Hacking the Pu’er standard?


Anyone who knows me well enough knows I’m fascinated by a Chinese puer polemicist who calls himself Feiyang. He’s been in the puer industry for a long time and knows a ton, plus he has a spiky, zesty writing style.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of recent posts1 in which he returns to a preoccupation of his: what is puer and what isn’t puer? What’s new about these posts—at least I think so, since I’ve hardly read his entire output—is that he’s become more dogmatic. (Not that butter never melted in his mouth before!)

What is puer anyway?

Here I’m not going into all the attributes Feiyang—or anyone else—claims define puer, just the one central to the two posts I’ve been mulling over lately. That is the assertion that tea leaves just aren’t puer till they’ve aged some. That is to say, pressing spring-picked leaves the same spring and then selling the cakes the same spring is wrong wrong wrong! Feiyang draws this line in the sand: don’t let the cakes leave the factory till at least five years have elapsed.

In Feiyang’s book, drinking new puer and prizing its floral aroma and mule-kick qi is a category error. He says factories that make this stuff are trying, and inevitably failing, to make good green tea from dayezhong leaves that can yield only a harsh parody of, say, biluochun. Instead, Feiyang insists, puer is all about smoothness and warmth and subtlety. If the tea hasn’t aged enough so the liquor has a golden yellow (not pale yellow) color as well as a honey fragrance note, Feiyang maintains it isn’t ready to drink. (If it ever will be, which he doubts in the case of lots of “puer” being sold these days.)

Zou Jiaju, whom Feiyang calls “teacher”, made an analogy between puer and rice: aged puer is like cooked rice, and new puer is like uncooked rice grains, unfit for human consumption till it’s been processed further.

As Jinghong Zhang has written2, no-puer-without-aging is one side of a debate that has raged in the puer community since the 1990s. Seen through Zhang’s lens, Feiyang’s position is essentially that of the Pearl River Delta puer drinkers—think of habitués of Hong Kong dimsum parlors—who were the most important puer customers before any westerners learned about puer.

The other side of this debate, the drink-it-now side, Zhang shows, derives from the traditional way Yunnanese used the tea. Before puer had anything like its current cachet, people in Yunnan thought two-year-old puer tea leaves were stale. In fact, she says, the distinction between puer and Yunnan green tea was hazy in those days.3

The problem?

Feiyang by all appearances has no concern for the Western puer market. From his vantage point, the puer industry is in trouble because Chinese consumers, who to be sure are the bulk of the world’s puer consumers, just don’t trust it. Why don’t they trust the puer industry?

  1. They don’t think the product is healthy. They think harsh fresh puer will wreck their guts because per traditional Chinese medicine it’s extremely “cold”.
  2. The consumers who want to drink aged puer have little confidence that the new puer on offer will eventually turn into smooth aged puer, as opposed to stale green tea.
  3. They just don’t like the harsh taste; they prefer something smoother.
  4. They’ve heard stories about counterfeit puer—maybe they’ve been burned by it—and feel helpless to avoid fakes as long as they’re buying puer.

The solution?

Feiyang proclaims he has a solution that, if implemented, would eliminate all the above reasons consumers mistrust the puer industry. Thereafter Chinese tea consumers would come to regard puer as just as tasty, healthy, and reliable as, say, Wuyi yancha. Then running an honest puer company would—once again?—be a good life. So what is his solution?

Feiyang wants the requirement for factories to hold their cakes for at least five years before selling to be a standard. And this standard, in his view, needs to be enforced not by factories’ sense of honor but by the full force of law. That is to say, the legal definition of puer in the national standard shouldn’t just be big leaf cultivar, sun drying, etc.—it should also be no-sale-before-5-years.

(I’m no expert on Chinese politics, but I can’t help wondering if Feiyang is taking this position on enforcement of a standard now because he sees the political environment for Chinese business changing under Xi Jinping. If Chinese tech zillionaires can be humbled by the party-state, if the cram-school industry can be essentially destroyed, if kids’ use of video games can be limited to three hours a week, then maybe decreeing new rules for the puer industry would be no big deal?)

A personal note

Prompted by Feiyang’s recent posts, I’ve been trying all my puer cakes that are older than five years. There are some that are probably, irredeemably, stale green tea at this point. There are a number that are smooth and a pleasure to drink. And I have to say, Feiyang’s twofold test—golden color and honey aroma—does a good job distinguishing between the two categories.

That said, I’m unwilling to abjure fresh young puer. In fact, especially during the summer, I love dian lü, which I don’t doubt Feiyang abominates. So is the sale of fresh puer a problem after all? I guess it depends on your point of view.

1If you read Chinese, the Feiyang posts are here and here

2In her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, by far the most informative puer book I’ve read

3I would love to see Feiyang try to rebut Zhang’s analysis, but if he has done so, it isn’t accessible by searching the Chinese Web.

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