A pleasantly aromatic beverage that promoters claim reduces cholesterol and cures hangovers, Pu’er became the darling of the sipping classes in recent years as this nation’s nouveaux riches embraced a distinctly Chinese way to display their wealth, and invest their savings. From 1999 to 2007, the price of Pu’er, a fermented brew invented by Tang Dynasty traders, increased tenfold, to a high of $150 a pound for the finest aged Pu’er, before tumbling far below its preboom levels.
For tens of thousands of wholesalers, farmers and other Chinese citizens who poured their money into compressed disks of tea leaves, the crash of the Pu’er market has been nothing short of disastrous. Many investors were led to believe that Pu’er prices could only go up.
“The saying around here was ‘It’s better to save Pu’er than to save money,’ ” said Wang Ruoyu, a longtime dealer in Xishuangbanna, the lush, tea-growing region of Yunnan Province that abuts the Burmese border. “Everyone thought they were going to get rich.”
Fermented tea was hardly the only caffeinated investment frenzy that swept China during its boom years.