While Puerh tea has been a feature of everyday life in Canton for centuries, the emergence of this once provincial, medicinal beverage, owes much of its recent explosion in popularity to the little over a decade which it has spent interacting with the Taiwanese market. Taiwan, the bastion of Oolong and Oriental beauty tea has come in a very short time from being all but disinterested in Puerh to holding a virtual monopoly on vintage tea and Puerh scholarship.
Puerh first entered the Taiwan market in the mid 1990’s to relatively little ado. In these early years very few merchants were interested in carrying large quantities of it and in-roads to the public consciousness were slow in coming. It often met with resistance both popularly and in the media, largely over concerns that it was unhygienic or “smelly”. In order to better understand the climate of tea collecting in Taiwan- at this time and the factors which caused the dramatic rise of Puerh in Taiwan as well as in China, we must first look to the rise and fall of another legendary Chinese import to Taiwan, Purple-sand Yixing teapots.
As Taiwan’s economy began to emerge on the strength of its exports, starting in the late 1960’s following a shift from rural agriculture to large scale manufacturing, Taiwan found itself suddenly wealthy; one of the ‘tigers’ of Asia. With this newfound wealth came an interest in exercising it to improve the quality of life and explore aspects of traditional Chinese culture. Tea was nothing new to Taiwan, having an ageless history of consumption and a record as a major export going back to the Dutch colonial period. Still, practicing this traditional art form became one of the ways in which Taiwanese could express their wealth. Consumers were concerned not only with the tea being brewed but also with the teapots being used, as the practice of tea drinking was raised to the level of art for many newly-minted Taiwanese.
The tea collectors at this time looked to the legendary Purple-sand of Yixing, the only clay in the world which has no need for glaze. In addition to the age-old history of Yixing teapots, the variety of styles as well as stories surrounding the pots caused a fad and they were soon being collected feverishly. The collecting of these pots at one time approached the level of national sport in Taiwan, with individual pieces fetching huge sums. The demand for these pots initially far outweighed the supply-prices soared, merchants rushed to acquire as much of a master’s production as they could. Collectors also stock-piled as many as they could; and then one day the bottom fell out of the market, characterized by the infamous ‘tempest in the teapot’ incident in Taichung city.
After the collapse of the trade in Purple-sand pots, many tea merchants had a hard time and a great number went out of business. And this cycle of boom-bust seems to repeat itself every three years in order to keep merchants on their toes.
Having perhaps lost their taste for trying new things, these same merchants were not keen on investing in Puerh as it began entering the Taiwan market in larger quantities. Many merchants stayed away from investing in Puerh; they saw it as another fad which would end in the same way as did the tea pot craze. Furthermore, many of the oolong tea merchants and consumers labeled it ‘moldy’ and ‘smelly’ with ‘little potential for return on investment.’
Initially, control of the Puerh market in Taiwan rested in the hands of a very few individuals who held virtual monopolies, but this would change as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China approached. Vast supplies of vintage Puerh were on offer by Hong Kong businessmen uneasy about the imminent return to Chinese rule. With this great supply and low demand, prices were low and merchants in Taiwan bought vast quantities, flooding the market with high-grade vintage Puerh. By this time Puerh was recovering from its initial branding as ‘stinky tea’ and was gaining strength on the basis of its curative properties. Books such as Puerh Tea’ by Deng Shi Hai and Review of the Past and Look Forward to the Future’ by Chen Chih Tung contributed greatly to raising Puerh awareness (at present 80% of scholarly works on Puerh are by Taiwanese authors). The tea drinking public was not only flush with great teas at this time but they were becoming knowledgeable as to how to acquire, appreciate and distinguish superior teas from the poor quality and counterfeit ones which plagued the market.
In a very short time Puerh came not only to be found in tea shops but also in Chinese medicine stores and traditional markets. 2003 brought the S.A.R.S epidemic, which initially depressed the Puerh market. However, in the end, the crisis proved beneficial as it caused a lot of Taiwanese people to place greater value on their health; and many more people turned to Puerh as a result. At about the same time, China’s economic influence was on the rise and the Middle Kingdom’s demand for aged Puerh drove prices skyward in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Korea, resulting in large quantities of the great vintages being sold back to China. The prices of vintage Puerh consistently worked to drive up the prices of modern Puerh as well (one example being the rabid demand for late 1980 s Seven-son tea cakes, which also boosted prices of Puerh vintages from the 1990’s) and this demand for young Puerh in turn carried over to the prices for the new Puerh coming out of Yunnan.
Trends to watch for in the market’s future will be: the pressuring of professional businessmen to speed up factory production and improve quality control, the leveling off of soaring prices in the vintage market and the growth in the fashion of collecting excellent wild Puerh and products from the factories of Yunnan.
The golden age of Puerh in Taiwan may have passed and ushered in a new age of big business, tight competition, high price, high production and high stakes, but with all this it has created a greater demand for quality and accountability in the consumer. If the market is run ethically then there should be no reason for it not to remain stable. It is worth remembering in all of this that even with so much money ready to be spent on vintage tea in China, it is unlikely that a situation could ever arise again like it did in Taiwan in the late 1990 s. It is not simply a matter of price, but of existence in the case of many of the more mythic teas. Nevertheless, the traditions of Puerh research and scholarship begun in this period carry on, and in the future will continue to help guide the market in production, preservation and appreciation of succeeding generations of great vintages.