Category Archives: Making Puer tea

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.

Monkey Picked Puer Tea

We’d been talking about this for months – going to pick some wild tea trees in the forest on Long Pa Liang Zi. Of course, they’re not truly wild trees in the proper botanical sense, but they’re trees that the village has no collective memory of anyone planting and they are left largely untouched in the forest except for when they flush twice a year.

picking wild Puer tea in the forest

There apparently used to be a lot more, but they have over time, died or been cut down. The taller trees are a fairly impressive 7 or 8 metres in height but my tea farmer friend’s younger brother scaled them in seconds to pick the tea.

To see him move through the forest – at a speed I could barely maintain – was to be reminded of the Jinuo people’s still recent past as hunter gatherers. The animals are, unfortunately largely all gone, but the brother is the kind of guy who is happy to set off for a few days in the forest – as long as he has a couple of packs of cigarettes and his machete. He also has a mobile phone but with the sound turned off, so wearing his camouflage outfit so that he melts easily into the forest.

wild tea tree in Jinuo Shan

The trees are a mix of da ye zhong and xiao ye zhong. The girth at the base of some is significant, but having been cut back, they have subsequently produced a number of relatively slender trunks. The taller trees, of course, in this kind of environment will have grown very quickly, and don’t necessarily represent vast ages, though the villagers believe them to be several generations old.

I was trying to measure the height of one using the altimeter on my mobile phone – which wasn’t very successful and, reminded of the ‘barometer story’ about the young Niels Bohr as a student under Michael Rutherford, was thinking it would be better to give the phone to  the brother in the top of the tree and get him to drop it so we could measure how long it took to hit the ground. (If you’re not familiar with that story, you can read it here ).

One problem with trees in this situation is that, since they are on ‘common’ land, anyone can pick them – the sort of situation that led to fighting between Yi and Yao people near Yi Shan Mo a couple of years ago. Here, there are only Jinuo people so there is not that kind of issue, but the tree in the picture below was cut down last year. No one is saying who and, contrary to Wilde’s assertion, in villages like Ya Nuo, it is probably indiscrete to ask.

tea tree growing in the wild

We kept moving through the forest from one small group of trees to the next, so there was no way to spread the leaves out to  keep them cool and time was an issue.

wild tree tea leaves

Having finished picking, my friends brother took the basket and, moving quite a bit faster than the two of us, carried the leaves back to the workshop to spread them out.

When we got back, perhaps 20 or so minutes later we fired the wok and fried the tea.

frying tea in you le

We ended up with just under a kilo of mao cha which has a very distinct and pleasing fragrance. More on that another day.

picking basket - summer tea -

Like Picking Money from Trees

Over-picking Puer tea

Periodically, there is some comment online about Puer tea and over-picking of tea trees, so I thought it would be interesting to explore this further, and try to tease (‘scuse the pun) out what exactly this means in practice, and what the effects and implications are. It’s also important to consider this in relation to the Puer tea market to understand how it too may be impacting tea cultivation practices.

The broad picture is that concerns about the quality of Puer tea are becoming more frequent, and the explanations typically include climate/drought, overpicking and the use of a range of methods that are aimed at increasing productivity.

There are a number of factors:

1. The last few springs have been particularly dry which has inevitably affected yield, if not flavour.

2. At least in recent history, prior to 2005, the majority of people in the Puer tea supply chain –  farmers down to customers – didn’t distinguish between old trees and bushes when picking tea. Old tree tea was not specially sought after so there was not the potential to over-pick and stress trees that there is now.

3.There is increasing demand for tea, with ever more people seeking a limited, and probably dwindling supply of old/ancient tree Puer.

4. Farmers have been using practices which, for them at least, are new – from turning the ground around tea trees to applying chemical fertilizers – in an attempt to increase yield. There are concerns about how these practices are impacting tea quality.

4. In recent years, methods of picking have:

a) had the propensity to disregard time honoured wisdom about tea tree cultivation, especially vis-a-vis the impact of weather.

b) been minimally influenced by research and understanding that has emerged and is recommended by tea colleges, universities and government organisations.

b) possibly fallen prey to the pressure of demand amidst a growing global market and big economic shifts for local farmers, many of whom previously lived subsistence lifestyles.

If we assume that inappropriate-picking, above all other factors, is having an adverse effect on tree health and tea quality, we should first consider what is ‘normal practice’ for tea picking, and specifically for old tea  trees.

 

 

There and Here – more on puer storage

After comparing two Bulang Peak teas whilst I was in the UK, I thought it might be interesting to bring some of the 2010, UK stored tea back to ‘Banna to compare with some of the same tea that has been stored here in Jinghong.

