Puer Tea and Ancient Trees (Camellia sinensis var assamica) of Yunnan Province in Southwest China

by DerdriuMarriner

The name Puer conjures up an ancient trading post and dark fermented teas. Place and product hold historical niches in Yunnan Province. They link to China’s super-old tea trees.

Tea and trade answer to longstanding physical and temporal presences in China.
• The two famously coincide on the Tea and Horse Caravan Road from ancient China to likewise ancient India, Myanmar, and Nepal.

Some historians commemorate the route’s socio-economic impacts through the nickname Southern Silk Road.
• But remembering the route’s significance does not have anything to do with silk.
• The road instead gets remembered for the bartering of Chinese salt, sugar, and tea for Tibetan horses.

Researchers identify the route’s merging westward -- around the upper Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) -- from eastern and southern begin-points.
• The dual origins relate to Sichuan’s ya cha (yellow buds) tea from Ya’an and Yunnan’s puer teas from super-old tea trees.

Administrative area of Pu-er City is dominated by mountainous terrain; pu'er tea is valued as major regional product.

Prefecture-level city of Pu'er, southern Yunnan Province, southwestern China
Prefecture-level city of Pu'er, southern Yunnan Province, southwestern China

 

The caravan road antedates horse- and tea-trading. Similar-stocked cist (stone-made) tombs datable to the Shang (ca. 1600 B.C.E. - 1046 B.C.E.) and Zhou (ca. 1046 B.C.E.  – 256 B.C.E.) dynasties indicate goods and peoples linking:

  • Qingzang Plateau’s Chamdo and Nyingtri Prefectures;
  • Sichuan Province’s Aba and Ganzi districts;
  • Yunnan Province’s Hengduan Mountains.

Tea-trading starts once:

  • Emperor Songtsen Gampo (617? – 649) accepted Wife/Princess Wencheng’s (623? – 680) tea-drinking;
  • Emperor Tridu Songtsen (670?/671? – 704) adopted tea-drinking;
  • Nanzhao Kingdom (750 – 902/937) tribesmen familiarized Tibetans with ancient tea trees on Menghai County’s Bada and Nannuo Mountains and Mengla County’s Xiangming and Yiwu Mountains;
  • Song dynasty (960 – 1279) emperors founded the Chamasi (Tea and Horse Office) in 1074 against invading Jin, Liao, and Xixia horse-riders.

 

Tuocha (bird nest) shape into which pu-er traditionally is compressed may reference Tuo River on ancient tea route.

Tuo River and landscape, Sichuan, southeastern China
Tuo River and landscape, Sichuan, southeastern China

 

The tea that survives protracted trading routes comes from Yunnan Province. It carries the name puer -- also pu'er, pu’erh, pu-er, pu-erh, puerh -- because of the red-black colors which microbial fermentation imparts to broad-leaved varietals. Its earthy, woodsy appearance, aroma, and taste come from subjecting large leaves to brief firing or prolonged cooking after wilting and withering and before pressing and storing. The leaves traditionally get picked from disorderly, gnarled, tree-like expressions (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) -- not kempt, orderly, shrub-like manifestations (Camellia sinensis) -- of woody plants. Heaped, heated, and moistened like compostable materials, they lend themselves to travel-friendly shaping into bird-nests (tuocha), bricks (zuancha), or seven-layered cakes (qizi bingcha) and wrapping within bamboo shells. 

 

Xiaguan Tea Factory's pu'er tea in tuocha (bird nest) shape

Dali, Yunnan Province, southwestern China
Dali, Yunnan Province, southwestern China

 

Tea-drinkers associate puer tea with Yunnanese trees as much as:

  • 105.32 feet (32.1 meters) tall;
  • 1,700 years old;
  • 3.38 feet (1.03 meters) wide.

But large-leafed, long-lived tea trees also cover:

  • Laos;
  • Myanmar;
  • Thailand;
  • Vietnam.

Yunnan nevertheless dominates in reputation and revenue, as:

  • Legendary birthplace of tea-drinking;
  • Optimum location for tea-growing.

The province indeed offers:

  • Acidic red and yellow soils in the 4.0 – 6.0 pH range;
  • Annual mean temperatures of 53.6 - 73.4°F (12 – 23°C);
  • Annual total rainfall of 39.37 – 74.80 inches (1,000 – 1,900 millimeters);
  • Cooler dry months from November to April offering relief to hotter monsoon months from May to October;
  • Harvest seasons of 8 – 9 months;
  • Misty mountains towering 6,561.68+ feet (2,000+ meters) above sea level.

 

Bulang Mountains, next door to Jingmai Mountains, is resplendent with high-altitude villages with ancient puerh tea trees:

Bulang ethnic group are descended from ancient Pu (Chinese: 濮) group, earliest settlers in Yunnan Province's Lancang and Nujiang valleys; Pu settlers are viewed as first to cultivate and drink tea.
Bulang village of Manpo, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southern Yunnan Province, southwestern China
Bulang village of Manpo, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southern Yunnan Province, southwestern China

 

Tea admirers, historians, and traders attribute precise bio-geographies to the best-growing, best-producing puer trees. They draw upon lingering legends and Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912) records in emphasizing the optimal environments in -- and the unique products from -- the Six Great Tea Mountains (六大茶山 [liù dà chá shān]):

  • Gedeng;
  • Mansa;
  • Mangzhi;
  • Manzhuan;
  • Yibang;
  • Youle.

All six mountains fall northeast of the Lancang (Mekong) River. Politico-administratively, they all fit within the confines of the province’s autonomous Xishuangbanna prefecture. Their historic and modern production nevertheless gets supplemented by that on:

  • Ailuo;
  • Bada;
  • Bangwai;
  • Banzhan;
  • Baoshan;
  • Jinggu;
  • Jingmai;
  • Menghai;
  • Mengsong, home of imperial tribute tea;
  • Nannuo, where “High, foggy mountains produce famous tea”;
  • Wuliang;
  • Yiwu;
  • Yushou.

 

Mountainous Lincang is home to the world's oldest tea tree, located in Yunnan Province's Jinxiu village, Xiaowan town, Fengqing County.

View of a cultivated area from a road in Lincang, prefecture-level city, southwestern Yunnan province
View of a cultivated area from a road in Lincang, prefecture-level city, southwestern Yunnan province

 

One of Xishuangbanna’s proverbs advises of montane forests containing teas and teas containing montane forests. The saying captures puer tea’s bio-genealogical and olfactory essence as products retaining earthy, misty origins in big-leafed woody plants:

  • Grown on old-growth mountains;
  • Heated by 1,600 – 2,000 yearly hours of sunlight;
  • Moistened by relative humidities of 75 – 85%;
  • Picked in sets of 1 bud for every 3 – 4 old leaves;
  • Sold under the puer designations maocha (rough), shengcha (raw), or shucha (ripened).

But its prescriptions do not mesh with twentieth and twenty-first century production. In the aftermath of politico-economic reconfigurations and in response to world markets, puer tea-growers find themselves accessing:

  • Cultivated, plantation-style shrubs;
  • Old, trained trees gone feral;
  • Old-growth, wild trees.

 

Fāngchá (flat square) of raw pu'er: Chinese characters are often pressed into the square.

Yunnan Xishuangbanna Dadugang Tea Corp. (known as state-run Dadugang Tea Plantation), Jinghong City, Yunnan Province
Yunnan Xishuangbanna Dadugang Tea Corp. (known as state-run Dadugang Tea Plantation), Jinghong City, Yunnan Province

 

Export revenues and operational efficiencies advance the cause of puer-producing tea plantations in the Yunnanese prefectures of Dehong and Wenshan as well as in the southern provinces of:

  • Guangdong;
  • Hunan.

Environmental well-being and product purity contrastingly defend the longer lifespans, stronger buds, and thicker leaves of:

  • Neglected trees gone feral and re-incorporated as arbor trees;
  • Wild trees companion-growing naturally with camphorwood evergreens (Cinnamomum camphora).

Tea-drinkers indeed detect differences between new shrub- and old tree-grown teas. The distinction ironically endangers present and projected calculations of arbor and wild tree populations in the Yunnanese prefectures of:

  • Lincang;
  • Simao;
  • Xishuangbanna.

It actually inspires growers and processors to consider subjecting centuries- and millennium-old trees to:

  • Over-harvesting;
  • Pollarding;
  • Subdividing into propagation cuttings.

 

A pu-erh tea factory, where loose leaf pu'er tea is steamed, bagged, and pressed into bricks.

