The $1,000-A-Gram Tea

Prize-fighting crickets, purple clay chamber pots, out-there investments are nothing new to the Chinese. But if you prefer your investments not to chirp or reek, Pu'er tea may be a healthy and tasty alternative.

Pu'er Tea
Pu'er Tea

Pu'er (an aromatic tea from the hills of southern Yunnan) may not look like much — cow-patties, in fact — but can be worth its weight in gold, thanks to claimed health properties ranging from curing hangovers to shedding pounds.

While green tea is best fresh, Pu'er gets better, and more valuable—with age. The longer it ferments, the richer its taste, and stronger its health benefits. Vintage teas from more than a century ago have been known to cost $10,000 for 10 grams.

Like most investments in China, Pu'er tea has had its own rollercoaster run. But after the breathless boom of 2007 and the subsequent crash of 2008—the market is much more stable, according to Li Wanke, owner of the Zhenmei teahouse in Shanghai. Twenty-ten may have seen a 20-30 percent uptick in Pu’er tea prices, but it’s due to a rare drought that killed teatrees and delayed harvests in Yunnan, not excessive speculation.

Tea farmers have learnt their lesson. Tea town Yunnan—has cut Pu’er production by almost half from 2007 levels, to support prices. Even then, Li Wanke says consumers are cautious—after all, some are still digesting over-priced teas they bought during the speculative craze of three years ago.

But with China’s inflation on the rise, putting money into tea rather than bank deposits is making more sense. Just this year, China Construction Bank launched a Pu’er tea investment product—where investors can receive annualized 7-percent return in tea or cash.

Reading The Tea Leaves

So where does a tea-novice begin? Some basics—Pu'er tea is produced from Yunnan's Pu'er county (renamed from Simao county), "raw" or unfermented tea (shengcha), is the type that will appreciate in value over time, "ripened" tea or shoucha has already been fermented and is ready for drinking.

Even if you don't have the nose or tongue to tell apart a ten year old from a 15 year old — experts offer these simple tips:

  • Choose fine teas from well-known brands such as Dayi, Xiaguan, Longsheng, Longrun. The better brands will use higher grade materials and employ more skilful processing.
  • Always have the vendor brew the tea for you to taste, the color, fragrance and taste should be consistent even after multiple infusions.
  • Check that the tea liquid is clear and a dark reddish color, leaves are evenly shaped and supple looking; good tea will quench thirst while inferior tea will leave you unsatisfied.
  • Store tea in an airy place away from direct sunlight and strong odors, at an ideal temperature of between 20 and 30 Celsius, ideal humidity of 65-75 percent. Keep raw tea and ripened tea separate, turn over cakes of tea every 3 months to make sure it hasn't grown mould.

(Editors' Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in October 2009.)