This therefore, is more an ‘apples with apples’ comparison than the one in the UK which was comparing a 2010 tea stored in the UK for 18 months with a 2011 tea that had been in Jinghong. This time we have the same tea, same batch.

bulang peak 2010 cakes

UK cake on left, 'Banna on the right

The first thing is that the difference between the teas is not that obvious. Looking at the colour of the cakes, the broth colour and the dregs, there is some difference to be detected, but it’s not that pronounced.

bulang peak 2010 uk stored cake detailbulang peak 2010 cake stored in JinghongThere is a slight difference in colour between the two cakes – most visible in the tips which are a little darker in the ‘Banna stored tea and in the slightly ‘greener’ hue to the UK stored cake. The top photo (right) is the UK stored cake, the lower one the ‘Banna stored tea. It’s not obvious in the photos here but the ‘Banna tea also looks a little richer, more moist than the UK stored cake, but perhaps I’m just imagining that.

The broth also produces marked difference – at least of the kind that I might have anticipated.

The broth from the first steepings of both teas looks pretty similar in tone.

I started using these two cups – the UK stored tea is on the left – but then realised my mistake as the shape of the cups and their translucency was affecting the appearance of the broth.

bulang peak spring 2010 broth

So I switched to two identical cups to see how the appearance of the broth was altered. I tried to steep the teas as close to simultaneously as I could in order to minimise any differences caused by oxidation of the broth and steeped the UK stored tea first, so that oxidation would not exaggerate any difference.

bulang zhi dian broth comparison

As can be seen in the photo above, there is no very obvious difference. Possibly the broth on the left (UK) is a mite lighter than the ‘Banna broth. Both are the third steeping.

Here is the broth from both teas after steeping for 5 minutes. This time the broth on the right (‘Banna) is more noticeably darker, but it’s still not much.

bulang peaks broth after five minutes steeping

The difference is most clear in the flavour – perhaps as one might have expected. The UK stored cake has kept more of its youthful floral/fruity notes and is very sweet. At the same time it is very slightly more astringent than the ‘Banna stored tea.

The ‘Banna stored tea has lost most of those fruit/floral notes and has started to show hints of something deeper, though as yet, no obvious chen wei. Both teas, when pushed, show a decent kuwei and both resolve quickly to produce a good huigan.

So is there a conclusion?

Of sorts, there is an interim one. It could be that the astringence in the UK stored cake is due to the fact that it has aged more slowly than the ‘Banna tea (and we have forgotten how it was when young) and that with further storage it will diminish. The other possibility, it seems, is that it has been influenced by the dryness of the UK conditions and this has produced the astringence. Only further storage time will tell.

bulang peak broth and dregs

 

 

Ban Pen 2012 Early Spring Mao Cha

Toward the end of last year, we set up a small place in Ban Pen to make tea – chu zhi suo 初制所 . This is some of the maocha we made there.

The tea has a light qingwei and a delicate bitterness that are balanced by sweet floral  notes. The broth feels very smooth with a nice houyun – a fine sweetness that materialises in the throat. Below are the leaves and broth after the second steeping.ban pen tea leaves and broth puerh tea for 2012

Decent shengjin and a pleasing retro-olfactory floral aroma that floats up from somewhere in the back of the throat and persists on the back of the palate and in the nose, calling me back repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to identify the fragrance which is quite familiar, but I still put a name to it.

Here the leaves have opened after about 4-5 steepings.

The broth from the fourth steeping. All the pictures are of teas that are steeped in a gaiwan and decanted without using a strainer.

Making Rain

China’s rain making programme is well documented. Substantial amounts are spent annually on rainmaking technology and its implementation. But Xishuangbanna is mostly still as dry as a bone. A couple of nights ago there was a quite sudden clap of thunder, and it rained briefly, which it seems was ‘man made’, but whatever the potential risks of such endeavors, the effect was quite desultory.

The first flush of tea has finished and pretty much everybody is waiting to see what happens next. By this time last year, despite a dry start to the spring, we had had substantial amounts of rain, but this year, in Jinghong there has been not a drop.

I was up in Hekai for a few days last week, and there it rained a little every night, but Nan Nuo Shan has only seen a little of that. The general consensus is that this year’s tea’s flavour is a little better than last year, but often with a little more astringency. In some teas, the bitterness is more pronounced. We’ll have to wait for another week or so to see what the second flush of tea produces.

 

See here for some more reading on Chinese weather making

Water, Storage – and the importance thereof

This recent blog posting by discipleoftheleaf on one of our teas – Bulang Peak 2010 seems to bring home, apart from the fine palate and descriptive skills of the author, the importance of good tea storage, and the quality of water used for steeping.

Each time we send out tea, we continue to emphasise the importance of giving tea time to acclimatise to a new environment – in my experience, this typically takes around 3 weeks. So it makes sense, if the tea has arrived from anywhere with a climate that is different from one’s own, to wait at least a couple of weeks before even bothering to try it. There is always a handful of people who can’t wait, or don’t think it matters. But it does. And I think this is particularly true of more nuanced teas.

The importance of water quality is also fundamental. There is an essential choice to be made; find teas that suit your water, or find water to suit your tea.