Sichuan Province, southwestern China
Sichuan Province, southwestern China

Conclusion

 

Admirers attribute to puer tea:

  • Ever-improved aromas and tastes with aging of 25 – 65+ years;
  • Health benefits from bacteria-produced chemicals decreasing low-density lipoproteins (LDL), increasing high-density cholesterol (LDL), and lowering triglycerides (blood fats);
  • Multiple dilutions and infusions;
  • Musty aftertastes evoking chocolate, hay, mushrooms, and vegetables;
  • Natural aging of dried, heated, shaped, stored grounds and leaves;
  • Sunny smells (tai yang wei) from ancient trees (gu shu);
  • Wine-like fermentation by germ-fighting actinobacteria, fungi, and yeast.  

They bemoan:

  • Composting-like piles heated, moistened, and stirred 70 days to accelerate aging;
  • Mechanical inputs replacing manual methods and wood equipment.

Their access to fermented, oxidized teas from ancient recipes and old trees demands:

  • Environmental education in curricula;
  • Governmental protection;
  • Scientific research;
  • Wildlife-loving activism.

 

YUNNAN: Camellia sinensis, generally known as tea, is said to have originated in an area spanning southern Yunnan, northern Myanmar and Assam. There are numerous mentions of tea being used for its medicinal qualities in historical texts spanning back even prior to the first millennium BCE. It was, however, only during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) that tea became popular. It was during this period that large numbers of horses were required by the Han Chinese to fight off the nomadic invaders from the north. On the other hand, it seems that Tibetans had become quite addicted to drinking tea.

This was a little known form of regional tea politics. The Tea Horse Road was of course not purely reserved for tea and horses, for many other products were traded. The road was also a means of cultural exchange from south of Himalayas to Tibet and on the south-western China. Arniko and other Nepali artisans must have treaded the northern route over Sichuan on their way to Peking.

Traditionally tea was pressed into bricks allowing a slow fermentation process to take place. This allowed the tea to be transported along the Tea Horse Road since the journey took more than six months. Some of the tea would even continue its journey into Nepal and India.

Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er is a tentative listed World Heritage site in southern Yunnan where some of the oldest tea plants are found. This is the area where the Pu’er tea or Pu’erh was produced for transportation along the Tea Horse Road. The tea was transported north into another tentative listed World Heritage property, Dali Chanshan Mountain and Erhai Lake Scenic Spot. The 250 square kilometre lake at an altitude of 1972 metre provides a multitude of scenic spots. The lake is also famous for its now endangered fishing method of using trained cormorants. The Tea Horse Road passed through numerous towns such as Shaxi. Shaxi was placed on the World Heritage Fund’s 100 most endangered heritage sites in 2001, which leads to an exemplary conservation project supported by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

From there the Old Town of Lijiang World Heritage is not far. The three historic centres of Dayan, Shuhe and Baisha have been threatened by tourism impacting their authenticity. A fire that broke out in March 11, 2013 further questioned this issue. We must however consider that the fire was brought under control within two hours and ‘only’ thirteen houses were affected. There seems to be a concerted effort to control the millions of tourists, who visit this site annually, frequenting the bars with the laser strobe lights.

We now move into the natural World Heritage property of Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. These are the Hengduan Shan, the easternmost end of Himalayas, were all mighty rivers Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze converge within a distance of 125 kilometres. The Tea Horse Road then crosses the Yangtze River and enters the area that used to be part of Kham, the land of the Khampas. The important Tibetan town of Dukezong is located to just south of the Ganden Songzanlin Monastery and Lamasery. The structures largely destroyed in 1959, have been rebuilt and recently restored. In 2001, the county as well as the old town were renamed Shangri-la after the much acclaimed novel written by James Hamilton in 1933. A setback to the tourism promotion has been a fire on January 11, 2014 that gutted a large part of the ancient city.

New road and rail connections have ended the out-of-date means of transporting goods by horses and humans. The present revival of this ancient route is of a very different nature, that of tourism. The Tea-Horse Road does have many romantic tales to tell. - See more at: http://www.thehimalayantimes.com/fullNews.php?headline=The+Tea+Horse+Road&NewsID=406704#sthash.yEzYJ0t3.dpuf
YUNNAN: Camellia sinensis, generally known as tea, is said to have originated in an area spanning southern Yunnan, northern Myanmar and Assam. There are numerous mentions of tea being used for its medicinal qualities in historical texts spanning back even prior to the first millennium BCE. It was, however, only during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) that tea became popular. It was during this period that large numbers of horses were required by the Han Chinese to fight off the nomadic invaders from the north. On the other hand, it seems that Tibetans had become quite addicted to drinking tea.

