On the trail of one of the most expensive, controversial teas in the world
Gao Fachang is walking up a jungle path deep in China’s Six Great Tea Mountains. We have spent the last hour on steep dirt roads, being tossed around in a pickup truck like rocks in a washing machine. Now on foot, we scramble past a hut with split bamboo walls and an earthen floor. Gao, 56, was born in these mountains, and this is the kind of home he grew up in. “Tigers scratched themselves on the outside of the house while we were sleeping,” Gao recalls before hustling on.
I’m here with Gao in search of some of the most coveted tea in the world: ancient-tree pu’er. For most people, the dark tea is just an accessory to dim sum — a musty and sometimes bitter brew meant to cut through a heavy meal. But in China, and in circles of tea enthusiasts, pu’er has recently become the object of a devoted collectors’ market and the subject of heated controversy. Though by day Gao is the town math teacher, he is also one of the most outspoken figures in the industry.
We climb to a site thick with towering mango trees and wild strawberries, a sign this area hasn’t been touched by pesticides. Overgrown shrubs with splotchy white trunks dot the hillside. Gao bends down to look at the trunks and starts snapping pictures. He tells me to do the same, though I’m not immediately sure why; it takes a minute for me to realize that what look like unkempt shrubs are actually tea trees and the source of some of the world’s most expensive — and commonly faked — tea.
This stand, known as gu shu, is several centuries old by Gao’s estimation. He plucks off three pale-green leaves and orders me to eat them. The first leaf, tightly curled, is extremely bitter; the remaining two are fragrant and sweet. After being picked, dried, and moved through the first stage of processing, these leaves will sell for more than $250 per pound.
For many decades, if not centuries, pu’er was seen as a “rough” tea. Refined people drank the fresh green teas of Hangzhou or the darker oolongs of Fujian province. Pu’er was traded away to places where people ate greasier foods — Tibet, Inner Mongolia, northern China, Hong Kong — and several of the mule paths along these routes became collectively known as the Tea Horse Road.
The modern craze for pu’er can be traced back to 1994. That was the year a group of Taiwanese connoisseurs, who had developed a taste for naturally aged tea, visited a small town called Yiwu, where the tea was produced. They were dismayed to find the tea culture in ruins — the old tea brands had been absorbed into state-owned factories established by the Communists — and the city deep in poverty.
The head of the tour group had brought along a pressed cake of pu’er from Tong Qing Hao, a once-famous Yiwu tea producer. He brewed a pot for the town chief and other officials and asked them to guess its value. “400 RMB?” ventured one, referring to renminbi, the Chinese currency. (At the time, 40 RMB per month, or about $5, was considered a decent salary.) This tea, the group leader replied, was worth 15,000 RMB, or about $1,750. It didn’t take local officials long to find two men who had worked at Tong Qing Hao in their youth. Using the Taiwanese group’s tea as a model, they began to reverse-engineer the aged pu’er.
Today, pre–World War II teas such as Tong Qing Hao are a status symbol among nouveau riche, and the price for other aged pu’er teas can be higher than the price of gold. Amazingly, all of this has happened despite the fact that traders, consumers, historians, and government departments are still fighting over what exactly pu’er is. Is the defining feature that it comes from a large-leaf tea plant (not the small-leaf varietal), or is the processing method more important? Does it have to come from southern Yunnan province, or can it be made with leaves from across the border in Laos or Vietnam? Should it be aged, and if so, should it be done naturally (and called sheng cha, or raw tea), or is it acceptable to speed up the process through controlled fermentation (after which it is called shu cha, or cooked tea)?
Some people have compared the debate to that over terroir in the wine world. But imagine this as a wine market where no one can agree on the basic rules for what makes a Bordeaux, or even where Bordeaux’s boundaries are, and then factor in rampant counterfeiting, mislabeling, and profiteering.
Gao’s involvement in this controversy began as a simple, personal mission: A few decades ago, he noticed that the taste of the tea he grew up with was beginning to change, and he set out to discover why. He spent years walking and jogging through the Six Great Tea Mountains, tracing every path of the Tea Horse Road and tracking every ruined temple, tasting leaves from all types of tea trees in the process. At night, he slept in the jungle and, he says, used vines to lash himself to trees so he wouldn’t slide down the mountain. A hunter once shot at him, thinking he was a wild boar. He came out of the journey with two things: a hand-drawn, definitive map of the area, which now hangs in almost every local tea shop and farmer’s house, and a conviction that the tea of his youth still exists, but only in the kind of ancient stands he brought me to.
Gao tells me that the change in taste was the result of a government push to “scientifically develop” the tea industry. In the mid-20th century, tea officials declared that tea trees more than 60 years old were no longer good and should be cut down; they advocated the use of terracing instead. Most tea farmers complied. So when the market shifted about a decade ago, and the experts declared tea from ancient trees to be richer and more flavorful, it was too late. Only a handful of farmers, often in remote areas, had ignored the directive and continued to harvest tea from their wild, centuries-old trees. “The terraced tea looks nice,” says Gao. “But you can’t drink it.”
We spend an hour among the tea trees as Gao explains how to judge their age. On our walk back, he digs up a tuber the size of a volleyball and then scampers off to collect wild plants for that evening’s dinner. We drive the rutted roads back to town and spend the rest of the night in Gao’s living room. A steady stream of tea tourists passes through, eager to learn more about Yiwu’s pu’er. Gao, sitting in front of a huge version of his map, brews cup after cup of the golden liquid. He is deep into the lesson, lecturing a new group about the flavors of his youth, when I sneak out the door.