Santa Rosa couple ages a rare but popular Chinese tea
Nestled not far from the heart of the Russian River Valley Viticultural Area, down a long driveway a stone’s throw from renowned wineries and acre upon acre of vineyards, is a unique climate-controlled aging room, a space with no barrels, no bottles, no winery aromas.
Instead, shelves that climb nearly to the ceiling are packed with boxes filled with a rare yet increasingly popular tea: puer, the only tea in the world that improves with time. It stands alongside not only the world’s finest wines but also such other delicacies as aceto balsamico tradizionale, or true balsamic vinegar; the rare Culatello di Zibello, the benchmark cured ham; and those ancient sourdough starters you hear about now and then.
Puer tea - pronounced pooh-er, not pooh-air - was once reserved exclusively for China’s emperors and remained a well-kept secret for centuries, but now you can enjoy some of the finest puer teas in the world right here in Sonoma County.
This aging area takes up about a quarter of the space of an old building a few yards from the home where Larry and Yang Su Chin, founders of Pure Puer, live. When the couple moved here from Corte Madera in 2014, they quickly began transforming the building into an ideal space for aging this precious tea.
Adjacent to the aging teas are open shelves where both ancient and modern tea implements, tea pots, and a few very rare teas are displayed. Nearby is a small tasting area, equipped with everything needed for tasting the puer and other teas the couple imports directly from farmers in both Taiwan and China. Among the implements is a clay lotus root with a tiny ceramic frog sitting on its rim; its purpose is to hold a small teapot’s lid while water is being poured into the pot.
“Current tasting fashion is with Tang Dynasty-style implements,” Yang Su explained.
Each action of tea teasing is supported by an implement both beautiful and practical, creating a choreographed experience.
But what, exactly, is this rare tea and why are some people obsessed with it?
Puer tea comes from the same variety of tree as all traditional green and black teas, camellia senensis. It is produced only in the high mountain forests of the Yunnan province in southwestern China that lead to the Himalayas.
Although puer is often referred to as fermented, it is actually a raw tea, the only raw tea in the world. Raw, in this case, means it still possesses all of its potential for aging and developing the beneficial microbes that have captured an increasing number of health professionals around the world.
Other teas, from delicate Darjeeling to that workhorse English Breakfast, are baked at high temperatures, which fixes flavors and halts further development. These teas are best young; they do not improve with age. Both green and black puer benefit from time in an environment with about 60 percent humidity. The older the puer, the better it is.
“Puer is an antique you can drink,” Larry Chin likes to say.
The small new leaves of the trees, many of them hundreds and even thousands of years old, are picked by hand. They are then rolled in a machine that loosens the leaf’s thin outer layer. Next, the leaves are allowed to breath for a time and then go through a process similar to composting, a process Larry refers to as oxidation rather than fermentation.
After being hit with steam for a few seconds, the tea is either dried as whole leaves or pressed into bricks or cakes and dried. At this point, the puer must be moved, as Yunnan’s high humidity - over 80 percent - leaves the tea vulnerable to mold. For millennia, this was accomplished on horseback. The tea is now moved more efficiently, though there are no big highways to or from the Chinese tea farms and no nearby airports.
When the Chins visited, it took 13 hours to drive from Chengdu, a city of nearly 15 million people in central China, to their destination. They traveled narrow roads through terraced rice fields, small villages and ancient forests as they snaked their way to nearly 6,000 feet.
Their reward for this arduous journey was not only a tour of the farm and factory by its owner. They also saw what is considered to be the mother tree of all tea, a 3,750-year-old tea tree from which all tea trees are said to be related. A tree doesn’t even begin to hit its stride, when it comes to the flavor of its tea, until it is at least 100 years old.
A primary reason for traveling to the farms, the Chins explained, is to verify claims that the teas they purchase are what they say they are: pesticide-free, organic and of the highest quality.
“I must have asked about pesticides 15 different ways,” Larry explained, adding that insect control is accomplished through companion planting, with trees that attract unwanted insects interspersed with the tea trees and other forest plants. They came away confident in their sources.