Why Chinese Puer Tea Is So Important to Tea Lovers
An interview with Paul Murray, the Prometheus of puer
In recent years, Americans have finally begun to discover serious tea—the kind that has been geeked-out over in China and Japan for centuries. But the most serious tea of all, puer—which is pressed into hard discs and slowly aged and fermented for years—is still barely known in the US. Shrouded in myth and chicanery, steeped in tradition, revered for its tonic effects on the mind and body, and commanding prices that can make a Bordeaux collector blanch, good puer (also spelled pu-erh) is a prize the Chinese have largely reserved for themselves. Now that's changing. No one is doing more to turn on Americans to puer than Wisconsinite Paul Murray, who has spent years developing relationships with artisan tea farmers in remote corners of Yunnan Province. Murray creates his own unique blends for White2tea, his online bazaar, and designs his own labels, which nod more to Dada street art than to Confucius and sport names like Smooch, Midwest Nice, The Treachery of Storytelling, Part 2, and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. It all feels more like pot baggie iconography than tea, which might be the point—a big dose of puer can be one of the pleasantest highs in the world. I caught up with Murray while he was visiting farms in Yunnan and asked him about his passion for puer.
Extra Crispy: How did you first get into puer tea?
Paul Murray: It was on a trip to Yunnan in 2005. I was living in Beijing at the time. I bought a few random puer teas in shops in Yunnan, and the flavor profiles just captivated me. I brought some back to Beijing and was hooked from there on out.
What was the appeal?
I guess I’ve always been into fermented flavors, whether it’s sauerkraut or beer or cheese—typical Wisconsin fare from my youth. The first puer teas I tried had all sorts of leather and damp wood flavors, along with a pleasant tannic bite, and in some cases a bit of smoke. Puer’s flavor is influenced by an incredible range of variables, including the terroir, the processing, the blending, and the aging. From a complexity standpoint, other teas pale in comparison. It’s the ultimate rabbit hole. Those first few teas I tried weren’t necessarily the kind of teas that give the best feeling in the body, but the flavors were unique and complex, sort of like a gnarly whisky can be. I guess that’s why I fell in love with it.
What do you mean by “the kind of teas that give the best feeling in the body”?
Some people don’t drink puer just for flavor. I’m not sure when that transition happened for me, but after years of drinking puer, flavor became secondary. At some point, you learn to “drink with your body,” which is just a fancy way of saying that you focus on what makes your body feel good, which might include feelings of relaxation or a heady high—not just the effects of caffeine, but something beyond that. It’s one of those topics that inevitably gets me in trouble, because a lot of people think it sounds like bullshit. And to be honest, a lot of people peddle it like bullshit, so I can see why you’d come to that conclusion. Suffice it to say that body feeling is indeed a real thing, but it’s not going to appear in just every puer tea—which is probably why puer lovers chase it.
How popular is it in China?
It’s known in certain regions more than others. Beijing, for example, doesn’t have that many puer drinkers; most Beijingers drink heavily fragranced flower teas, like jasmine green. Other areas like Guangdong have a well-established history with puer. A lot of the Chinese public still hasn’t had their first experience with puer tea, but the people who love puer tend to be fanatics.
How did you go from puer enthusiast to puer merchant?
I was buying and pressing too much tea, and it was becoming untenable. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment at the time, and I had filled up one room with tea. I just started selling tea to friends and then eventually started a website. I still had a day job at the time, so I would bike to the post office on my lunch break to send out packages. I never really set out to be in the tea business, which is maybe why it worked. It’s a lot easier to spend your lunch break in line at the China Post office if it’s born out of passion.
Why is puer pressed, and how does that affect the tea?
In the past, many teas were pressed, not only puer. The historical reason was very pragmatic. A loose ten kilograms of puer tea takes up as much space as a small refrigerator, but a pressed ten kilograms takes up the space of a microwave. If you’re loading up pack mules for a long journey to market, it’s more economical to send pressed tea. The tea won’t break, it’s more resistant to inclement weather, and it takes up less space. Pressing tea also makes it easier to store for the long term, and it generally ages better, albeit slower.
As an outsider, was it hard to establish relationships with tea farmers?
It’s the same as establishing any new relationship. You meet people, eat and drink, and figure out who you have a good connection with. It’s just like trying to meet new friends; you meet both good and bad people, you meet both the right and wrong people. The relationships are always evolving. Some people resent that I’m a foreigner, but that’s just a small group of jerks. I figure if you spend enough time in any place on Earth, some random person will pick a fight with you, but the majority of people are warm and gracious.
The names and designs of your teas are quite nontraditional. How did you come up with your style?
I design all my own packaging, so the style has been changing with my own aesthetics. I want my teas to push tradition, both in how they’re blended and how the culture is communicated. I mean, if everyone is just making the same single-origin teas and slapping a picture of a monk or a dragon on the wrapper, why even show up?
Any advice for newbies who want to start drinking puer?
If you’re brand new to puer tea, ripe puer is a good starting point. It’s a lot smoother and easier to brew. If you aren’t afraid of some astringency and bitterness, I’d recommend trying some entry-level raw puer teas and brewing them gongfu style. Expect a bit of trial and error to figure out which teas you enjoy, as well as a period of time to adapt your palate to a new range of flavors.