This was a little known form of regional tea politics. The Tea Horse Road was of course not purely reserved for tea and horses, for many other products were traded. The road was also a means of cultural exchange from south of Himalayas to Tibet and on the south-western China. Arniko and other Nepali artisans must have treaded the northern route over Sichuan on their way to Peking.

Traditionally tea was pressed into bricks allowing a slow fermentation process to take place. This allowed the tea to be transported along the Tea Horse Road since the journey took more than six months. Some of the tea would even continue its journey into Nepal and India.

Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er is a tentative listed World Heritage site in southern Yunnan where some of the oldest tea plants are found. This is the area where the Pu’er tea or Pu’erh was produced for transportation along the Tea Horse Road. The tea was transported north into another tentative listed World Heritage property, Dali Chanshan Mountain and Erhai Lake Scenic Spot. The 250 square kilometre lake at an altitude of 1972 metre provides a multitude of scenic spots. The lake is also famous for its now endangered fishing method of using trained cormorants. The Tea Horse Road passed through numerous towns such as Shaxi. Shaxi was placed on the World Heritage Fund’s 100 most endangered heritage sites in 2001, which leads to an exemplary conservation project supported by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

From there the Old Town of Lijiang World Heritage is not far. The three historic centres of Dayan, Shuhe and Baisha have been threatened by tourism impacting their authenticity. A fire that broke out in March 11, 2013 further questioned this issue. We must however consider that the fire was brought under control within two hours and ‘only’ thirteen houses were affected. There seems to be a concerted effort to control the millions of tourists, who visit this site annually, frequenting the bars with the laser strobe lights.

We now move into the natural World Heritage property of Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. These are the Hengduan Shan, the easternmost end of Himalayas, were all mighty rivers Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze converge within a distance of 125 kilometres. The Tea Horse Road then crosses the Yangtze River and enters the area that used to be part of Kham, the land of the Khampas. The important Tibetan town of Dukezong is located to just south of the Ganden Songzanlin Monastery and Lamasery. The structures largely destroyed in 1959, have been rebuilt and recently restored. In 2001, the county as well as the old town were renamed Shangri-la after the much acclaimed novel written by James Hamilton in 1933. A setback to the tourism promotion has been a fire on January 11, 2014 that gutted a large part of the ancient city.

New road and rail connections have ended the out-of-date means of transporting goods by horses and humans. The present revival of this ancient route is of a very different nature, that of tourism. The Tea-Horse Road does have many romantic tales to tell. - See more at: http://www.thehimalayantimes.com/fullNews.php?headline=The+Tea+Horse+Road&NewsID=406704#sthash.yEzYJ0t3.dpuf

April 16, 2010: Canadian explorer-mountaineer Jeff Fuchs testing tea in southern Yunnan province, home of oldest tea trees on the planet and home to famed Puer tea:

In 2007, Jeff Fuchs became the first westerner to trek entire Yunnan–Tibet Ancient Tea Horse Road (3,728 miles/6,000 kilometers).
"Jeff Fuchs testing teas in Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan"
"Jeff Fuchs testing teas in Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan"

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

the art of tea

miniature tuocha-shaped pu'er tea cakes with tea infusion
miniature tuocha-shaped pu'er tea cakes with tea infusion

Sources Consulted

 

"About Puer Tea." Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas. Tucson, AZ: Green Dragon Enterprises LLC. Retrieved August 27, 2014. 

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"About Puerh." Horse Road Tea. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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  • Available at: http://www.pu-erhteas.com/about/

"The Ancient Tea Road." China Central Television. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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Beckwith, Sebastian. February 2010. "Trip to Visit Old Tea Trees in Laos." The Tea Horse Road. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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"Black Puer Tea." Pure Puer. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://purepuer.com/puer_tea/do/category/black_puer_tea

Brahm, Laurence J. 1 September 2008. Conversations with Sacred Mountains: A Journey Along Yunnan's Tea Caravan Trail. New World Press.

Forbes, Andrew; and Henley, David. 19 July 2011. China's Ancient Tea Horse Road.  Cognoscenti Books.

Fuchs, Jeff. 30 June 2008. The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels With the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers. Renouf Publishing Co. Ltd.

Fuchs, Jeff. "Hu Kai: A Tea of the Soul." Templar Food Products: Blog. New Providence, New Jersey. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://icedtea.com/tea-industry/2011/hu-kai-a-tea-of-the-soul/

Fuchs, Jeff. Summer 2008. "The Tea Horse Road." The Silk Road 6(1):63-71.

