Category Archives: People

Puer tea production – Supply and Demand

I’ve been thinking it’s about time to reach some kind of a conclusion on the issue of over-picking old tea trees. But to digress for a moment, I recently remembered these words from a Congolese student of economics I used to know in London:

“les besoins sont beaucoup, mais les ressources sont peut.” 

So, putting that to one side for the moment, let’s carry on.

Climate and its impact on  Puer Production

We have had a few years of drought conditions which have badly affected yield. Tea farmers are typically reporting a 35-40% drop in yield in 2012 compared with 4 or 5 years ago.

This, admittedly bleak scenario is offset by the topography of Xishuangbanna which creates many micro-climates, thus in some cases, mitigating the impact of localised, if not global climate change.

The factors for the farmer are about income, keeping customers happy and maintaining their (mostly inherited) trees. In the face of the first two, it is easy to see how the last could be relegated in importance in a quest for short term gain.

Not all farmers are necessarily aware of the issues, and may not have a long term view of their own livelihood or the health of their trees, though generally there is an understanding of the nature of the ‘heirloom’ that farmers have inherited and may hope to pass on to their own children.

Greed and the Market

Over-picking is sometimes attributed to the greed of tea farmers. This seems a little disingenuous. From an outsiders point of view, traditional tea farmers houses and lifestyles may look appealing, but I wonder how many people would be willing to take their place? How should tea farmers live? And who should dictate that?

Even as little as a decade ago, tea farmers in Xishuangbanna sold their tea for very low prices: often a few jiao a kilo. Puer tea mao cha was considered more an agricultural product than a high class beverage. Farmers would often travel considerable distances – not easy given the terrain and their limited resources – to try to sell their tea. Some did not even pick tea, apart from a little for their own consumption, until a few years ago, when the Puer ‘boom’ brought a new perception of the resource on their doorsteps. It must have seemed like a little magic to many farmers who suddenly were able to generate significant income without too much outlay, other than their own effort.

Most mountain minorities in Xishuangbanna have been used to living a subsistence lifestyle, so the Puer boom brought about a groundshift in their circumstances. With the cash income that many farmers now have, they are building houses, buying cars, flat screen TVs, computers.

The stories  of tea farmers – and rubber farmers too for that matter – are legendary: suddenly coming into a decent amount of money, and then simply going to Moding in Laos (over the border from Mohan) and blowing it all in some mad frenzy at the casino, only to return home with empty pockets and carry on with their hand-to-mouth lifestyle.

So in a way, the fact that more farmers are beginning to have the foresight to put their hard earned money into something solid, like a house, should be seen as positive, even if, from a western point of view, the traditional house the farmer was living in had rather more charm than the concrete construction that has taken its place.

Most farmers houses have rather less stuff in them than other peoples so one can hardly blame them for wanting to acquire more household durables either.

Caveat Emptor

As tea farmers are increasingly exposed to the wider world, their ideas and expectations are changing. It is impossible to oppose or change that – hopefully, in the end, it will be beneficial to all, but one can’t condemn tea farmers for wanting to jump in and get a share of the bunfight that is ‘capitalism with Chinese charateristics’.

Things here are changing quite rapidly, but not all areas of a society or economy develop at an equal pace, and there is surely a process that we most of us know well enough: that ‘things’ do not necessarily equal quality of life, that awareness comes later, mostly after the acquisition of the things that one thought would bring something else into one’s life.  But part of that process of acquisition will bring some interesting changes:

A while back, I was with a tea farmer I know in Nan Nuo Shan, who still lives in a traditional wooden has, but one equipped with a number of ‘mod-cons’. He was on the computer using QQ to talk to one of his customers in Shanghai. And this is a guy who left school before his teens without even the chance to learn Mandarin Chinese.

If it’s not already here, the time will probably soon come when someone in America can get online and buy tea straight from a tea farmer in Bulang Shan.

The Needs are Many but the Resources are Few

So back to the opening comment: given recent conditions, a farmer may be faced with a demand that they cannot meet, at the same time seeing a potential near halving of income. Does the tea farmer stand his ground, and resist the pressure/temptation to pick more than is good for the trees, and at the same time tell the buyer that the price has doubled?

Some buyers will go further and offer financial incentives to farmers in order to encourage them to pick more responsibly, but in any case, the buyer walks away with less tea than they were hoping to get for their money and is faced with recouping an investment that the consumer may not be willing bear.

