"New School" Puerh and the Growing Tea Industry

I'm certainly not a "tea world" mover and shaker. One that produces teas, retails a tea store, or attends World Tea Expo with a name badge that says "Tea Consultant." I am, however, a huge fan of what's going on right now in the tea world, especially as seen through the lens of a globalized society and as a niche hobby. These are exciting times, and I want to take a moment and shine a light on "new school" puerh that is the vanguard.

HISTORY: I'll let TeaDB give you a history lesson on puerh production before I ramble on with my thoughts:

Before the formation of the PRC, there were a number of pu’erh producers. Many of the most famous operations were centered around Yiwu and the six famous tea mountains. Some of the most famous operations were Songpin Hao, Tongqing Hao, FuYuan Chang, etc. During and after WWII, the Chinese pu’erh industry was consolidated into larger organizations. The organizational shift put more of a focus around Menghai County and away from Mengla County (the greater Yiwu region). This fluctuated a bit over the years, but the major factories were all large operations (Kunming Tea Factory, Menghai Tea Factory, Xiaguan, etc.). Depending on the exact period, quantity was a major emphasis, making the harvesting of older or wild trees oftentimes impractical. Teas were usually blended and were seldom marketed as being from a single region, let alone a single village or tree. The previously hot areas of production (Yiwu) either didn’t cultivate tea or simply sold their raw materials (maocha) to the major factories for further processing and pressing. SOURCE

Fast forward to the 1990s and more so in the 2000's where the internet opens the possibility to market niche products directly to consumers. "Ancient tree", "wild tree", "arbor" and other buzzwords start to shift the tea culture towards young puerhs from small farms that are produced custom for the retailer. Old trees from abandoned tea plantations are now sought after for their leaves and Yiwu tea comes back into the spotlight.

CURRENT TREND: I promise, soon I will stop harping about the 2015 White2Tea releases, BUT I do see them as part of an important new trend in how tea is marketed and presented to the general Western population. Of course, they aren't the ONLY vendor who is paving the way for "new school" puerh. Crimson Lotus, Tea Urchin, and others are sourcing, blending, and packaging NEW teas that do not bound by region, factory, or single-origin restrictions. I find those teas extremely important to the fledgling, American tea market because:

  1. They have attractive packaging and names. Is this important? Not really. However, if you compare this practice to the wine industry or the craft beer industry, it is certainly a proven method of attracting new customers and enticing the coveted "Millennial" trendsetting generation. Compare their wrapper designs to other puerh, or even just tea producers. The reduction or remixing of the asian asthetic on their packaging is actually a pretty innovative and new idea. Which leads me to...
  2. I'm onboard with this post by The Tea Kings where they make a case for removing the language "barrier to entry" for the Western tea market by marketing tea with it's English or Romanicized version.*** The White2Tea lineup gives easier access, especially when you can pronounce the name of the product you want. For an analogy, it's exactly like wine producers creating names and labels for their products, rather than relying on the 'Estate Name-Wine Type-Year' formula to sell their product. There's no problem at all with tea produces naming their teas after the type of leaves, the place of origin, or the factory name, and it certainly helps in advocating for tea education, but it does become an alphabet soup of sorts and makes it overwhelming for the consumer.
  3. Despite the funky names & labels and lack of Chinese characters on packaging, the fact remains - this is still great tea. Don't take my word for it, two of my favorite tea reviewers TeaDB and The Half-Dipper are both on board with "new school" vendors. These teas are affordable, carefully curated, and come with a greater feeling of care than traditional Yunnan factories. Also, it's exciting!

Lastly, I would certainly make some parallels between the "new school" puerh market (though these companies also delve into other tea styles) and the craft beer industry. Tea companies sourcing and curating raw tea in China from field to cup seems to me like a radical new approach from the earlier method of tea companies scooping up whatever the factories are producing and shipping it overseas. Craft beers are produced with care, and are nimble enough to directly address the growing tastes and niches within the beer community with handcrafted products.

*** I do want to make a distinction that I am not condoning "whitewashing" the ancient cultures, traditions, and languages that makes tea infinitely interesting. Like music, you need to have a healthy, reverent understanding of the past before you can begin to create for the future. However, I do think that the tea industry must be looking every forward, and if they're concerned with creating a Western tea culture, I believe it's a good practice to make language barriers less onerous.