Author Archives: Puerist

‘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.

 

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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New Home

So here is HM in a new home. It’s been a while. I just realised, when moving things around, how long the hiatus has been. I’ve been busy with other things, but I’m hoping to still find time to keep this more contemporary.

Spring is still a little while away, but Spring Festival is round the corner – The Year of the Goat. A wooden goat at that. I just got back from a month or so of travelling to rain and some fairly cold weather. Already, I heard a couple of folks wondering about how so much rain early in the new year might affect tea, but it’s early yet. No point in worrying about what hasn’t happened.

In my explorations of the last year I’ve happened on a couple of interesting tea gardens, not well known – one pretty much unknown – from which I’m planning to source tea this Spring.

I’m getting ready to go and check out the tea gardens again and will post a couple of photos when I get back.

Spring Tea

Another really dry spring, though it looks like it’s going to rain this weekend. Tea prices have gone up anything from 25 to 50%. Earlier in the spring, people were saying that Dayi and Cheng Shen Hao were going round pre-ordering tea which ratcheted up the price, but then, as some others commented, they’re not necessarily willing to pay top whack, and there are plenty of tea farmers who have solid customers who they don’t want to blow off anyway.

One tea farmer was telling me yesterday that, in their village at least, it was an increase in folks from Guangdong that was pushing up prices. That may be maligning Guangdongers, there’s always been plenty of Guangdong people coming buying tea. In any case, the village has seen a fifty percent increase on the price of fresh leaves since last year, and over the last three days, it’s gone up 10 yuan a day. The weather, as always is also a factor: very dry, not so much tea. After it rains, there will be lots more, but then there’s at least a few days after the rain where it won’t be worth having if anyone picks it.

HM came back from Ge Lang He saying Pasha was full of folks from Ban Zhang buying tea – draw your own conclusions. BHT fresh leaves are around 750-800 yuan a kilo, which means prices around 3000 a kilo and the rest of Wan Gong not much less. Walong is still about half that. So here are a couple of pictures to be going on with:

 Wa Long village in Man Zhuan

Wa Long is a little like Man Lin or somewhere like that where, at slightly lower elevations, it’s surrounded by rubber, but right round the village, and the tea gardens, the environment is surprisingly intact.

walong old tea trees

Here are a couple of trees right near the village, but most old trees are in the forest above the village.

Coming up from the Xiang Ming road, one first gets to Wa Long Lao Jia, and from there you run along the mountain ridge to Walong. From the road between the two villages one can see Gedeng.

wa long looking across to gedeng

Weather Report

 

ancient tea tree in Bang Wai

Ancient tea tree in Bang Wai, December 16th, 2013. Photo by Wang Xiong

We are having the longest sustained cold spell in ‘Banna that anyone here can remember. For over a week we’ve been having night time temperatures of 10 Centigrade or less, with two or three nights getting down to 5 or 6 in Jinghong. Daytime temperatures have been getting up to 20. In the mountains it has been colder, with heavy frosts and ice in Bulang Shan and snow in Lincang.

There were a few days in 1999 that were cold, but according to local people, it was not that extreme and didn’t last more than 3 or 4 days.

The general perception is that early spring tea will not be pretty, but the flavour should be good.

bang wei tea in the snow

Another image from Bang Wai – Not sure why anyone would be picking tea in December!

Lao Ban Zhang gets a Bank

The stories of Ban Zhang’s mercurial rise are two a penny, but here’s some concrete proof of the shift in the villages fortunes. A friend of mine was up there a couple of weeks ago and came back with the news that a bank has been opened in the village.

Yunnan Agricultural Credit Co-operative has set up a branch, replete with ATM, in Lao Ban Zhang – it must be the first mountain tea village in ‘Banna to get one. It opened for business on the 25th November.

Read the original article on China Puer Tea website.

My friend Xiao Liu commented wryly that now no-one can use the excuse that they didn’t bring enough cash for not buying tea.

Roundup

After writing this post, I deliberated for some time on whether to post it or not. It’s not such happy reading, but in the end I’ve decided to go ahead. With ‘Publish and be damned!’ ringing in my ears, here it is:

mountains in border region between china and laos

“It stays in the soil for fifty years” he declared, which sounded a little implausible given that Glyphosate was invented in 1970 and has been commercially available less time than that. But it’s possible.

