Extremely online pu'er tea
One man’s journey to track down, package, and sell the world’s most coveted tea.
Written by Krish Raghav
Pu’er experts like Wisconsinite Paul Murray, founder of White2Tea, will tell you that flavors like camphor and petrichor are just the beginning when drinking the world’s most coveted tea. There is a dedicated vocabulary for pu’er’s range of sensory pleasures, much of it untranslatable from Chinese. Purists look for houyun (喉韻), a mix of olfactory and tactile magic as the tea goes down one’s throat. Or huigan (回甘), a cooling sensation that blooms upwards from your chest after tea has been swallowed, described by one blogger as “acid reflux that’s good for you.”
Once you’ve swallowed, you might feel an electrifying clarity, an alertness attributed to qidong (氣動), or a vigorous bodily circulation of qi energy activated by the leaves. Go too fast and you’ll face cha zui (茶醉), tea drunkenness that can hit like an indica. “Pu’er is drugs” is a common saying among the faithful.
The 2022 Sambas (Image credit: White2Tea)
Good pu'er tea can be an out-of-body experience. The best pu'er, though, is an all-of-body experience. Claims of psychedelic and spiritual transformations are cliche among the pu’er obsessed, as you’ll see all over tea blogs and forums, but everyone can agree that chasing good pu’er can be a lifelong obsession.
Murray has headed down that rabbit hole twice a year for two decades now. Since 2005, over several months in spring and summer, he has rented a house in the town of Menghai in Yunnan province, southwest China, in search of the best pu’er tea. He sources, blends, and packs pu’er tea at White2Tea, a one-man online operation that serves pu’er obsessives with its own obsessive dedication.
“I think pu’er is an endpoint in tea,” he tells me from the middle of his 2022 spring trip. “Which is no offense to other tea types, but it's just where the obsessives tend to congregate.”
Murray didn’t intend his love for pu’er to become a business venture. His love for pu’er started when he moved to China to study Chinese in 2005 and encountered it during a trip to Yunnan. Back then, he didn’t have an all-of-body experience. Instead, his first sip of pu’er felt like a “gnarly whiskey.”
The name is a geographic appellation for Pu’er county, a historical trading hub for tea. Pu’er has a dizzying number of subcategories, classifications, grades, and processing methods, all layered over heated arguments over where the best terroir in Yunnan is. There are legendary vintages (packed in tight circular “cakes”) with cryptic names that sell for jaw-dropping amounts of money. The 88 Qingbing commonly sells for over $1,500. The 7542 series goes for $450 a cake.
Murray tried everything he could to find pu’er on the retail market. He learned to “drink with his body” instead of focusing just on flavor. And then he started haunting the pu’er stalls at Beijing’s huge Maliandao wholesale tea market, looking for more.
But all of the information he found was untrue. “I became frustrated because everybody would tell me completely conflicting information — what mountain profiles were like, the ages of old trees, what aged teas were like,” he remembered. “None of the information made sense because everybody had a unique set of lies they were peddling.”
He decided to learn the ropes of pu’er on his own and started to collect the tea for his own consumption. It slowly took over his offline life as he made frequent trips to mountains to collect strains, a practice he still does. “Spring tea time is just madness,” Murray says. “I'm often drinking far too much fresh tea, which is quite harsh on the body, day in and day out for weeks and months at a time.”
A "cake" of tea (Image credit: White2Tea)
And it took over his online life, too, where he became a frequent contributor on tea forums (and, later on, his own site), going by the name TwoDog.
Tea enthusiasts have long embraced the internet, congregating first around BBSes (bulletin board systems) and chat rooms, then message boards and blogs. TwoDog fit right into the forums, particularly with his constant appeal to other tea drinkers to drink “with their bodies,” just like he’s learned to. “I would drink soapy artichoke water if it made me feel the way [raw pu’er] does,” reads one characteristic TwoDog response.
Soon, Murray began to notice that there was a renewed interest in pu’er, beyond the original devotees. The original surge started in 1997, after sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred to China. Hong Kong was where most of the tea was shipped to and stored, and uncertainty around pu’er supply chains sparked a decade-long increase in prices. A 7542 cake in 2007 could sell for $3,000. And pu’er, thanks to media attention and curiosity, became coveted in tea blog circles.
The interest was sustained for years and was revitalized with foreign media coverage and dropping prices. Murray found that he was in an interesting position — the years of work he’d put into consistent, good sourcing were unique.
What happens next is an old story: the user becomes the dealer. “Eventually my tiny Beijing apartment was overflowing with tea and I realized I needed to start selling some of it if I wanted to not look deranged,” he said. Murray’s TwoDog tea blog announced White2Tea in 2012, and it became his full-time pursuit in 2014.
“Luckily, word spread pretty quickly online that I was sourcing nice teas,” he says. “It was just word of mouth within a dedicated online community.”
Murray describes his early days as desperately unprofessional. He would carry a backpack full of orders to the post office near his Beijing apartment and fill out three address forms per package in musty China Post outlets, waiting in line for hours. “The post office workers found me really annoying,” he remembers.
But Murray had plenty of customers — mostly international ones. White2Tea operates across two pu’er drinker scales. Pricing for daily drinks are around what you’d pay for quality roasted coffee beans, like the popular Waffles cake, which is $17.50 for 200 grams.
Premium pu’er is like wine, with the price tag to match. Unlike its growing subcultural cachet in the west, raw and blended pu’er is not hugely popular among urban Chinese youth. Even China's billion-dollar milk tea chains like HeyTea rarely feature pu'er, relying instead on oolong and green teas as mainstays.
Good pu'er tea can be an out-of-body experience. The best pu'er, though, is an all-of-body experience.
