Sunday, 9 August 2015

Restaurant business and puerh tea

Even as old vintage puerh tea is in short supply today, ever wonder why there are still a sizeable amount of old puerh cakes around these days?

Old puerh tea cakes
Prior to 1970s, there was hardly any demand for old vintage puerh tea. Even in places like Hong Kong and Macau where morning dimsum type of breakfast was very common, most people if they ever drank puerh tea, they would only order loose puerh tea form the restaurants where they patronised their dimsum. In those days shops would only put on sale ordinary puerh tea usually artificially fermented in their warehouse under moist environment. As raw puerh tea was the only tea type on production, it was both harsh and undrinkable, most shops would store the tea in moist warehouse where the high humidity was ideal to age the green tea. This gave rise to the characteristic unpleasant (like decay wood) smell of puerh stored and aged under the wet and moist environment.
Assortment of tea in a tea shop

Restaurant owners in Hong Kong all the while knew that people of Hong Kong would always favour dimsum with Chineses tea and they needed to keep a large stock of puerh tea in their warehouses. As they knew that puerh tea was in a way like the old mandarin orange peel (skin of the  mandarin oranges), the older the thing the more pricey it was. Hence they had confidence in ordering large quantities of puerh tea and kept the tea in their warehouses. Mean time the people in Taiwan also ordered their puerh tea from Hong Kong with the unmistakable decaying smell (due to wet storage). Hence it was obvious that puerh tea was not popular among tea drinkers in general. The tea was considered sub-standard when compared to the fragrant green tea such as the Goddess of Mercy.

I also remembered in the early 1980s when I was looking at some puerh tea in a supermarket, my friend met me. He looked surprisingly at me and remarked that why I drank such a tea that tasted like decaying wood. I put on a smile and just said the tea was fine for me. This friend of mine liked the Wuyi mountain tea and he had often demonstrated his tea drinking skills to audience in major tea promotion events. Years later I met him again and he was complaining about the high price in aged puerh tea. He said he should have followed me in buying the tea when it was still unpopular in those days. When he finally realised the difference of really good puerh tea, the price had rocketed so much that it was beyond his ability to acquire such rare aged tea.

The early tea merchants in HK

In the 1980s, things began to change for the better for puerh tea. People began to appreciate good old puerh tea aged in proper dry warehouses where conditions favoured the natural ageing process. When people realised the big difference in quality between genuine puerh tea as compared to the one aged in moist environment (which picked up the decaying smell from high humidity and wetness from the warehouse), puerh tea was then accepted as a tea comparable to the famous goddess of mercy or the Wuyi mountain tea. At that time the price of vintage tea cakes was still high and most shops dared not order large quantity to sell as turn-over rate was too slow. One shop owner commented that he ordered some bundles of the Red Label puerh tea cakes and the order costed him hundreds of thousands of $HK. This amount of money could buy him a property in high end district in Hong Kong. Being raw puerh tea, the Red Label tea was till very harsh in taste and flavour. After one year he was only able to sell a few cakes. It is unthinkable now as each Red Label puerh tea cake can cost as much as several hundred thousand dollars. But again in the early 1970s, the tea was really too green and harsh to be accepted as good tea.

Red Label tea cake

Towards the end of the 1980 era, people generally appreciated good puerh tea from the aged old vintage tea cakes. But now the Red Labels had turned into a mature puerh tea with excellent taste and flavour (don't forget these tea cakes were made in 1950) after so many years of storage. Most of the Red Labels were shipped to Taiwan as they commanded a better price there. Taiwanese people had deep pockets those days due to their achievement in the electronic and computer industries.

What about the restaurant owners? If you remember, these were the people who partly helped the old puerh tea to gain its popularity as they had a very large quantity of raw puerk tea cakes stacked up in their warehouses. They kept the tea solely for their business model as dining in HK was inseparable from tea drinking. They could not comprehend the fact that their years of hard work in hoarding the puerh tea (again strictly for their restaurant business) could finally pay off. They were actually sitting on some huge fortune they previously could never imagine. Some restaurant owners began unloading the aged puerh tea in their warehouse and reaped huge profits. Other owners stopped their restaurant business and started selling also their stored puerh tea. They were astonished to find that the profit from the sale of the puerh was very much more than the restaurant business and the premises they sold. They were actually the people that hoarded such precious puerh tea of the past and kept the tea through these past decades. Most of these aged puerh tea cakes are now in Taiwan as the Taiwanese people were very acute in their business sense, With deep pockets and tea-drinking culture, Taiwanese people just cleared most of the aged puerh tea from the warehouses in Hong Kong. Now, as the Chinese people become affluent, most of the aged puerh tea cakes again find their way back to mainland China. Very previous old tea even find its way in auction houses in China. This is the craze for good aged puerh tea in China.

Aged compressed puerh tea

Aged puerh tea cake

Ancient puerh brick

Old stone mould used to compress puerh tea

A tribute to tea produced from Qing emperor

Ancient puerh tea factory

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