It was the tail end of summer and I was on a few days trip near the Lao border, going up the county road which runs from Meng Xing up to Jiang Cheng, and heading off into the mountains on the east side: Tong Qing He, Bai Sha He, Bai Cha Yuan, Wan Gong, Yang Jia Zhai, Yi Shan Mo, Zhang Jia Wan, Jiu Miao, and so on – and had bumped into a tea lao ban on the road. We were discussing the use of Glyphosate, or cao gan lin.

At the other end of the spectrum is the kind of hyperbole Monsanto pedals, even in the face of almost overwhelming research to the contrary, insisting that Roundup is as safe as mothers’ milk, or words to that effect. “Roundup.. agricultural herbicides continue to be a perfect fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.” they say. That’s some pretty tall cotton too.

The feaces really hit the fan in 2000 when the patent expired: Monsanto dropped the price in order to stave off competition and there was a consummately large increase in sales although truth be told, Cao Gan Lin was widely available in China much earlier than that, made under license or not. (Recently the government has made attempts to reduce the huge over-supply of Chinese Glyphosate.)

Touted as ‘the most widely used herbicide in the world’ its use is extremely pervasive and has wide implications for users and consumers. I have no need to catalogue the research, one just has to search online, or if you can’t be bothered with that, click on some of the links at the bottom of the post.

Not surprisingly, there are few tea farmers with old tree gardens who will readily admit to using it. Some will acknowledge that they used it in the past, but not anymore. Unfortunately, evidence of it is quite widespread.

As Tea Urchin commented some time back, the presence of spraying equipment doesn’t have to sound the death knell, but when it’s in remote tea fields, unless they happen to have been growing some corn or something nearby, there’s not really any other reason they would have had the equipment there.

I was exploring some areas off the  S218. One day, we had been walking in forest for an hour or so, crossing a stream in our path, we saw this:

If you can’t see clearly enough in the photo, it’s bags of Glyphosate.

Where there is a ready supply of water, this is a relatively easy method of clearing weeds. In this case it was done in a cleared forest area in order to plant some tea seedlings, so this does not necessarily mean that old tea trees are being treated the in the same way, but it is unfortunate evidence to come across in what should be pristine forest.

Most tea farmers have now have got strimmers to keep the weeds down, but it’s hard work and needs to be done two, or even three times a year to keep the weeds at bay. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that even in areas where farmers have to go by motorbike and on foot for up to a couple of hours to get to their tea gardens it’s not sure to be trouble free. It’s fairly common, in the small gazebos that most farmers have in their tea fields, to find spraying equipment.

I’m trying to resist being drawn to the conclusion that the more remote the area, the more likely the tea farmers are to have used chemicals on their tea gardens, but there are reasons why that could be the case.

Lao Feng (Mr Feng to you) once said to me you only had to look at all the queues of farmers waiting in hospitals to realise how widespread the use of agro-chemicals was and how injurious the effect.

It’s not that simple: farmers now all have health insurance, and western medicine particularly seems to be viewed as a panacea. (It’s common for people to go to a hospital or clinic for intravenous drug treatment for such things as a common cold.) So the preponderance of country folks in city hospitals cannot be construed necessarily as an indicator of their poor health, triggered by profligate or irresponsible agro-chemical use.

Having said that, the concerns are legitimate and I know people who believe that drinking water in rural areas is often affected to the extent that one could not sample tea in a village using their own water and be clear about whether any chemicals present were from the tea or the water, or both.

A Zhang Jia Wan tea farmer said to me a while back, “In 2005 we all used it, then we realised it was not good and haven’t used it since.” But it’s anecdotal. It’s not ‘everyone’. It’s a pointer that when sourcing tea one must be ever vigilant, and looking can only tell you so much.

The half life of Glyphosate in soil varies and is said to be as short as a few days and as long as half a year. What that means is that it could be ‘gone’ in a few months or there could still be small amounts in the soil a few years later. Residue in the plant is another issue.

Tea shop lore is that the year it is sprayed (typically in the winter months), Roundup may not be that obvious in tea, and is most noticeable in crops two years later, from when on it diminishes.

More recent research has shown that some of the so called inactive ingredients in Roundup are also harmful, meaning that the mix of chemicals is potentially more harmful than Glyphosate alone. (see links below)

So what to do about it?

For a couple of thousand yuan you can go to the government quality assurance office (zhi liang jian du ju) and give them a kilo of tea that they will test for all manner of things: DDT, Bifenthrin, Chlorpyrifos and so on, along with caffeine, theine, etc. But no Glyphosate. I once asked them at the local offices why. ‘Because cao gan lin is not on our list of permitted agro-chemicals’ they said.

