It is a conventional wisdom among Chinese people that after a heavy meal, a cup of Pu’er tea will help to cut the grease and remove excessive fat from the body. Now China’s giant medical group Tasly has taken the ambitious step of trying to make it “the third coffee” for people in the West.

“It has a good taste, is good for one’s health and it does not affect sleep. Some of our distributors in the United States said it would be a perfect substitute for the third coffee in the afternoon,” said Jia Lihui, general manager of Tasly Deepure Tea Technologies Co.

The company is wrapping up the construction of a huge manufacturing base in Pu’er city, in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, with an output capacity of 1,000 tons of tea a year.

Traditional Pu’er tea is made into biscuits or bricks, which need to be broken before being mixed with hot water and drunk. Hundreds of years ago traders would travel thousands of miles on the ancient Tea-Horse Road (chamagudao in Chinese), to transport Pu’er tea to Tibet and Southeast Asia. It became a vital drink for Tibetans who had little fruit and vegetable in their daily diet to decrease lipids in the blood and fight arteriosclerosis.

Pu’er city, the starting point of the ancient Tea-Horse Road, is also the home of Pu’er tea. Pu’er is a special kind of tea grown in southern Yunnan. The tea is so well known that the local authorities decided five years ago to change the name of their hometown from Simao to Pu’er.

Tasly uses modern extraction processes to make highly purified Puer tea extract and completely remove any possible heavy metals, pesticide residues and foreign substances. “Based on Pu’er’s effective function in lowering lipid levels, helping weight loss and reducing blood pressure, we want to make Pu’er tea a kind of fast-moving consumer good. We expect a lot from the overseas market, especially the US,” said Jia.

Tasly’s subsidiary company in the U.S. is preparing for Food and Drug Administration’s tests so it can start to promote the product widely. “If we succeed, we would be ushering in a new era of Pu’er tea, an ancient crop that has grown on this land for thousands of years,” said Liu Lun, deputy director of the Tea Bureau in Pu’er city.

According to He Jitang, owner of Longsheng Pu’er Tea factory, while the drought has made the leaves thinner, weaker and less attractive, it has also made the quality better because the picking was delayed and, therefore, the spring tea had time to gather more strength.

Zhang Baosan, president of the Yunnan Pu’er Tea Trade Association, said many people find that the taste, fragrance and health benefits of Pu’er get better after it matures. “Pu’er tea used to be matured naturally while being transported on horseback from Yunnan to Tibet,” Zhang said. “But now that maturing process can be controlled and standardized.”

Pu’er is a big-leaf tea produced in Yunnan, especially in the Pu’er, Lincang, and Xishuangbanna areas. Records show it was drunk as long ago as the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). The tea is commonly packaged as a cake, brick or lump, to make storing and transportation convenient. The price of Pu’er tea leaves, which were given as a tribute to the imperial court during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), rose more than 500 yuan ($80.26) a kilogram on average, having been 20 yuan a kg in 2007. It has since fallen back.

One day you could exchange a pack of tea leaves at the market for a motorcycle then the next day it was worth nothing. That’s how the market fluctuated, Liu said. “After that we realized it won’t help if we just improve output because it is not the quantity that decides the price but the quality,” he added.

Almost half of the tea trees were grubbed up to give more space and nutrients to those saved. “We reviewed the ancient planting methods and conducted experiments to find the optimal space between two trees and then persuaded the tea planters to adjust their over-densely planted tea gardens,” Liu said. Meanwhile, the Pu’er authority set up 646 special stores selling quality fertilizers and pesticides to ensure that all the tea leaves harvested in their region are free from any chemicals or pesticide residues that may harm health.

In some tea gardens, green manure has been introduced to replace common fertilizer.”Ecological planting has helped to produce organic teas, which is a must if we want to increase exports or cooperate with giant companies such as Tasly,” said Liu.

Output of Pu’er tea leaves in the region has not changed much during the years since 2007 but the purchase price has kept rising. Also, with sales improving, the revenue reached more than 6 billion yuan [US$960 million] by last October, almost double the 3.2 billion yuan [US$510 million] revenue in 2010. The export value also jumped from $260,000 in 2011 to $2.64 million last year.

After the State Administration of Quality Inspection and Quarantine introduced geographic identification to Pu’er tea at the end of 2008 only tea leaves planted in Yunnan province qualify as genuine Pu’er tea. The move has prevented some businesspeople from selling shoddy tea leaves under the Pu’er name and made the market more stable, Liu said.

But local tea professionals want more done to make their treasure recognized by more people. Liu and his colleagues are sending out a registration form to the 230,000 households of tea planters in Pu’er.

With help from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, they will build a database that can trace every tea leaf back to its tree’s planter. Meanwhile, the local government has earmarked a special fund of more than 70 million yuan to support some big tea gardens, standardize the planting, while also helping to renovate them as a destination for tourists.

“We want to learn from the successful experiences of French chateaus. Pu’er tea is as charming as French wine but we need modern operations to make it really shine,” Liu said. “It is very challenging to promote tea in countries where coffee drinking is mainstream,” said Qi Xiaozhai, director of Shanghai Commercial Economic Research Center.

People in the United Kingdom or US also drink black tea but how do we persuade them to choose Pu’er? Convincing them that it is a healthy alternative to coffee would be a tough but essential step in any promotion, he added. Qi also emphasized the importance of applying overseas food standards. “For example, Chinese people love the fuss involving tea leaves because we believe it is a symbol of freshness. But many foreign people think it is not clean and they should not appear in tea products,” he said.

According to guidelines from the Ministry of Agriculture issued in 2009, China is to build four concentrated tea-production areas and improve tea quality by employing better growing methods by 2015.

In 2009, China had 1.86 million hectares devoted to tea plantations, the largest in the world. China also produced the most tea that year, harvesting 1.35 million tons. More than 80 million people work in the industry as farmers, other workers and sales people. However, China doesn’t have an internationally strong brand among its 70,000 companies.

Source: China Daily Jan 2013

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