The Most Exclusive Pu’erh Teas Are Grown In China’s Ancient Tea ForestsExplorer Jeff Fuchs travels to tea forests in China’s southern Yunnan province in search of a perfect cup of tea.
Most of the world’s teas are grown on plantations on bushes arranged in wonderfully manicured rows. But not pu’erh. Tea enthusiast and author Jeff Fuchs, featured in The Tea Explorer, travelled to ancient tea forests in China’s southern Yunnan province.
Pu’erh tea leaves are hand-plucked from trees that are planted and then allowed to grow wild. “This is literally a tea forest. They’re allowed to live unpruned, unmolested, unfertilized. A lot of these trees are hundreds of years old,” marvels Fuchs.
These ancient forests are located in the Himalayan foothills in superb clay soil. There’s little direct rain or sunlight, the best conditions to grow the perfect teas.
Once the picker’s baskets are full of leaves, they’re processed by the tea farmers. That’s where the real magic happens — the raw processing can make or break a good pu’erh tea. The most important step is “the fry.” The leaves are cooked in giant woks, heated by wood fires. This gives the tea a complexity, depth and smoothness. A tea connoisseur can instantly tell if the leaves were under or overcooked.
After the frying is done, the tea farmers spread the pu’erh leaves out on large rattan mats, where they are rolled and kneaded to get the last of the moisture out.
The leaves then go to a processing plant where they are steamed and formed into cakes.
The final step is the beautiful paper wrappers — and then the pu’erh is ready for market.
The making of pu’erh tea involves many steps and people. One of the unique features of this special tea is that it’s meant to be aged. Some pu’erh teas hit peak flavour decades after they’re picked.
Because pu’erh teas have such a long shelf life, they were ideal for exporting. Until the 1950s these teas would be carried out of Yunnan province by mules over the Himalayas to market in Tibet, an arduous journey that Jeff Fuchs retraces in The Tea Explorer.