It’s a fine logic – why would you bother to test for something that was not permitted? What’s much more bothersome is that if you check with all the big testing companies present in Asia (mostly western), none of them routinely test for Glyphosate as any part of their standard testing packages. It can be done, but you pay for it. It would be tempting to begin to see it as some kind of wider issue that a conspiracy theorist might have fun with, but a more measured view is that there is no straightforward, affordable methodology for testing for it.

So testing is not much of a solution. One has to rely on ones own accumen to detect it. The indicators have been well catalogued: tingling on the tip of the tongue or inner lips, or sometimes a slight numbing, puffy feeling, a prickly, dry feeling in the throat, and so on. Whether any and all of these are attributable to Glyphosate is a moot point. There could be many reasons a tea can produce these kind of sensations, and not all chemical, but it is a warning sign to be heeded.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/25/roundup-health-study-idUSL2N0DC22F20130425
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/07/30/glyphosate-toxicity.aspx
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/10/23/glyphosate-found-in-human-urine.aspx

http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Why_Glyphosate_Should_be_Banned.php

http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Actives/glyphosa.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Glyphosate

http://www.frost.com/prod/servlet/market-insight-print.pag?docid=JEVS-5N2CZG

http://www.icis.com/Articles/2000/12/11/128125/us-patent-expiry-of-roundup-creates-uncertainty-in-glyphosates.html

http://www.beyondpesticides.org/infoservices/pesticidefactsheets/toxic/glyphosate.php

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=weed-whacking-herbicide-p

On Buying Tea

  1. This post started off as a response to a question that someone once in a while will ask about how we source tea, but then it developed into a little monologue about visiting tea villages looking for tea. I have left that part till the end.

So first, let’s go back a few years, to when someone once suggested to me, rather humourously I thought, that we might consider changing our farmer – singular – as though there could possibly have been only one.

A couple of things become clear very quickly: if you’re not just sourcing tea from a few places that are near each other, you need a team of people. Some people you can squarely rely on. You can’t be in two places at the same time, and though regional differences exist – Menghai flushes earlier than Liu Da Cha Shan, or whatever, there’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the relatively brief period of time that is (early) spring tea harvest.

Different areas & villages can have slightly different approaches too. There’s a reason for this, so it makes sense to draw on local knowledge and skills, rather than have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Of course, a skilled tea maker can no doubt quickly adapt, but in any case, having one person make all your tea is a physical impossibility, dictated by distance and topography.

So then, the ways that I source tea are essentially these:

  1. Arrange for pickers to pick leaves from a tea garden we have identified, which are then taken to a place where we have someone take in the fresh leaves and make the tea. The trees may not belong to the person who makes the tea. The farmer who owns the trees sells the fresh leaves and may be involved in the picking. In this way we have the most control over the process. It is also useful where a farmer has good trees, but hasn’t necessarily mastered the skills of making good tea.*

nan nuo shan zhi zheng cha zhe suo

The caveat, if it need be stated, is that the person taking in the fresh leaves must be skilled at recognising fresh leaves from different trees and sources, be familiar with, and trust the pickers, and know exactly where the tea is coming from in order to avoid tea from elsewhere being brought in.

Cha Wang Shu

Cha Wang Shu – the small blue roofs are typically tea processing places

In recent years this has become much more common, particularly in places like Gua Feng Zhai where there are often concerns about the origin and purity of ‘mao cha’. The year before last someone said to me ‘Gua feng Zhai fresh leaves are expensive but their mao cha is cheap.’ It’s not completely true, but you get the idea.

  1. Another situation where we might make tea in a similar way is where the tea garden is too far from the workshop to carry the fresh leaves out, and so the tea is made on the spot and carried out as mao cha. Some tea from the Yiwu area is still like that – anywhere where the tea gardens are too remote to be able to carry fresh leaves out to the place of processing – e.g. Bai Cha Yuan before they made a new road from Ding Jia Zhai to the tea gardens.
freshly picked leaves - bai cha yuan

Making tea in Bai Cha Yuan

  1. The third situation is to have a known farmer with good trees and tea making skills make the tea themselves. This also works well, but one needs to be sure of the skill of the tea maker. If the quantity is relatively small – a few kilos – it may be no problem, but a farmer who can make 5 kg well, may have trouble making 30 all to the same standard.

One also needs to be clear if the tea farmer takes in leaves from other villagers – many do and are honest about it, but not all, so one needs to be sure of sources and consistency.