There’s not much point in using water with significant amounts of dissolved solids, and along with that, probably quite high alkalinity on a complex, fragrant, nuanced tea. If one is set on water with a higher pH, better to seek out teas that work with that kind of water. Younger teas seem more fickle than older Puers which, with age, are more robust and tolerant of a wider range of conditions.

Tea Moments – Drinking Tea with Lao Feng. Bang Wai 2011

HM had gone to Menghai to organise some pressings the other day when our neighbour Lao Feng, dropped by. He somehow seems to me like a kindred spirit and I enjoy drinking tea with him.

He came in, and having said he didn’t mind what tea we drank, I found a cake of Bang Wai on the shelf that I didn’t remember ever tasting (in fact I’m pretty sure now I never tried it).  We made a number of 150gram cakes last spring from a range of tea mountains: He Kai, Jing Mai, Naka, Luo Shui Dong, Ding Jia Zhai, Mang Zhi, Bing Dao, Xi gui, Bang Wai, Ban Ma. All in small quantities. At most we had a set or two of each: 10 or 20 Kg.

The Bang Wai tea looks good, though there’s nothing particularly notable from the outwards appearance of the leaves.

Bang Wai 250 gram cake

Bang Wai 250 gram cake from Spring 2012

The broth is exceptionally clean. Early steepings produced a pale yellow broth with virtually no astringency and a hint of bitterness that lingered on the upper palate. Later steepings produced a pleasing rich gold broth.

Bang Wai 2012 Spring sheng Puerh broth

Bang Wai 2011 Spring sheng Puerh broth

The tea has lost any ??? ‘qing chou wei‘ that it had and has yet to develop any noticeable ?? ‘chen wei’.  Initial impressions are of tobacco and old books, hints of leather.

By the end of the first couple of steepings, I could feel a warmth creeping up my occiput and face. The tea feels quite penetrating and both Lao Feng and I begin to feel the effects in the palms of our hands: a warmth and energy that makes the skin slightly moist. I can also feel it around my upper arms and shoulders.

Sharing tea experiences with Lao Feng is enjoyable, not least because he is very interested in the energetics of tea. Not from a scientific, Newtonian perspective, but from an experiential one. We concur that one sign of a good tea is how much it penetrates energetically. He comments that ‘some teas are powerful as they enter, and some powerful as they come out.’ It’s certainly so with this tea. The rukou had no clear sweetness or xiang qi – but there is a powerful, floral sweetness that floats up through the throat from somewhere deeper inside and penetrates the nasal cavity.

Bang Wai leaves after 5 or 6 steepings

Bang Wai leaves after 5 or 6 steepings

We become very still as we focus inward to better perceive/appreciate the process. Another friend comes by and quietly joins in. He too, quickly notices the effects this tea produces. He says he feels it first penetrates to the 丹田 ‘dan tian’ and then spreads out to the hands.

We recall a Chinese sage – no one can remember their name – who said about only drinking seven cups of tea. With this tea, it seems to be true. The experience is quite powerful and after 5 or six steeping we’re all happy to pause and enjoy the lingering sweetness and aroma that continues to float up in the throat for another 40 minutes or so.

 Bang Wai broth after 6 - 7 steepings

Meng Song Ku Cha – Bitter Tea

Sinensis assamica var. Kucha – or in plain English, bitter tea, is a sub-variety of sinensis assamica that grows in the Meng Song area. For reasons which are doubtless obvious, it’s not the most sought after of Puer tea, but with a light touch when brewing it can be rather pleasant, with a distinct, lingering, but not overwhelming bitterness.

A friend just dropped by with a few handfuls. We plopped some in the gaiwan. It’s not the prettiest maocha you’ll ever see, but it’s totally honest, unadulterated.

Meng Song sinensis assamica var. kucha

With maybe 5-6 grams in the gaiwan and very quick steeping times, the bitterness does not become overpowering and there’s some decent flavour and fragrance.

Meng Song Bitter Tea leaves after three steepings

The soup is clean – when sampling it’s good to use a gaiwan – not a pot – and no strainer. The broth has a pleasing colour with a hint of pale, almost pinky, gold.

Meng Song Bitter Tea broth

See here for an earlier post about Meng Song: www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/stone/

Wan Gong and Bai Cha Yuan

HM has been recently spending a fair bit of time going up to Wan Gong where we found a little tea last year, and Bai Cha Yuan . Our hope this year is to build on last year and make some more tea from a couple of tea gardens up there.

Old tea tree around Wan Gong

Old tea trees that were cut back and then left untended

The trees in the photo are typical of a fair number of the trees in this remote area near Bai Cha Yuan – they are maybe about 200 years old but were cut back heavily many years ago and have subsequently been left untended for a long time.

HM and some tea farmers from the area have built a small makeshift ‘pondoki’ where we will make tea, as it is much too far from any more permanent tea making facilities.

A rough shelter on the mountain

A makeshift shelter

We have improvised two small woks for frying tea.

Two makeshift woks for frying tea in the field

A rather splendid view from near the top of the mountain.

A view from near the top of the mountain

A view from near the top of the mountain