Instead, the tea is largely coveted by international connoisseurs and rich domestic collectors. You pay a sliding scale based on what you think the vintage, the source, and the blend is worth.
In 2015, as orders grew, Murray moved from Beijing to Guangzhou to be closer to the pu’er business (and in a more suitable climate to store his growing collection).
The subregion of Xishuangbanna in the Yunnan province, a lush, biodiverse region at the border of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam where all pu’er comes from, is where most of Murray’s focus is. This region features bold-flavored teas like Lao Ban Zhang, often abbreviated as LBZ, which was once infamously described as “[like a] naked sumo wrestler running straight at you full speed while you're being tied down by two other sumo wrestlers.”
Good pu’er, from Murray’s standpoint, is stubbornly old-fashioned — resistant to technological hacks and monocultural industrialization. Of course, hacked and industrial pu’er exist, but Murray prefers to take unpaved mountain roads to family farms where the arbor trees that produce pu’er’s distinct large leaves are centuries old.
The cornerstones of Murray’s method are constant tasting and careful stewardship of old tea trees, along with close ties with local family farms and tea artisans. He guards these locations carefully from others in the trade. “Business culture in Xishuangbanna also involves a lot of drinking moonshine and strong social relationships,” he laughs.
Despite its concentration in Yunnan, Pu’er was a maddeningly difficult tea to source. Price and age did not help gauge quality. For every lucky purchase, there were hundreds of acrid cakes and adulterated knock-offs. “China's tea market is really a minefield, and Chinese tea consumers are swimming upriver without a paddle,” says Murray.
What has helped Murray’s success are two specific, idiosyncratic components to Murray’s Pu’er philosophy, divisive decisions that are both the source of White2Tea’s reputation and the wellspring for small but significant pushback.
The first is White2Tea’s decision to sell blended teas, with only cursory or obscured sourcing information on where the constituent leaves are from. “Blending tea is a skill that takes a lot of experience,” Murray says. “It's still not broadly popular in China, with most people still focusing on single origin teas from one mountain.”
Blending is a sharp break from Pu’er tea “tradition,” which prizes source — and by extension, terroir — above all. Some tea critics argue that this is similar to the distinction between single malt and blended whiskey, or between traditional single-grape wines and blends. In both cases, the former acquires distinctive (which then become “authentic”) flavors due to its source and designation.
For Murray, blending allows for more expression, a freedom to create new experiences. Just what constitutes a “traditional procedure” isn’t very clear either, says Taiwanese academic Shuenn Der-Yu in his research. Tradition is in the midst of being invented, and pu’er today is enough in flux to be both fresh and established. Like repeat pours over bloomed leaves, it is emergent and residual.
In that way, White2Tea blends are more like the funky bottle of natural wine with Comic Sans lettering than the austere Bordeaux with loopy calligraphy. You buy into and trust Murray’s curation. “I spend most of my time traveling in the tea mountains and tasting fresh maocha [the loose version of raw pu’er tea] to select teas for blending,” Murray says of this method. “Choosing material is about finding teas from a good environment, and with good processing, and selecting the ones that speak to you.”
The 2022 Schafkopf (Image credit: White2Tea)
What “speaks to Murray” is also the source of the second divisive component in White2Tea’s approach: the naming and artwork.
The comparison to wine still applies. Confrontational (one famous White2Tea product is titled “This is not old arbor Pu’er”), low-brow (the “Lumber Slut” is an annual release, as is “Tuhao AF,” reference a Chinese term meaning “tacky”), and often strikingly beautiful, White2Tea products feature left-field artwork and names that riff on memes and Kendrick Lamar lyrics. One food writer calls the style “provocative, sometimes infuriating, but always interesting.” White2Tea products look great and gift well, but they leave a bitter taste for tea purists used to names like “Jade Throne” or “Phoenix Luster."
In other words, White2Tea produces “extremely online” pu’er.
“I really just respond to what I am looking at, or listening to,” Murray says. “I'm hoping there's a new generation of people drinking pu’er and listening to music while they read comic books. I'd rather connect there than with images of dragons and monks.”
Other pu’er vendors seem to have heeded the call. Some, like Yunnan-based Bitter Leaf Teas, now mix in film references and slang alongside more traditional names. Melbourne-based KuuraCorp goes all out, featuring a Soundcloud page and offering free pu’er if you get a tattoo with their logo.
2022 is White2Tea’s 10th anniversary. It is now a small, boutique business with customers in over 50 countries, with enough demand to be a sustainable, full-time operation for Murray.
The formula — low-brow pop culture references, smarmy commentary, and really good pu’er — has survived financial crises, souring hurdles for foreign-run businesses in China, a global pandemic, and supply chain crunches.
A strain of early-web anonymity persists in the way Murray runs White2Tea. He never shows his face online (a dog mask is the closest he’s come). He has consciously avoided trends like bombastic live streams that are popular in the rest of the industry in China.
This spring was a tough one. The bulk of his customers are based in the U.S. and Western Europe, and shipments out of China now take months instead of weeks. Then there’s the effect of China’s “zero COVID” policies, which has severely curtailed internal travel. “Getting into certain villages this spring required constant covid testing and even special permission and stamps from local tribal councils,” Murray says.
Lucky for him, no one becomes a Pu’er faithful without endless reserves of patience for the right tea to arrive, and his order list hasn’t suffered since COVID-19. The tea drunk cha zui chasers continue to need their fix.
“I’m just grateful that I've been able to pour myself into something I love,” he says about future plans. “This year I hope to make more hybrids, teas that incorporate processing from different traditions and provinces.” Less pure, more Pu’er. It’s a move bound to infuriate his critics further, but a commitment to trolling is as much in White2Tea’s DNA as the low-brow jokes.
“Tea has so much baggage from hundreds of years of tradition that people sometimes forget to have fun.”
More Like This