‘King of Tea Trees’ A Sequel

I don’t recall, a decade or so ago anyone much thought of picking tea from single trees. ‘单株/dan zhu’. It’s a thing that started in the last few years. Perhaps as Puer tea has become more expensive and as tea drinkers have been exploring the world of Puer more deeply. I guess it’s also a marketing thing: selling exclusivity. But since every ancient tea tree is unique, there is some logic to it also: even trees in the same tea garden can be quite different. Sometimes there can be a number of sub-varieties or forms of sinensis assamica growing next to each other: one more bitter, another sweeter. It’s done with larger, older trees where a single tree might only flush once a year in Spring, and may typically yield say five to ten kilos of fresh tea, which might produce a couple of kilos at most of maocha.

Xishuangbanna, Menghai Ancient tea tree No 46.

A few weeks back a tea farmer friend took me to see a tea tree which is clearly quite old: the girth at the base is probably getting on for 100cm and the trees branches cover an area of at least 10㎡, helped by the fact that it must have been polarded a long time ago. Let’s say it’s six to eight hundred years old, judging by other trees in the vicinity that are of known age.

‘Have you drunk tea from this tree?’ I asked. He hadn’t, but a few days later he called me up. ‘I’ve got some.’ he said. ‘Some what?’ I asked. ‘Some tea from that tree.’

I was busy and It was nearly a month before I managed to get round to visiting him. When I did I was expecting the tea to be long gone, but he’d kept it.

The fragrance is excellent, with floral qualities and a hint of something I can’t put my finger on – vaguely citrus. The broth is rather fine, certainly compared to ‘da zhong huo‘ from the area. It has a very slight bitterness and good ‘hou yun’. The broth is clear and a little viscous. Apart from a very slight feeling on the tip of the tongue, which is frankly not enough to detract from its attributes, its really a very nice tea. I brought a handfull back to drink with some friends who at first thought it was a Xiang Ming xiao ye zhong tea. Not at all like the Menghai tea that it is.

The processing looks like it was pretty good. Very even and no red stems.

It’s Good For You

In the Yorkshire Dales where I grew up, the village school had no kitchen and school ‘dinners’ as we called them we ferried in from the town about seven miles away. I remember them arriving mid-morning in big alloy warming containers. The food wasn’t good and I had a particular dislike of the carrots which were badly overcooked. I unfortunately took the dislike home with me, where carrots on my plate were an unwelcome sight. ‘They’re good for you.’ my mother would say, which my eldest sister, being the enforcer, would reiterate. It took me till adulthood to re-calibrate my perception of cooked carrots. It maybe also left me with a residual disregard for doing something ‘because it was good for me’.

I can’t imagine many people drink wine or whiskey, or coffee, because they think ‘it’s good for them’. We drink those things because we enjoy them, savour the taste, the aromas, the sensations they produce in us. Unfortunately tea seems to have got boxed into the ‘drink it ’cause it’s good for you’ corner. My first reaction to hearing somebody championing the ‘drink it ’cause it’s good for you’ point of view is that whatever it is they’re drinking probably doesn’t taste good if that’s the main justification for drinking it. Why else would you use that as a selling point?

Puer, particularly raw Puer from old or ancient tea trees has got more than its fair share of stuff that’s good for you in it.  Many years ago it was ‘ripe’ Puer that got the attention: the ‘weightloss tea’. The tea that some footballer’s wife drank to help keep in trim. Much early research also seemed to focus on pile fermented Puer because, I imagine, to a chemist the process of pile fermenting is somehow a more interesting topic for research.  ( I certainly have a dog in the race and might as well at this point stick my neck out and say that I think ‘cooked’ Puer shouldn’t even be called Puer, having no historical basis, and bearing little resemblance to real Puer. Like coffee and instant coffee, they share a passing resemblance but can hardly be confounded). Anyway, it was a few years before there seemed to be much research around on younger and naturally aged Puer tea. What came to light was that pile fermented Puer had greatly reduced amounts of substances such as catechins, gallo-catechins and what have you because in the fermenting process much of the naturally occurring constituents got converted to gallic acid and thearubigins (the stuff that makes it look red), etc, and conversely there was actually more caffeine in the ‘pile fermented tea than in the ‘raw’. Conversely, it appears, that naturally aged raw Puer tea has a balance of whatever it had in it originally, but over time the less stable compounds: gallocatechins, epigallocatechins, being the first to get reduced to other things: equally good for you.

