There are some luxuries that just don’t translate for me. Foie Gras, for example. And Bordeaux, shark’s fin, and abalone, while I’m at it. But as untranslatable luxuries go, perhaps none is more foreign to me than Puer tea, produced in the highlands of China’s Yunnan Province. The Chinese like to refer to it as antique tea, mostly due to the fact that it is often aged for decades. In Shanghai’s tea shops, you’ll see it displayed as a sort of black tea discus, often with a character imprinted upon it.
Now, I’m not sure what fresh Puer tea tastes like. But I do know what grade A 20 year old Puer tastes like – it’s foul and bitter. I was served it once, as a guest of a family,and for two reasons I didn’t share my true feelings. 1) that would have been rude; and b) Grade A Puer can cost upwards of RMB 450/gram – that is, US$58/gram!
With such high prices, it should come as no surprise that a speculative bubble in Grade A Puer tea has developed in China. According to a wonderfully weird story in South China Morning Post [subscriber only]: “millions of tea enthusiasts are buying up large stocks of puer tea and hoarding them as an investment, giving better and quicker returns than the stock market.”
I won’t go into the obvious reasons as to why puer tea is a fabulously bad investment. Instead, let’s let the investors speak. According to one interviewed by SCMP: “The risk is lower than stocks. When the prices go down, you can keep the tea for years waiting for the price to soar again.”
Stock bubble, real estate bubble, currency bubble, tea bubble … what’s next? Is this just an innate part of the Chinese economy – the tendency of the Chinese to bid up their passions, to live every opportunity as if life was a Perpetual Macao – or is there something else happening here? I’ve stopped, er, speculating.
The SCMP story concludes with the harrowing observation that most puer tea is purchased as a gift, though never consumed. Instead, it is gifted again. On top of that, production of puer tea is increasing. So, no consumption, high production, and a really heinous flavor, well, one fears for the well-being of the Shenzhen gentleman who bought a 499 gram pack of the leaves for RMB 400,000 (US$52,000). Indeed, one’s thoughts immediately shift to the Dutch Tulip Bulb Bubble of the 16th century