Video: Inside the Hidden World of China’s Most Coveted Tea
What it takes to find, make, and sell pu-erh, the Helen of Troy of tea that gets aged like whiskey, dosed like drugs, and coveted by millionaires
"I can't really describe this place—people just have to see it."
This is what I kept saying to Palani Mohan on our reporting trip to China's Yunnan Province in October. Palani was photographing the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers of the local tea business as American dealer Paul Murray scored water buffalo meat for noodles and pu-erh for his tea company, White2tea.
Pu-erh is a specialty of Yunnan, and it's a tea like no other that's best grown in wild, ancient forests and is typically aged for years, or even decades, to develop layers of flavor and profound depth of character. It's a fascinating thing on its own, a product with hundreds of years of history that stretches across China and Southeast Asia. But what we really wanted to show was how the tea is a vivid reflection of Yunnan itself. Pu-erh is resonant. It's primordial. Hike your way up Yunnan's mountains and you see why it could only come from this tiny yet ridiculously lush corner of the world.
This southwestern chunk of China has always had a distinct identity, populated with dozens of ethnic groups that also live across the borders in Myanmar and Vietnam. The food is different. The plant life is different. There is so much plant life and so much culture to see and so, well, here it is. Take a peek at the video above for our visual foray into the magic of pu-erh and the majesty of its Yunnan birthplace.