Interview with Master Wang – The Reclaiming of Pu-Erh

WY: Pu-Erh is the oldest, and perhaps, one of the most mysterious teas in the world, and most certainly, a treasure of the tea world. The history of Pu-Erh is fraught with adventure, travel, and international intrigue. Master Wang, you are an herbalist and traditional health care practitioner. Tell us your background and interest with Pu-Erh.

MW: I was born and raised in Yunnan, the origin of Pu-Erh where tea is a big part of life for many people in Yunnan including myself. I grew up with this tea culture. My real passion for drinking and sharing fine Pu-Erh tea didn’t start until I experienced a major health crisis 20 years ago. As a result, I was forced to review and change some of my life priorities and choices. This began my journey of health cultivation which has led to my extremely sensitive palate and olfaction (sense of smell). I have become able to discern the healing power of clean, fine Pu-Erh tea from that of immature or sub standard teas.

Enjoying and sharing masterfully crafted Pu-Erh has become a transformative journey: pleasurable, healing and invigorating. Tea, especially fine Pu-Erh has become a way of life for me. It’s beyond words.

Being an herbalist helps me distinguish what is good Pu-Erh tea according to how the tea impacts the human body. I drink tea with my entire body! If the energetics of the tea warms my extremities and causes the chi to run to the bottom of my feet, and I feel my dan tien (navel area) open, then it’s good tea. If it merely causes heat to rise to the crown of my head, it’s not my “cup of tea.” Good Pu-Erh tea will tend to induce mild perspiring on the crown of your head as well as opening up the meridians of the body. It’s one of the most medically efficacious teas from a Chinese herbal medicine standpoint. If the tea makes my tongue numb, it is likely that there are chemicals in the tea. If taking a deep breath of the tea – especially dry leaves — makes you sneeze, it may contain unwanted mold in it. Many Pu-Erh teas in the market commonly have these types of impure qualities.

In the 1980’s, I met one of China’s legendary Pu-Erh Tea Masters, Mr. Zhang Qing Ming whose father happens to be from my same little town—Tengchong in Yunnan. This started my mentorship and collaboration with him and his masters. This legendary lineage of 3 generations of Pu-Erh masters have been on the forefront of reclaiming the original Pu-Erh.

WY: The Pu-Erh industry has seen some changes lately, with worldwide interest and much bidding and speculating, driving prices to unknown levels. Subsequently, that market has also somewhat crashed in China. What is your opinion on the current state of the Pu-Erh market?

MW: Every year I go back to Yunnan to work with my Yunnan tea team. One of the things I notice is that more fine Pu-Erh is being produced and consumed. However, the creation of fine Pu-Erh is still a “lost art” practiced well by relatively few masters. Therefore, educating and sharing of the art and craft of Pu-Erh with more tea people is vital. As a native of Yunnan living in San Francisco, California for the last 13 years, I clearly see the importance of bridging of the East and West in order to fully reclaim Pu-Erh.

Over the last few years many involved in the tea trade profited from inferior quality Pu-Erh. Some of these teas were at best tolerable, and at worst, gave people headaches and other unwanted health consequences. Fortunately, as consumers began to appreciate fine Pu-Erh with greater depth and health benefits, they stopped buying the lower grade Pu-Erh that had flooded the market.

As a result, the market crashed. However, I see this as a positive thing because this is the beginning of a tea renaissance in which all the fine and mature Pu-Erh teas will emerge. The Pu-Erh industry in China is going to continue becoming more professional and the market more mature. More and more individual tea drinkers are trusting their own palate and feeling when they select their teas regardless of hype or trends.

WY: Why is Yunnan trying to reclaim Pu-Erh tea, and what positive actions do you think have taken place?

MW:

1) This has been a joint effort of the last 3 generations of Pu-Erh masters, in Yunnan as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan etc, to reclaim the ancient Pu-Erh tradition. For them, this journey of reclaiming and sharing Pu-Erh is their life-local commitment.

2) Historically, Pu-Erh has been the identity of the entire Yunnan region. A supreme Pu-Erh equals a supreme Yunnan.

3) With Pu-Erh as one of the main industries in Yunnan, there have been financial and economic motivations to reclaim Pu-Erh.

Pu-Erh tea is originally from Yunnan, and has the taste of Yunnan. Every blade of grass, every flower speaks of its heritage and the soil that it came from, and Pu-Erh tea is no different. Pu-Erh teas are trees, unlike most common teas in the world that are bushes. That means that for a 5 feet tree, the roots are 20 feet deep. Did you know that the original character ‘cha’ for tea, actually speaks of these trees? The upper radical is ‘plant’, the middle character is ‘man’, and the bottom character is ‘tree’. Because of the hiatus since the 1950s until largely the 1980s, much Pu-Erh tea was moved to southern places like Hong Kong. There was little Pu-Erh production in Yunnan during that period of time, and much of what was known was lost. Many of the old masters have died. The taste of Pu-Erh became acclimated to that of the taste of Hong Kong Pu-Erh, an aged, fermented, character. Hong Kong is very humid and induced the fermentation and aging processes very successfully. The problem though, was the excessive mustiness and moldiness, and the other smells, that a crowded city like Hong Kong could not prevent from infiltrating the teas. Yunnan is a pristine place, full of high mountains and deep caves. There is a lot of virgin land and clean environment not only for the tea trees to thrive and grow, but also, most importantly, for them to store and age successfully in. It is a much more appropriate place for the complete processing of Pu-Erh. That is why Yunnan wants to take what it knows and what was learned in Hong Kong, improve on it, and raise the quality standards of Pu-Erh tea at large.

