Vancouver is fast becoming a centre for carefully sourced teas that go back to ancient China. From greens and blacks to jasmines and oolongs, Chinese teas have become as ubiquitous on the West Coast as an ordinary cup of Earl Grey.
One tea that’s just starting to take root is also one of the oldest and most sought-after teas in the world, both for the complexity of its flavours and for its rarity outside of Asian markets.
“Pu erh is known as the king of teas,” says Erick Smithe, sales director for 6 Mountains Tea, an online retailer based in Vancouver that deals exclusively in pu erh out of its Richmond warehouse.
“It’s been recognized for at least 1,000 years of recorded history. Wars have been fought over it and fortunes have been made because of it.”
Pu erh is harvested from six mountains surrounding a river basin in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. It takes its name from the city of Pu’er, where the leaves were traditionally sent for manufacturing and distribution. Pu erh is said to be among the original teas from which all other varieties have descended.
Only tea harvested in this region can be called pu erh, and centuries-old contracts regulating its production and distribution make it one of the hardest teas to come by—which Smithe says makes it susceptible to fraud and misrepresentation.
In recent years, interest in the storied tea has started spreading in the West, especially in cities with large Chinese populations, like Vancouver.
“There’s a flavour in this particular tea that can’t really be described; in Chinese it’s la wei, which means ‘the old flavour’,” Smithe explains between cups of the distinctly blackish mahogany brew.
“It’s an amazing combination of all sorts of flavours and aromas that are at once familiar and also otherworldly. If you’ve had old [aged, fermented] tea then maybe you can identify that taste, and if you haven’t had it then maybe you [need to] go looking for it.”
And people increasingly are.
According to the Tea Association of Canada, specialty teas accounted for almost $140 million of tea sales in 2014, about 63 percent of the total Canadian hot-tea market. And Western Canada leads the country in specialty tea sales, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
By 2020, Canadians will be drinking 40 percent more tea than they did a decade ago, with interest in specialty products continuing to outpace supermarket-grade tea, according to a Canadian Food Trends report.
When Daniel Lui started selling traditional Chinese tea about 12 years ago at his store, Arts de Chine in Chinatown, the bulk of his clientele was of Asian origin. In recent years, though, Lui has noticed a surge in the number of non-Chinese customers coming in and asking about pu erh and other rare teas.
“In 2004, maybe 80 to 90 percent of my customers were Chinese,” he says. “Now more than 70 percent are westerners, so the demand for tea is growing and we have many customers drinking real loose-leaf tea and not just packaged and tea-bag tea.”
Lui expanded his store at 101 East Pender Street in 2009 to accommodate this growing demand from people outside the Chinese community, reopening it as the Chinese Tea Shop.
“My job is to educate people and share my experiences with them. Now there are more tea shops in North America. In Seattle, there’s a pu erh tea club and in Vancouver there are private tea meetings. So it’s happening everywhere,” Lui says from behind a kettle that’s coming to a boil.
Bryce Diamond discovered Chinese tea soon after moving to Vancouver from Alberta in 2001. A self-proclaimed foodie with a taste for single-malt whisky and fine tobacco, Diamond quickly moved from green teas to oolongs in pursuit of a richer tea experience, finally settling on pu erh as his drink of choice.
“I just started tracking down whatever information I could online,” Diamond says, noting that he wanted to learn more but reliable sources in English were difficult to come by. However, the local tea importers have filled a void, and Diamond believes that Vancouver could popularize fine Chinese tea the way Seattle pushed gourmet coffee into the mainstream.
“We’re influenced by the very strong Chinese community that exists in Vancouver, but there’s also the kind of foodie and flavour side of it,” he says. “People know about tea, but they really don’t know what’s possible with tea, and that’s where the next big thing will be.”