If you think something is good for you, it probably is, even if for others it may not be so. Surely the most injurious thing is to persist in something which you believe to be bad for you. So drink tea you enjoy. And if you think it’s good for you, it probably will be.Tea Health

 

 

Autumn

It was nearly the end of October and it had been raining pretty much solidly for three days.

Ten day forecast for Jinghong

And the same for Menghai.

I had thought it might ease up and was contemplating starting to look for some Autumn tea, which can sometimes be quite good, but the rainy season effectively didn’t stop. I called a couple of tea farmers in the Yiwu area who said there was little to no tea. Even if daytime temperatures are fairly high, overnight temperatures can drop considerably.

Early November and more rain on the way.

Once that happens, old tea trees stop flushing. So that was the end of that. It’s been the wettest Autumn since I’ve been in Xishuangbanna, which is nine years.

It’s bad news for tea farmers because, whilst Autumn tea doesn’t fetch Spring tea prices, and the volume is somewhat less, it means a portion of their annual income has just disappeared.

 

More Glyphosate

There was a brief discussion recently on LinkedIn following a post about Sri Lanka’s decision to ban Glyphosate, and the quandary that poses for tea producers. ‘Should we use Monsanto’s Glyphosate?’ was the title of the piece which went on to discuss how Sri Lanka is facing a dilema over pesticide use. I’m unclear about the timing as Sirisena introduced the ban a good couple of years ago which came after a previous ban was lifted after only a few months, in 2014. So sure, they seem to have been in a quandary over the decision for some time.

It’s a curious question. Imagine one was a world-class athlete who’d got used to taking steroids because they improved one’s performance, but slowly became aware of their harmful effects. If one was winning gold medals it might be hard to give up for fear of lowering one’s level of performance and only getting bronze, or perhaps no medal at all, but in tea there are no medals for performance. What is there to lose? Someone contributed to the discussion by suggesting pesticides are necessary to maintain production levels in an ever more populated world where starving people would ‘willingly risk an excess MRL or two rather than have no food.’ But tea is not food, though it may well be considered a staple by many folks in poorer parts of the world.

And Roundup is not insecticide. Not using it is not going to result directly in infestations of insects that will eat the crops or damage tea bushes, or maybe rust which will damage the leaves. The worst that can happen is that folks have to go into tea gardens and weed by hand. That’s about profit, or maybe reducing losses. But it’s hard to imagine using herbicides to keep labour costs down is going to turn a loss-making business round. On the other hand, opting for more labour intensive/creative methods of dealing with the problem, as Sri Lanka appears to have done may well prove worthwhile if it results in a more desirable tea. With Sri Lanka’s objective of reducing large scale plantations in favour of smaller family run tea gardens, it is ironically becoming more like Southern Yunnan.

Yunnan’s history of tea cultivation is rather different from Sri Lanka’s where the tea industry was developed by the British in colonial times. In Yunnan, the government has at various stages had a hand in developing the tea industry, but in Xishuangbanna there are not that many large scale plantations outside of some of the big tea factories and areas like Da Du Gang. There are a lot more in the Lincang/Lancang area. There were large scale (re) planting programmes around the middle of the 20th century, particularly in the Menghai area, but most tea producers are still smallholder farmers who are their own bosses. Many of them have in the past still choosen to use agro-chemicals in some way, certainly in bush tea plantations, but it has been a personal choice.

Dadugang tea plantations

Da Du Gang tea plantations

Even though the use of agro-chemicals has in theory been banned in ancient tea tree gardens, it still happens, particularly with something like Glyphosate, the use of which will significantly reduce the labour time required by a tea farmer to manage his/her tea gardens. But ‘market forces’ eventually will prevail in most situations.

Sunshine and Glyphosate

Sunshine and Glyphosate

More and more people understand, and are able to detect where Glyphosate has been used, and are averse to buying tea that may have been treated with it. So even when a buyer is not able themselves to detect its use, the fear that a customer may is a factor that will cause a buyer to err on the side of caution. This increasing awareness also brings other complications. Pretty much gone are the days when asking the farmer directly about which agro-chemicals they may have used would elicit a straightforward answer. One needs to be more wiley.

