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Guangdong’s Unsung Hero: Unveiling the History of Pu’er Tea in Southern China

In 2021, the author conducted numerous lectures in Yunnan, where one student gravely mentioned that their family, residing in Kunming, had never imbibed Pu’er tea before. While many may deem this incredulous, it holds merit. Historically, the denizens of Yunnan predominantly indulged in Yunnan green, Yunnan red, or floral teas indigenous to the province. Pu’er tea, on the other hand, primarily found its way to Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao during those epochs.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the exportation of Pu’er tea was streamlined by conferring export rights to the Guangdong Tea and Native Products Branch of the China Native Products and Animal Products Import and Export Corporation, henceforth referred to as the “Guangdong Company.” A collection of Pu’er tea advertising ephemera from the sixties and seventies showcases the concerted efforts of Guangdong companies in printing and disseminating materials promoting Pu’er cake tea and Pu’er Tuo tea.

Contemporary Pu’er tea is categorized into two variants: raw and cooked. What variety of Pu’er dominated sales in Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao? A compendium of Pu’er tea advertisements from Guangdong companies in the seventies elucidates: “Yunnan Pu’er tea is renowned both domestically and internationally for its vibrant red infusion, robust flavor profile, and purported health benefits, making it a paramount libation.”

The assertion of “vibrant red infusion” implies that the Pu’er tea traded to Hong Kong and Macao during that era was likely the red variety, not raw Pu’er. In the eighties, Zhou Cong, hailing from Tengchong, Yunnan, established Nantian Trading Company in Hong Kong. Leveraging the wave of reform, Nantian burgeoned into a preeminent purveyor of Pu’er tea in Hong Kong. As recounted by Zhou Cong’s sibling, Mr. Zhou Yong, Nantian’s annual sales tallied an average of 3,000 to 4,000 tons of Pu’er, predominantly comprising cooked Pu’er. Raw tea demanded meticulous aging, typically for a decade, before being deemed palatable by Hong Kongers. The predilection for cooked Pu’er among denizens of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao is intricately intertwined with the region’s distinct tea culture, centered around the enjoyment of tea alongside dim sum in teahouses. Cooked Pu’er, with its oily richness, mellowness, and resistance to over-brewing, perfectly complemented this culinary tradition.

Red soup Pu’er, a challenging concoction to master, attained its zenith during the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China era. Prior to this, Pu’er tea knew no distinction between raw and cooked. Enduring lengthy transits from Yunnan to Guangdong and Hong Kong, Pu’er tea underwent post-fermentation, culminating in a luscious, aged profile. This transformative process mirrors the evolution of delicacies like stinky tofu and stinky mandarin fish, where accidental spoilage metamorphosed into culinary innovation.

The commercialization of red soup Pu’er owes much to the entrepreneurial acumen of tea merchants in the Pearl River Delta, who capitalized on the fortuitous aging of Pu’er tea. Their ingenuity lay in accelerating this post-fermentation process through meticulous study and experimentation.

The formalization of accelerated post-fermentation techniques by the Guangdong Tea Import and Export Company in the fifties ushered in a new era for Pu’er tea production. Led by a three-person technical team, these endeavors not only expedited traditional post-fermentation but also laid the groundwork for the standardized production of cooked Pu’er. This pioneering initiative significantly bolstered Pu’er tea sales and catalyzed the growth of China’s Pu’er tea industry.

The year 1983 witnessed over 8,000 tons of Pu’er tea production in Guangdong, with nearly half earmarked for export. Subsequent publications detailing Guangdong Pu’er tea processing techniques underscored the region’s pivotal role in Pu’er tea’s evolution. Regrettably, contemporary academia often overlooks or deliberately neglects the history of Guangdong Pu’er.

The hallmark of Guangdong Pu’er processing lies in its adaptability and inclusivity. Akin to an oral history recounted by tea aficionados, Guangdong Pu’er production eschews rigid adherence to Yunnan large-leaf varieties, embracing a diverse array of tea greens. This eclecticism extends to sourcing raw materials beyond Yunnan, including varieties from Hainan, Sichuan, and Guizhou.

Forty years apart, anecdotes from 1960s and 2004 echo a shared sentiment: the essence of Pu’er tea lies not in geographic provenance but in the pursuit of gustatory delight. This ethos underpins Guangdong Pu’er production, which prioritizes satisfying tea enthusiasts’ palates.

Reflecting on a favorite tea blend from the 1990s, melding Guangdong red soup tea with Yunnan large-leaf ripe tea, evokes an enduring appreciation for Pu’er’s timeless allure. This blend, aged over two decades, yields a tea of resplendent hue, evocative aroma, and nuanced flavor—a testament to the enduring legacy of Pu’er tea craftsmanship.

In essence, the ethos of Guangdong Pu’er production epitomizes a commitment to culinary excellence and sensory delight, transcending conventional notions of tea connoisseurship.

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