I am sitting in Kunming City, the capital of the Yunnan Province in Southwest China, close to the home of the incredible pu’er teas found at J-Tea. Pu’er tea is unique in its brick and cake format, qualities attributed to a rich history of trade in this region of China. It has been grown for nearly 1,200 years in the tropics of southern Yunnan Province and the areas surrounding the region, aptly known as Pu’er.
Like the rest of Yunnan, this region is incredibly heterogeneous culturally; it’s inhabited by several ethnic minority groups, or what are known in China as nationalities, shaosu minzu (少数民族). The agriculture here is incredibly rich and intertwined with the local forests and ecosystems, including cultivated tea forests with tea trees planted several hundred years ago. Similarly, the different ethnic groups have each developed their own cultural uses of tea. For instance, the Bulang people, who live in the tea growing regions, actually roast and eat pu’er as a food item rather than drinking it. Perhaps the most famous cultural use of pu’er is not by local cultures, but by Tibetans in neighboring high mountain regions. In fact, this historical demand for tea in northern regions was the impetus for pu’er’s brick and cake like form.
Unloading a Tibetan mule caravan, much like those traditionally used to transport pu’er.
Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡), on the upper Yangtze or Jinsha River, part of the route of the ancient Tea Horse Road.
The ancient Tea Horse Road, one of the oldest trade routes in all of Asia, originates in the subtropical lowlands of Yunnan and extends north to the highlands of the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans, who bred incredibly beautiful, strong, and valuable horses, desired Chinese tea from Yunnan and its neighboring regions to use in butter tea, which is a mixture of hot water, salt, butter, and pu’er or similar brick-like teas. The Tibetans traded horses and medicines for the tea, which was trekked and carried up and through Yunnan onto the Tibetan plateau by large mule caravans. Thus, packing the pu’er into bricks made it easier to load and carry over long distances.
In the cold mountains of Tibet, butter tea provides a great source of energy and warmth. Of course, pu’er tea in and of itself is quite an amazing treat, the flavor of which is actually more or less removed when it is used in Tibetan butter tea. Down in the lowlands of China, I certainly prefer my pu’er on its own, which allows full enjoyment of all its amazing qualities and rich taste.
To learn more about pu’er tea history and the ancient Tea Horse Road of Yunnan, check out the following two books: