We make pu-erh tea because we like it. There's no one-liner explanation of it. It's an all-consuming pursuit.
Pu-erh tea, also spelled puer (pǔʼěrchá 普洱茶) is a term that means a style as well as a place—pu-erh tea can only come from Yunnan, and can only be made from large-leaf varietal (Dà Yè Zhǒng 大叶种) Camellia Sinensis Assamica tea trees. More than anywhere else, we'd argue Yunnan has the most ecologically appealing tea resources. Surprisingly large amounts of old-growth, genetically diverse tea trees can be found throughout the forests and mountainsides; all free from agricultural intervention. The most sought after tea comes from these types of growing environments, rather than commercial plantations. This is the kind of tea we also like. It's more expensive, competitive, and involves a fair bit of nuance and complexity to even buy in the first place.
COVID restrictions aside, we usually spend the two main tea production seasons (spring and autumn) in Xishuangbanna, one of the main tea producing prefectures. In the scheme of the tea world, people like us are irrelevant; us 'Westerners' are not, in fact, the primary consumers of pu-erh tea! Imagine that. We do want to make good teas, as do a lot of other people, so we get right in there and compete in the seasonal frenzy.
The processing is relatively uncomplicated compared to some other styles of Chinese tea, but there's a huge amount of nuance, skill, and just straight up hard physical labour involved—everything is done by hand. Picking leaves often involves climbing large tea trees, sometimes several metres tall. Firing the leaves by hand in a wok, (shāqīng 杀青) as shown above, is still vastly superior to machine. Critically, pu-erh tea has to be dried in the sun, as opposed to mechanically. Sun drying (shàigān 晒干) is weather dependent, requires a lot of space, and extra work. But without it, pu-erh tea would lose one of its main attributes; the ability to age and improve with years and decade of storage.
About five kilograms of fresh leaves reduce down to one kilogram of processed tea; and once the leaves are picked, the clock starts ticking to process them before they wither and oxidise.
As a 'company', we sit in a delicate spot, best summed up by two extremes that we feel are the usual approach; on the one hand, oriental fetishism, exoticism, mystique, and plain old colonial strip-mining of othered cultures. Often this is accompanied by imagery and language like 'authentic', 'ancient' and 'traditional'.
On the other hand, the classic 'Western' cultural supremacy approach of paving over everything with fascism; simplification (aka. reductionism), removing every piece of cultural nuance except the bits that look nice, which are readily appropriated, because 'we know best!'.
Instead, we try to express our own experiences, desires, and frustrations. Why do we even make tea at all? Because it was very hard, or impossible, to find the exact kinds of tea we liked in the Western market, and the Chinese market. A lot of that old-growth, forest tea material we talked about, doesn't really make it to the 'open market' (i.e public facing retail outlets) to begin with, and once it does, it's extremely difficult to verify, and of course becomes even more expensive. So, purely on a selfish level, we started sourcing and pressing our own tea so we'd have the quality we enjoy at a price we could afford.
The production season ends with our blends being pressed and wrapped into cakes.
The compressed format allows for more efficient transport, storage, and long-term ageing of the tea.
Finally, from our carefully ageing-optimised storage in Birrarung-ga (Melbourne), we pack and ship the tea out to you, ready to be drunk or further kept aside for the long haul.