Ayden Graham wants to make tea sexy. The former Sensory Lab barista has always been a big tea-drinker but didn’t fully immerse himself in it until four years ago when a friend gave him a cup of ripe puer (also sometimes spelled pu-erh and pu'er).
“When I first drank it I was like, ‘Wow, what the hell is this?’” Graham says. Puer comes only from China’s Yunnan province and in two varieties: raw and ripe. Raw is the most common. It’s pale yellow and tastes like a strong green tea. But ferment raw puer for two months and it turns ripe.
“It’s really, really dark, it looks like really strong coffee,” Graham says. “It’s really strong, really thick, but super-duper smooth. You might think it’d be bitter, but it has this earthy, fermented, chocolatey kind of flavour.
“It’s like the whisky of tea, where everything else is like soft drink. It’s the hard stuff. Once you drink puer, you can’t really drink anything else because it’s very unique.”
Graham’s infatuation led to “equal parts passion, fatigue and frustration at the lack of good tea” in Melbourne, so he decided to go to Yunnan and bring some here himself.
Kuura Tea is his new one-man operation. Graham stocks five types of tea: a ripe puer, two raw puers, a black and a white. The teas are pressed into cakes, wrapped in beautiful black-and-white patterned paper, and given names that sound like supercars, such as Vector and Ghost. The teas and a collection of locally made ceramic teaware are available online.
Graham is also supplying restaurants and cafes in Melbourne. Vue de Monde’s tea sommelier Thibaut Chuzeville recently added Kuura’s raw puer to the menu.
Yunnan is “very biodiverse” and is believed to be where tea originated. Graham spends four months of the year there during the spring and autumn harvests meeting producers, visiting different mountains and tasting a lot of tea. “If you want to get the good stuff you really have to be in that particular region when the tea’s being made. If you don’t buy it, someone else will,” he says.
Raw puer has boomed in the past two decades or so because unlike the fermented ripe puer, the raw stuff can age, like wine. “It drives a lot of obsession and collection [in China],” Graham says. “It’s gone from being this nobody tea to this massive thing, mainly because of the discovery of how you can age it. In 10 years I’ll hopefully have a vast warehouse of delicious aged teas.”
Graham hopes people will begin treating tea the same way they treat wine, appreciating its variety and complexity. “I want to make tea sexy, but I also want to make it accessible,” he says. “It’s just leaves, you put it in water and it tastes good. I don’t want to make it into this big show, I’d rather it be no bullshit.”