Various teahouses across China and Taiwan have aged Puer that goes well above 100 years old. The tastes of these types of Puer are very earthy, dry and a bit musky at times, and most of them have turned to powder over the years as the leaves dry up and crumble. Even though they do wither into smaller pieces this does not mean the tea isn’t drinkable and in fact, if it is stored properly in a sealed container or bag it can be drunken hundreds of years later due to the tea’s fermentation process. Also, unlike other food that has an expiration date, aged tealeaves are like other tea leaves in that they are not ingested in the same way food is, thus preventing food poisoning. But how is it that these leaves could be so old and how were they brought into modern-day society? At this article we take a look at the common stories that are shared among tea makers and the role lineage plays in this scenario.
It is recorded throughout Chinese history that Puer was cultivated before the Tang dynasty but began to flourish during the time period as harvesting tools became more advanced and as China entered into its golden-age period. Puer was drunk among locals however its quantity was quite small and scarce due to technology limitations and transport complications. Most of the higher-end Puer was given to officials in the government as gifts and as a way for locals to share their respect for the king. In fact, so much Puer was distributed to the king that within the emperor’s palace there was specially designated areas for storing the tea that gradually grew and expanded over time due to the influx of teas surpassing the rate at which officials could drink them.
The emperor’s palace in fact remained China’s largest storing hub of Puer tea due to this phenomenon. Following the Tang dynasty into the Song period Puer tea was still considered a rarity and was even referred to as China’s national treasure, something which upholds until this day and explains why Puer is not grown in other countries due to national restrictions that prevent Puer trees and saplings to be sold to outside countries. This treasure was so hard to come buy that it was considered more rare than gold in some cases, and Chinese officials highly respected the tea along with its culture and medical benefits.
Tea reserves became so large in China’s government that the oldest of teas were buried into corners of the reserves and piled up to the point that they were neglected for hundreds of years to come. These reserves maintained inside the King’s palaces despite the ruling party ranging even until the Ming and Qing dynasties until 1911, when the last ruling dynasty of China came to an end. For roughly 1,300 years Puer tea remained stored away and it was with the downfall of the Qing government that the history of this tea drastically changed.
According to lineages of Puer tea dating back to the Qing Dynasty, when the government collapsed and China was in chaotic ruins many of China’s preserved art, artifacts and tea were sold into the market as the country aimed to rid itself of its old cultural ways and embrace what was known as the progressive period where science, technology and western thought were to become the new mainstream. New political parties such as KMT were also seeking funding to push their political agendas and all of the old teas began being sold for whatever people were willing to give. Almost over night teas ranging from hundreds of years old into 1,000 years plus began hitting the market and tea enthusiasts who were aware of this became enthralled with snatching them up to add to their collections, which since then have been stored and preserved for the last 100 years.
Over time, these tea collectors shared their possessions with students and even passed down their teas to students they deem worthy. From this we have seen books sprout into the market from tea dealers who have claimed they have received tea aging back hundreds of years and there have even been many tea auctions as well as public tea gatherings to promote and share these teas. This history of Puer tea in China is well known among many scholars in China and has been passed down orally for generations as well. There are many who remain skeptical however but the evidence speaks for itself.