The History of Puer City and Puerh Tea

More than 1,700 years ago a small batch of Pu’er was sold to Tibet. It quickly became a daily necessity for Tibetans to supplement their basic diet of meat and cheese. Tibetans say: ‘Living without food for three days is better than going without [Pu’er] tea for a single day.’ Yunnan is a land of rugged mountains and steep valleys which meant that Pu’er was transported strapped to horses and could take months before it reached its destination. This was the beginning of the Ancient Tea Horse Road and during the slow journey the Pu’er would naturally ferment. The people enjoyed the richer full-bodied taste as well as the fragrant aroma, and the Pu’er we know today was born. Over the centuries Pu’er has been a key player in the history of Asia and beyond: For more than a thousand years premium Pu’er was offered to the Emperor of China as Tribute Tea. The Chinese Imperial Army traded Pu’er bricks with Genghis Khan and the Tibetans for their strong horses. Pu’er Money Traders have used Pu’er bricks as money in China, Mongolia, Tibet and Russia. Pu’er was even well known among the native people of northern Canada who were trading across the Bering Strait. It was greatly prized by the Tang Dynasty, and today the best Pu’er per ounce sells at auction for many times more than the price of gold.

Pu’er City: The Cradle of Pu Erh Tea

Geographical and Historical Background

Pu’er City, located in the southern part of Yunnan Province in China, is the birthplace of Pu Erh tea. The region’s unique geographical features, including its high altitude, rich soil, and favorable climate, create ideal conditions for tea cultivation. The city’s history is deeply intertwined with the indigenous tribes, such as the Bulang and the Wa, who have cultivated wild tea trees for centuries.

Early Development

The origins of Pu Erh tea can be traced back over a thousand years, to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). The indigenous tribes were the first to discover the value of the wild tea trees in the forests around Pu’er. These early cultivators not only harvested tea for their consumption but also developed rudimentary processing techniques.

Tang and Song Dynasties: The Rise of Pu Erh Tea

The Tea Horse Road

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Pu Erh tea began to gain prominence. The ancient Tea Horse Road, a vital trade route, was established to facilitate trade between Yunnan and Tibet. Pu Erh tea, known for its long shelf life and medicinal properties, was exchanged for horses and other goods. This trade route significantly boosted the economic and cultural exchange between the regions.

Cultural Integration

The Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) saw an increase in the cultural integration of tea into Chinese society. While loose leaf tea became more popular in other parts of China, the remote regions of Yunnan continued to produce compressed Pu Erh tea, valued for its practicality in transport and storage.

Ming and Qing Dynasties: The Golden Era

Processing Techniques

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) introduced new tea processing techniques, transitioning from compressed tea cakes to loose leaf tea. However, Pu Erh tea retained its traditional compressed form, which allowed it to age and develop complex flavors over time.

Imperial Demand

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Pu Erh tea reached new heights of popularity. It became a staple in the imperial court and among scholars, prized for its aging potential and rich, evolving flavors. The tea’s ability to improve with age made it highly sought after, leading to increased demand and higher prices.

20th Century to Present: Revival and Global Recognition

Challenges and Revival

The 20th century brought challenges to Pu Erh tea production, including disruptions from the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution. However, the tea experienced a revival in the 1980s as interest in traditional Chinese teas resurfaced. The unique aging process of Pu Erh tea, along with its historical and cultural significance, captivated tea enthusiasts worldwide.

Modern Production and Varieties

Today, Pu Erh tea is categorized into two main types: “sheng” (raw) Pu Erh, which ages naturally over time, and “shu” (ripe) Pu Erh, which undergoes an accelerated fermentation process. Both types are celebrated for their unique flavors and health benefits. Pu Erh tea continues to be a major economic contributor to Yunnan Province, supporting local farmers and preserving traditional tea-making techniques.


The history of Pu’er City and Pu Erh tea is a rich tapestry of cultural, economic, and agricultural development. From its ancient beginnings among indigenous tribes to its status as a prized commodity in imperial courts, Pu Erh tea has carved out a unique place in the world of tea. Today, it remains a symbol of tradition, quality, and the intricate art of tea production, cherished by connoisseurs around the globe.