I was with a friend, and a friend of his, visiting some tea villages some way north of Yiwu. I had heard of a garden of 40-50 year old trees that had never been treated with agro-chemicals,so my friend had elicited the help of his friend who was from the area to see if we could find it. When we went into a village and found some tea that seemed like it might be interesting, he would say ‘这款茶不会超标吧’ /This tea isn’t over the limit (for agro-chemicals) is it? ‘应该不会!’ / It ought not to be!’  was the typical response. With its element of doubt, it was all you needed to know.

But doubt is persistent. Despite the EU having an MRL for glyphosate of 2mg/kg, none of the main testing companies, as far as I can tell, includes Glyphosate in any standard testing package. As I’ve discussed before, it’s apparently because Glyphosate requires a different method of testing, so cannot be batch tested along with a slew of other agro-chemicals. So it’s fairly common, here at least, for people to claim their tea ‘meets European import standards’, but miss or omit the fact that Glyphosate is not on the list, as a guy I know did, proudly announcing that four of his teas had all passed the ‘欧盟标准/European standard test’ and were chemical free, but he had missed that Glyphosate was not on the list. (Actually, in order to economise he had mixed four teas together and tested them as one, thus further compromising the test, but that’s another story).

Old tree tea gardens near Yiwu

Old tree tea gardens near Yiwu

P.S.In doing some recent online reading I revisited the Greenpeace – Lipton tea story and realised that there too, Glyphosate was absent. I have tried writing to someone at Greenpeace to better understand that absence: was it that Glyphosate was not tested for, or that it was, and none was found. If that were the case, given the number of other chemicals the teas had in them, it would be news-worthy in itself.

For an earlier piece on Glyphosate plus links to additional reading see here

 

There Goes Another One

It’s ‘Swing Festival’ again. Hard to believe. Another year gone. I’m not sure I could satisfactorily list what I’ve accomplished in the last 12 months. It seems like not much, but I’ve made a fair chunk of tea, and drunk a lot too. Some of it courtesy of an Aini tea farmer on Nan Nuo Shan whose tea gardens are between Shi Tou Zhai and Ban Po Zhai.

Someone once said to me ‘The thing that’s special about Nan Nuo Shan tea is that there’s nothing special about it’. It’s not exactly true: at it’s best it’s floral-fruity, with plenty of body, some heftiness with a distinct bitterness and astringency, and a good hui gan. A good solid tea that has so far escaped some of the extreme, fad-driven price fluctuations that have affected some other places. There’re differences between villages or tea gardens of course. Ban Po Lao Zhai is often a little more astringent than Shi Tou Zhai, etc. and of course, Ba Ma is another story.

This year it was raining heavily the day we went so we skipped the swing and stayed inside eating and drinking tea. The village, like others on Nan Nuo Shan runs on tea. They have tea gardens above Ban Po Lao Zhai even though they moved down from there many years ago to a village nearer the road because they still maintain land there that was apportioned to them at the time of the move. As with many other villages, people here grow some other crops too. Some rent land near the foot of the mountain to grow paddy, and they often grow some vegetables near the village.

Clouds rolling up the valley

The day before, I went to Pasha, where I hadn’t been for ages, but after repeated invitations from a tea farmer there I decided it was time to go. I went on the ‘new’ concrete road that was finished a couple of years ago that runs around the south of Nan Nuo Shan to Gelang He. It shortens the trip from Jinghong by about half. On the way I bumped into the tea farmer from Nan Nuo Shan who, on his way home had just had the misfortune to have a scrape with a Range Rover on a tight, sloping corner. They were lucky. Neither he nor his wife, who was on the back of the motorbike were badly hurt, but his bike was unrideable. He was waiting for his brother in law to come and pick them and the bike up. He forked out 2000 yuan to pay off the Range Rover driver to boot, even though it was questionable who was at fault. That’s the cost of riding an unregistered bike (something that many mountain dwellers do here), particularly on a tricky mountain road in the rain.

 

The road to Pasha from the foot of Nan Nuo Shan

The road to Pasha. Maize and rice are grown at lower altitudes.

Pasha, like Nan Nuo Shan is inhabited by Aini tea farmers. Their language and customs are the same. They both celebrate Ye Ku Zha – Swing Festival – at around the same time of year.