  1. The fourth situation, which is not necessarily separate from the above, is to work with others in the business. i.e. have others who help monitor or supervise the tea making and sourcing. This could be people who are effectively paid or take a cut, or it could be others in the tea business with whom one has a good relationship and with whom you pool resources.
  2. The next situation is buying on spec from a sample. One can occasionally can get some good tea like this, but mistakes can be made. If the volume is small, so is the risk.  In any case, if someone comes to you with a sample of good tea, it’s worth the trouble to go and take a look at where the tea is said to be coming from. I have on occasion bought tea in this way.
  3. The last approach is going cold to a village with no knowledge or connections , this can be fun, but very hit and miss.

You only have to look around online at various blog posts by people who have done this to see that it is probably the least reliable method of sourcing tea, but makes for a good story. Unless you get very lucky, this is at best exploratory – laying the ground for something in the future. It’s rather like a paper chase…

bulang shan - 2008- looking for tea

 

It’s something I personally enjoy doing – going somewhere I’ve never been before and seeing what turns up. But it takes time. You can’t accomplish much in a day. It generally takes a few visits to start to get a handle on the situation in any one village.

Because of this, it’s worth considering how best to go about it.

Ideally maybe, you would look at the trees first, assuming they’re nearby and you can find them, then visit the farmer with the best looking gardens. But this is neither practical nor reliable, as you likely still need someone to show you round and in any case, the owner of the best looking gardens may not make the best tea, or it may already have been sold.

So a better option is going to farmers’ houses and see whose tea making looks the best (most professional, consistent,) and try some of their tea. You can always look at the tea gardens later.This is also time consuming. The first tea you get offered is likely not the best – the tea farmer is also testing you: he’s not going to sell you his best tea if you can’t tell the difference – and you could easily spend a few hours getting to the better stuff. If you do that in a couple of places, the day has gone. It’s impossible to go round every house in a village in this way, so inevitably there’s some luck involved in where you go.

It’s a long time since I read Walden, but I remember the observation that “A farmer’s wealth is measured by the extent to which the barn overshadows the house.” or something like that.

It’s useful logic. You’re probably not going to find the best tea by going to the poorest looking house in the village – particularly one where they have old tea trees. Anyone now, who has old tree tea gardens, should be getting a decent price for their tea if it’s any good. Of course, there could be other factors: the farmer has old trees, but because of size, poor management, etc. it doesn’t provide a good income, or they’re just not good at business – A Hungarian winemaker told me his father would say “A good winemaker must be a good man, must be good wine-maker, and be a good businessman.” It’s the same.

So a reasonable way to start is to see who looks like they’re doing decent business. It doesn’t of course mean their tea is good. They might just be good at doing business, or the owners just took out a hefty loan to build the house, but there’s a chance you’ll find something, and they might know what good tea is, and maybe know where to find it.

Occasionally you might get lucky: someone ordered 60 kg of tea, but then didn’t come through, or only bought 30 kilos in the end – spring tea buying can be a little frenzied and sometimes folks bite off more than they can chew – so, if you’re timing is right, there it is waiting for you.

A couple of other things are important:

The first, is village politics. Villages often comprise of two or three extended families, and they don’t always all get on. Once one gets to know one farmer in a village, they will likely rather jealously guard the connection. One has to be a fine diplomat, or a little thick skinned to navigate the network of connections both within, and outside a village.

Secondly, if you don’t know what the tea from village X should taste like, it’s better not to attempt any serious tea buying. It’s foolish to assume you’re beyond being fooled.

You should know roughly what the price is before you go. Tea prices are actually fairly transparent: very early in the spring, when there may only be a few kilos of tea around, if you were to ask how much tea ‘A’ is, the reply will likely be ‘I don’t know, the price hasn’t come out yet’ “不知道,价格还没出来。”. But a week or two later everybody knows – ‘So-so Pa Sha is about X a kilo, higher quality, around X+Y′, or whatever it is.

Like taking an un-metered taxi: to ask the price of going to ‘A’, only shows your ignorance. They see you coming. If you’re only buying 5kg of tea, the price will be higher than if you’re buying 50.

Bartering is worth it if you think you’re getting a bad deal and or, you don’t have too many hopes of developing a longer term relationship with the farmer. If you want to build mutual trust, trying to hack the farmer down on the price is not going to help much, but letting them know you have an understanding of quality and value is surely worthwhile.

*It is quite  common for farmers to sell fresh leaves to someone else in their village, and in this way ensure a potentially less profitable, but more secure income. In the past it has been quite rare for farmers to make their own tea. The common practice was for farmers to pick leaves and sell them to a factory for processing.