised that it probably had been infused with fumes of insecticides. Not that one will drink it. This undrinkable priceless national treasure only adds to the lore of Pu-erh.


A tea caravan from Sichuan, 1926 (source:asiawheeling.com)


A tea caravan along a narrow path carved from mountains (source: screenshot from a Korean documentary)

The Legend of Pu-erh
The fact that Pu-erh can be left to ferment and mature for better drinkability over ages like wine makes it an ideal product to be transported over long distance. The most legendary of these trading routes is of course the Old Tea Horse road, otherwise known as the Southern Silk Road. A network of caravan roads leads from mainly northewestern Yunnan to Indian Bengal through Burma and Sichuan to Tibet. This Yunnan region is most often cited to be the inspiration and physical representation for Shangri-la. The roads were established for barter trading with Tibetan tribes in ancient times. Horses for the Chinese, and tea for the Tibetans. Through sheer cliffs and deep ravines, caravans of hundreds of mules and yaks packed with compressed Pu-erh would make the arduous journey through majestic peaks, expansive plains where accidental death was not an uncommon occurrence to both animals and men.


Both animals and men use rope to traverse the ragging water at certain river crossings along the road (source: screenshot from a Korean documentary)

Though the last caravan that plied this road was in the 1950s, this grand collective endeavour over 13 centuries since the Tang dynasty has ‘imprinted’ the memories and experience into the DNA of Pu-erh, imbuing it with notions of magnificent odyssey and conjuring imageries of mystical Shangri-la. This pedigree amps up the cultural value of Pu-erh tremendously.

Back to reality
So what to make of my little treasure which I discovered? Before I put it up on eBay and rubbed my hands, I decided to pay a visit to a tea shop that I know of, run by a Chinese lady. Alas, my treasure according to her is a ‘garden variety’ ripe Pu-erh, widely available in all reputable tea houses, including hers of course. Costs about £4. It may look like an antique but it has just been unloved and left in a cabinet.

Oh well, with dreams of a windfall dissipating like steam, I decide to go home and attempt to savour the mystique of Pu-erh.

Christos Gkosdis is an engineer by profession and a foodie at heart. A connoiseur of chilies, he can take as much heat as the best of asians. In his free time, he likes to relax with a book, especially books on World War 2 and Greek history.