In terms of positive actions now taking place, we can see the following:

1) The Yunnan government and tea industry are working for higher standards.
2) Tea professionals are actively supporting dialog and collaboration amongst different tea professionals locally and internationally.
As an example, I along with other tea professionals were recently invited to an international tea conference and competition. A few key points were established and standardized.

WY: What are some of these new quality standards?

MW: Simplicity, Cleanliness and Purity are the number one standards. Begin with good raw materials. That means the leaves are from trees from Yunnan (Camellia Sinensis Pu-Erh), not bushes from elsewhere. Most tea bushes elsewhere were grafted with shallow root systems, supported by fertilizer. True Pu-Erh trees found in Yunnan are grown from seed, and have deep root systems, and require no chemical fertilizers. That means the raw material starts out to be high quality. From harvesting to transporting to the factory for processing to final storage, no foreign smells may be introduced. That means that every receptacle for these teas are kept clean and free from usage for other means, and no foreign matters are placed close by. That is the most basic definition of Purity and Cleanliness. No impurities, no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides. You see, tea trees are all good, it’s the people that sometimes make it bad. Simplicity means that the character of the tea has deep substance, appreciated more and more over time. No scenting or perfuming is needed when it is good, simple tea.

WY: What about the processing of the teas? Any new standards pertaining to those?

MW: After good raw materials are harvested, the best Pu-Erhs must be sun-dried. You see, if there wasn’t adequate sun that day, the wet leaves can become moldy quickly. The natives will try to cover this fact by quickly pan-firing or even roasting to dry the leaves. The real professional knows this while many purported ‘experts’ cannot tell the difference.

Next, the fermentation of Pu-Erh and its aging process is still mostly a mystery of nature. The starting points may be the same for many teas but the ending results may vary quite a bit. Did it end up an excellent piece after 10 years? 20 years? It cannot be known until then. That’s why in the new quality standard, the re-combining of the best aged teas are now promoted. Firstly, some teas are aged loose, but most are compressed. The best aged Pu-Erhs are a recombination effort of the best aged compressed Pu-Erhs unraveled, and then recombined with other high quality ones, and then re-compressed. In the past, good quality aged Pu-Erhs tend to be combined with poor quality ones for sales purposes. The consumer may get a mix of good and bad for the price of the good. In the new quality standard, only the best Pu-Erhs may be recombined together.

WY: You mentioned that the preferred taste of Pu-Erh is now known as ‘Hong Kong style’, and promoted and favored by the largest consumer base of Pu-Erh lovers, the people who go to dim sum parlors. How does the taste of Pu-Erh in Yunnan differ?

MW: The taste preference of Hong Kong is great, and we tried to learn and elicit the best, and leave out the rest. For example, we like the aged character of the teas, but not the moldiness of it. We now have three standard production styles: uncooked green Pu-Erh to be post-fermented and aged naturally, cooked Pu-Erh that can be consumed immediately, and cooked Pu-Erh aged extensively to resemble the preferred taste of Hong Kong, and we call that one the ‘Hong Kong Style’ Pu-Erh. Our next step is to have this fine “Hong Kong Pu-Erh” made in Yunnan.

WY: Any other criteria for quality?

MW: Heritage. The knowledge that is handed down from generation to generation is invaluable. In the recent years of Pu-Erh speculation, many outsiders have set up factories in Yunnan to make Pu-Erh tea without the proper foundation and knowledge, and certainly, no lineage to speak of. So the direct lineage from the old masters is very important.

WY: Finally, since Master Wang, you are a master herbalist, what are some traditional Chinese medicine perspectives on Pu-Erh that deem it beneficial to the tea drinker?

MW: Good Pu-Erhs have many beneficial health benefits. The green uncooked Pu-Erhs have cooling and calming effects if consumed very diluted, as it is very potent. Over dosage can lead to adverse health consequences. This is in the spirit of the homeopathic principle of “less is more.”

In addition, Pu-Erh tea is rich in vitamins and minerals. According to Chinese medicine Pu-Erh is most effective for reducing stress and eliminating toxins from the body. The cooked Pu-Erhs are great for lowering cholesterol and uric acid reduction, improving sleep, moving one’s chi to the extremities, opening meridians, preventing blockage and aids digestion. Aged teas both from cooked or uncooked Pu-Erhs are effective for reducing headaches, lowering high blood pressure, and are all good anti-oxidants. There is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Similarly, there is good caffeine and bad caffeine. Fine Pu-Erh teas have good caffeine. It stimulates the nervous system and opens all channels, but you can sleep well after drinking it!

Pu-Erh tea is art expressed as medicine, and also medicine expressed as art. It’s a drinkable antique, and it’s value is priceless even beyond speculation. I look forward to having other tea masters and tea professionals add to the growing international dialog, collaboration and sharing of the powerful living art and living medicine known as Pu-Erh tea.

For years, as a health practitioner and tea educator I have worked enthusiastically to verbally share the spirit of “Chan Cha Yi Wei” — Zen and Tea is One Taste. Yet, each time I am blessed with a cup of fine Pu-Erh I find myself speechless, because as the old Zen saying goes, “Tea Talks.”

In closing, I want to thank you for this opportunity of sharing this fine cup of tea and invite you for many more cups to come.