BY MEI ANNE FOO
NOVEMBER 23, 2015 05:00 PM
Blood may be thicker than water but tea runs deeper across cultural ties. Inspired by her family’s love for drinking Pu’er tea, Carole Tan is taking this complex beverage beyond Asia.
Pu’er teas from Yunnan in China are considered well aged after 30 years, and these types are prized by tea enthusiasts and collectors. TeaSpec, with warehouses in Malaysia, is a business that was established through this customary lineage. The company sells mostly Pu’er teas, now packaged as corporate gifts or as rare collectibles, that were once part of founder Carole Tan’s own family collection, amassed over decades. She shares more about the process and progress of bringing Pu’er teas to the Asian market and the world through TeaSpec.
Mei Anne Foo: Why did you start your own tea business?
Carole Tan: My family and I have been collecting tea for almost 30 years, across two generations. We are simply passionate about finding and keeping the best Pu’er teas in the world. In the past, my mother-in-law would buy and collect teas because she appreciated the health benefits and saw them as a custom in maintaining Chinese traditions. As for me, I am more interested in bringing the tradition of drinking Pu’er tea to the world. In doing so, I created TeaSpec, a company that educates people about Chinese teas. There is a broader corporate mission for us, which is to set a standard for quality in the Pu’er tea market. This market lacks regulation and teas are sold with big variations in price and quality. Many counterfeit teas have also found their way into the market.
Who are your chief customers at the moment?
Our chief customers are from China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Increasingly, we are also being picked up by people from Southeast Asia who are only now beginning to be intrigued by Pu’er. Overall, our customers are predominantly health-conscious or looking for an alternative to green teas and red teas.
What are the main differences of Pu’er teas aged in Malaysia from the ones aged in China or elsewhere?
Yunnan, where Pu’er tea is grown, is too dry for the tea to acceptably age. It usually takes longer for the tea leaves to mature compared to the same ones stored in Malaysia. Conversely, in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, where much of Pu’er tea is kept, the high humidity hastens the ageing process and results in the tea leaves losing their unique aroma. Thanks to its geographical location, Malaysia is widely acknowledged by Pu’er tea aficionados to possess the ideal conditions for ageing of this complex tea.
Which is the most interesting and special tea in your collection and why?
We have this tea in our collection called Red Mark and a long time ago, we bought it for HK$3,000 per piece. We loved the taste of it so much that we kept on purchasing Red Mark for consumption, even as the market price went up. At the point of hitting a pricemark of HK$13,000 per piece, we could no longer justify our spending. Meanwhile, we continued to consume the stock we’ve accumulated at home. A few years ago, we checked the going rate and saw that the price had soared to HK$60,000 per piece. That is when we decided to stop consuming Red Mark and keep it instead. The last time we checked, this delicious tea is fetching prices of more than HK$400,000 per piece. Of course, not all teas appreciate in value such as this one. But I think this experience reveals how important it is to research and truly understand the value of the tea you buy. Sometimes I lay awake at night, wishing we had not slugged down our fortunes.
Which is your favourite type of Pu’er tea to drink ?
If I had to pick one, it would be a vintage Pu’er raw tea called Gao Shan Qiao Mu Yun. It was blended exclusively for us with leaves from arbor trees that are 300 years old. Over the time we have stored this tea, the leaves have aged beautifully under the Malaysian weather, which now gives it a mellow flavour with a sweet aftertaste. It will certainly continue to evolve and improve with age.
What are the best food pairings with Pu’er tea?
Most Asian foods and desserts go well with Pu’er because the tea has particular attributes that help to counteract oil and grease in the dishes. It is also a great staple for those who are looking for a drink that helps them to detoxify and lose weight – Pu’er teas aid in digestion and promote bowel regularity.