I think I’ve finally figured out how the date of the festival is determined: according to some folks it starts on the first ‘bull’ day of the sixth month of the ‘nong li’ or traditional farmers’ calendar. But there’s a problem with that because in Pasha it started this year, 2017, on July 13th, which was the second ‘bull’ day of the sixth lunar month and the rest of the Gelang He area it started on the third ‘bull’ day. According to my host, they start on the third ‘bull’ day in the Julian month of July. Make of all that what you will.

Aini (Hani) people are outward-looking, readily adapting to and taking on things they like or see as useful – Nan Nuo Shan is pretty well stocked with upscale cars these days – and they are much more open to outsiders than say, Bama’s Lahu people. They are also often quick witted business people. But they have an interior life which is less easy to access – they have an Aini name, for example – not the name on their documents, a public name, a name ‘for the government’, but a name only used by close family or friends that someone like me will likely never be allowed to utter. Last year the tea farmer I just visited for Ye Ku Zha actually told me his name, but at the same time made it clear that it wasn’t for me to use it.

Whilst their lives are changing rapidly – everyone who can, gets a car, pulls down their wooden house to replace it with something ‘fait de beton’ – Aini people, in this area at least continue to value their own culture and are not in immediate danger of being ‘han hua’d’ any time soon, maintaining, apart from their own festivals, their own language and customs – children all grow up speaking their mother tongue – and they still take time to make some of their own clothes and bags, albeit only worn on special occasions.

Boots ‘n’ Brolly for a Rainy Day

 

 

Nan Nuo Shan’s ‘Cha Wang Shu’

Anyone who goes to Nan Nuo Shan will have heard about, or visited ‘Cha Wang Shu’, the ‘King of Tea Trees’ that is between Ban Po Lao Zhai and Ya Kou Zhai. It is estimated to be 800 years old or more, but apart from carbon dating, there appears to be no sure-fire way to tell a tea trees age as they do not have rings that can be counted in the way that most other trees do. Locally, there are only word-of-mouth assessments of age, ‘so-and-so’s grandfather says it was yea big when he was a boy’ or something akin to that. Or otherwise by comparison with a tree of known age.

Carbon dating has been used to establish the age of some tea trees. And so to the apocryphal tale of the original Nan Nuo Shan ‘Cha Wang Shu‘. It was growing a little way below Shi Tou Zhai, and had attracted a lot of interest from scientists. As early as the beginning of the 1950’s Yunnan College of Agriculture researchers were exploring the varieties of tea tree in this area. The story is that local hunters who were familiar with the area would act as guides to take researchers deep into the forest. On one such trip in late 1951 a tea tree that was 8.8 metres tall with a girth of 0.83 metres was found. A couple of years later, one Zhou Peng Ju from Yunnan Agricultural College Research Department came to examine the tree, and over the ensuing years an increasing number of botanists and specialists came to examine the tree. Eventually it was established that the tree was a cultivated variety of tea tree.

According to one version of the sequence of events, as more and more people came to visit the tree, the surrounding environment was badly affected and the tree itself was also damaged, and by the mid 1990’s the tree died.

The local version of the story is that scientists came and took samples for examination by drilling into the trunk of the tree, which lead to the death of the King of Tea Trees.

This photo, with the tea tree behind, from the famous visit in 1985, is about all the evidence that remains on Nan Nuo Shan.

nan nuo shan cha wang shu

Zeng Wei Ran and colleagues visit the tree in 1985.

 

Hani ‘Ye Ku’ Festival

According to the Lunar calendar, the full moon in late June or early July is the time Hani people celebrate Ye Ku Zha. The Chinese translation, 秋千节 means ‘Swing Festival’ because, similar to some other local minorities, a large swing forms a central part of the festival. In other parts of Yunnan the festival is also referred to as Zha Zha Festival and rather than a swing they may have a see-saw type arrangement where a horizontal pole, set atop a vertical pointed pole can both pivot vertically and rotate horizontally. There appear to be various founding legends for this festival, but it essentially celebrates ancestors, though in some areas it is said to also be a harvest festival.

hani swing

Preparing the swing

Not all Hani people in Xishuangbanna celebrate it, but on Nan Nuo Shan and other Hani villages nearby they do. The time it is celebrated can also vary by as much as a couple of weeks. Traditionally the swing is made from four tall tree trunks, but due to the scarcity of the right height and thickness of trees, and restrictions on felling, it is common for the frame to be made of steel as it is in these photographs. The cross-pole is made from a thick length of vine and traditionally a number of thinner vines were strung over the cross-pole and braided to form the rope for the swing. Nowadays nylon rope is braided in the same manner.