Fuchs, Jeff. 1 December 2010. "Tea's Ancient Trees." Templar Food Products: Blog. New Providence, New Jersey. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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Gary. 22 January 2012. "To the Source of Tea: The Ancient Tea Groves of Menghai County." China Watch 2050. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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Goodwin, Lindsey. "Pu-erh Tea." About.com: About Food > Coffee/Tea > Tea & Tisane 101 & FAQ's. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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"Huang Ya Cha: A Rare Tea from the Mannong Ancient Tea Association in Yunnan." Canton Tea Company. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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"La route du thé." Les Écrans de Chine: Festival de documentaires chinois du 21 au 30 janvier 2012. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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"Miracle Weight Loss Tea from China - How Pu-erh Tea Can Help You Shed Pounds." Teavivre: Tea Info. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

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  • Available at: http://purepuer.com/puer_tea/do/page/more

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  • Available at: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-1169-PU-ERH%20TEA.aspx?activeIngredientId=1169&activeIngredientName=PU-ERH%20TEA

"Pu-erh Tuocha." Puerh Shop. Troy Michigan. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.puerhshop.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=9&zenid=k5aa3vgjes7tug1it7hl9c52p5

"Puer Slideshow." Pure Puer. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://purepuer.com/puer_tea/do/category/puer+slideshow

Stein, Andrew. 12 July 2010. "The Ancient Tea Trees of Southern Yunnan." WildChina Blog. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/2010/07/the-ancient-tea-trees-of-southern-yunnan/

"Tea Horse Road and Tea History." Horse Road Tea. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.horseroadtea.com/tea-horse-road-tea-history.html

"Tea-Horse Trade Route." Tibetan Trekking Travel Co. Ltd. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://tibetantrekking.com/tibet/history/tea-horse-trading-route/

"the 26 Mountains of Yunnan." The Leaf Tea & Tao Magazine. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.the-leaf.org/The_26_Mts_of_Yunnan.html

Weise, Kai. 21 February 2014. "The Tea Horse Road." The Himalayan. Retrieved August 28, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.thehimalayantimes.com/fullNews.php?headline=The+Tea+Horse+Road&NewsID=406704

WildChina. 15 August 2014. "Yunnan's Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road." WildChina Blog. Retrieved August 27, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/2014/08/yunnans-ancient-tea-horse-caravan-road/

Yang Fuquan. "The 'Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road,' the 'Silk Road' of Southwest China." The Silk Road. The Silk Road Foundation Newsletter. Retrieved August 27, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/2004vol2num1/tea.htm

 Zhang, Jinghong. 12 September 2013. Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.Unniversity of Washington Press: Culture, Place, and Nature / A China Program Book.

Zheng Limin. 11 May 2012. "Richness, Diversity and Natural Beauty on the Tea Horse Road." China Central Television: Documentary > CCTV-9 Documentary English > Special Series. Retrieved August 27, 2014.

  • Available at: http://english.cntv.cn/program/documentary/20120511/109314.shtml

 

Buddhist statue and stupa overlook pu'er tea fields.

Xiding, western Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southern Yunnan Province, southwestern China
Xiding, western Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southern Yunnan Province, southwestern China
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic (Culture, Place, and Nature / A China Program Book) by Jinghong Zhang

Puer tea has been grown for centuries in the "Six Great Tea Mountains" of Yunnan Province. In imperial China it was a prized commodity.
Puer Tea-themed books

Yunnan Longrun Pu-erh Tea Cake-826 (Year 2006,Fermented, 357g)

Accompanied with "816"," 826" is the standard quality of fermented Pu-Erh tea, with 86 steps of processes. The tea leaves are uniform and clean, with obvious golden leaves, earthy fragrance, and red-brown leaves at the bottom after infusion.
pu-erh tea

Numi Aged Pu'erh Tea Brick, 12-Portion Brick , 2.2 Oz

Harvested from the ancient Chinese tea forests on Jing Mai Mountain.Gluten free.
pu-erh teas

A Cup of Tea and A Book by C.S. Lewis: black t-shirt ~ Available via AllPosters

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."
A Cup of Tea and A Book CS Lewis
Ad AllPosters

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/24/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 11/11/2014

Mira, Puer tea is definitely an interesting tea. I also enjoy the world of tea: so many varieties!

Mira on 11/11/2014

Puer tea sounds interesting. It's funny how it's oxidized and yet still has important health benefits. I believe in learning and sampling many kinds of tea. Apparently it's better than other teas at fighting body fat.

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