There is Champagne, France; Tequila, Mexico; and Parma, Italy all places turned trade names known for their unique, high-quality foods. Now, if China has its way, there could be another: Puer.
This lush corner of Yunnan province in China's south is home to one of the world's hottest teas. Puer tea may not look like much it is typically sold in heaps resembling cow patties but one mug of these aged leaves can fetch up to $1,000. The drink is touted for its health benefits and is loved for its light, earthy taste. It is already a hit in Hong Kong, where rare teas are a status symbol among the city's élite, and it is generating hype outside China, too. Three high-profile Silicon Valley techies recently tweeted and blogged their way through a Puer tea tour of Yunnan. Dieters, meanwhile, are buzzing about rumors that Victoria Beckham, the svelte former Spice Girl, drinks Puer to lose weight. (Read "Storming the Teacup.")
Making Puer tea as internationally renown as Roquefort cheese could expand China's tea exports while adding a bit of luster to a food industry infamous for its health scandals. But building a Puer brand will depend on getting control of a market riddled with imposters, financial speculation and controversies.
The need for stricter control of the Puer industry became clear two years ago, when the Puer market went on a destabilizing roller-coaster ride. Some Chinese buy tea as an investment, much like Europeans buy wines. In the early part of the decade, thousands of cash-rich urbanites poured their savings into the Puer, causing prices to double, then triple. "People were buying anything," says David Lee Hoffman, a California collector. By 2007, the finest aged Puer was quite literally worth its weight in gold. As demand soared, however...