child on sw2ing

Children lining up to ride on the swing

After the festival, which lasts about one week, the rope is left on the frame to be taken down and replaced with a new one the next year. The swing cannot be ridden before the first day of the festival when a cow is slaughtered and the meat shared out between the villagers. At that point villagers and visitors can ride on the swing and there may be a competition to see who can swing the highest, but according to village lore, the main purpose of the swing is essentially a form of cleansing ritual: by riding on the swing one can cast off ‘bad luck’ or inauspicious events from the previous year.

riding the swing 2

The village champion

At this time of the year, some way into the rainy season,  tea farmers are not particularly busy. There may still be a little Summer tea being made in some villages where they have small tea trees, but generally there will be little tea until the Autumn and any crops that villagers may have planted, like rice or maize will have already been harvested or will not get harvested till the Autumn.

 

Tea and Zen

Way up north of Yiwu is not necessarily the first place you would think to look for that rather overplayed blend of tea and Zen, but there it was. I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least, but somehow I still was.

Tea garden

Over the last couple of years I have been sourcing a little tea from a tea garden in a quite remote area some way above Yiwu. From the nearest village, it takes about an hour my motorbike on a narrow and difficult trail, often with steep, muddy inclines coupled with a sharp drop on one side as the path winds its way up the mountainside. A Yao (瑶族)friend and I had gone to the tea gardens and on the way had seen the small but vivid signs of how treacherous the path can be: a local couple had been riding on the path and had come off. They had already been taken down from the mountain, but the bike was still in the gully.

path

A more leisurely stretch of path with a little bit of ‘cha ma gu dao’ for extra flavour.

As anyone who has engaged in any kind of activity like that knows, the moment you come nearest to screwing up is when you lose concentration for a fraction of a second. I was curious to hear my friend’s experience, as it’s a much more regular activity for them than for me. I had also never had that kind of conversation with him, so when we got back down to the village I asked him what he thought about when he was riding on the path. He looked quizzically at me for a second or two before replying, ‘Nothing!’ he said.

screen-da-du-gang

Looking south east from Da Du Gang toward the Six Famous Tea Mountains. Kong Ming Shan (to the north- west of Ge Deng) is just above the tree branch on the left.

Autumn – Nan Nuo Shan

I’ve been to Nan Nuo Shan more times than I care to imagine so I guess I feel like I know it fairly well and I had pretty much given up on the idea that I might find a tea garden there that was not over-managed, but this Spring on a spur of the moment decision I decided to do some exploring whilst I was unaccompanied. It was fortuitous since I found my way into some tea gardens that are part of Ban Po Lao Zhai, but that I had not visited before. There was one area of the tea gardens that particularly interested me and a second area which also looked good. The garden’s on one of the higher parts of Nan Nuo Shan, at a hair under 1800m, and the surrounding environment is surprisingly good.  It’s a tea that turned out to be one of the pleasant surprises of this year.

IMG_20150923_141141

After a rather sedentary summer, I went again to Nan Nuo Shan a day or two ago , this time with some friends. We visited some tea gardens that are part of Shi Tou Zhai, but lower down the mountain at a height of around 1400m, so not that high, but good enough. Some of the gardens here are managed with a slightly heavy hand but some, higher up the slope, toward the top of a ridge are better. Quite a few of the trees here have been copiced at some time and there are also quite a few smaller trees in amongst the larger ones. Some of these are clearly trees which were cut, or burned right back to the ground, but others look like they came later, naturally or otherwise. The environment around the gardens is quite good. My friend says he tasted some tea from here in the summer and that it was not bad so he’s toying with getting some Autumn tea from here this year. So, let’s wait and see.  The gardens looked OK, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

IMG_20150923_141916 (1)

 

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Some Old Tea Tree Gardens (and some lessons on transliteration)

Last week, I had a few days’ trip in the SFTM area. The weather was good – dry, warm in the day, cool at night – and I got to re-visit some places and also go to a couple of new places.

I’ve been trying to get to Ma Pia (吗叭/ma ba in Chinese) for a couple of years. I think it was the autumn before last, I was with some friends in Ding Jia Zhai who had just come back from Ma Pia with some tea. One of them had a couple of pictures on his mobile phone. The tea wasn’t up to much – there were some problems with processing – but the trees looked interesting.

Laos China border region


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