Earlier posts on over-picking are here:

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/picking-money-trees/

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/over-picking-tea/

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/pickin-money-trees-iii/

 

Naka

Naka -(Menghai Mengsong)

Early morning in Autumn - Naka. Near Jinghong Mengsong

Naka is a Lahu village above Menghai Mengsong with around 100 households. They have a compratively small area of old tea gardens – about 500 mu of old tea trees. As early as the 1970’s tea manufacturers were sourcing tea from here. Read more about Naka here.

 

 

 

Ban Zhang & Hekai Old Tea Trees

ma hou pao – 马后炮

A friend told me today of some news from Lao Ban Zhang and He Kai: “Ban Zhang and Hekai have decided not to pick summer tea.” It seems a little disingenuous since we’re already into the autumn tea season, but it’s a step in the right direction, as long as they haven’t changed their minds by next year. Or is it?

The issue of over-picking tea, particularly on old tea trees is important, and not that straightforward. There are some seemingly common misunderstandings about exactly what ‘over-picking’ implies.

Not picking summer tea, the least sought after/cheapest harvest of the year, is not going to suddenly make everything right if other issues aren’t addressed. Ban Zhang autumn gu shu is on the market at 1,500 yuan/kilo, so the cynic might say they can afford not to pick summer tea, but whilst it would have given trees a chance to recover a little had it happened, it won’t necessarily improve next spring’s harvest.

Over the next few posts, I hope to explore this issue further and try to get to a deeper understanding of what the issues are, and how they would best be resolved.

 

* ma hou pao, is an expression that translates as something like ‘Firing the artillery after the horses have charged.’ Rather like ‘shutting the door after the horse has bolted’.

 

Nan Nuo Shan Dian Hong

I  was in Nan Nuo Shan yesterday where a friend of mine gave me some da shu black tea to try.

Nan Nuo Shan has a history of tea making. When Nan Nuo Shan Tea Factory was set up in the late 1930’s, it produced black and green tea, and in its heyday was producing hundreds of tonnes of tea a year, mostly for export. Although they planted large areas of tea trees, initially they made black tea from the old tea trees on the mountain which was, by all accounts, very good.

Fu Hai tea factory was set up later, also in Nan Nuo Shan. My friend worked there as a young man and learned the skills of tea making. He later was employed to teach new apprentices and was one of the first farmers in recent history in Nan Nuo Shan to start making his own tea: prior to that, the custom was for farmers to pick tea and then take the fresh leaves to the factory. Because of this, many farmers at that time had limited experience of making their own tea.

But making black tea is becoming quite popular in Nan Nuo Shan. My friend had made a couple of different batches. One we drank at his home, the other I tasted in Jinghong.

nan nujo shan black tea

It’s not the most beautiful Dian Hong – as Dan San says, there would be more tips in bush tea, but the leaves are impressive. Most people making tea in Nan Nuo Shan ferment it quite lightly. This is a little more heavily fermented. The dry leaves are still quite fragrant, but the flavour is deeper, stronger, more full bodied than typical Nan Nuo black tea.

It’s got what I think of as that kind of peppery sweetness which seems to typify Yunnan Dian Hong. Some hints of caramel and spices whose names don’t come to mind. The flavour is quite robust and has both some bitterness and a little astringence. The broth has that classic bright, golden – orange colour, but deepens somewhat on later steepings.

nan nuo shan black tea old tree dian hong broth

I was expecting this tea to be slightly more fragrant than the one we tasted in Nan Nuo Shan, but it was not obviously so. Muted, elusive, perhaps some hint of flowers, so it’s sweetness is the thing that stays with you – lasting for quite some time.

The leaves after a few steepings. As one can see, this is still not very heavily oxidised. The leaves are still very much intact and a testimony to the trees they came from.

nan nuo shan black tea broth after a long steepingAfter steeping for several  minutes, the broth darkened somewhat. It has nice clarity and lustre.

By the way, the small beaker above is Thai celadon, made in Chiang Mai using an ash glaze. They specialise in tableware and produce this quite ‘costaud’ style which feels very comfortable in the hand and is pleasant to drink from.

Neighbourhood Watch

I was back in the Hekai area the other day with the guys from Cha Ye! We had dinner with the village head of Guang Gang, one of the villages that makes up He Kai.

He was explaining to me how their system of monitoring works to police the use of agro-chemicals. In 2010, the government designated seven villages in the He kai area: Ban Pen New and Old villages, Man Mai, Man Nong New and Old villages, Man Nuai and Guang Gang,(帮盆新寨,帮盆老寨,曼迈,曼弄新寨,曼弄老寨,曼囡,广冈), as having ancient tea tree gardens which must be preserved and no agro-chemicals used.

These villages together have 9,100 mu (亩), that’s just over 600 hectares, of ancient tea tree gardens.

If anyone identifies tea gardens that are being treated with agro-chemicals, the land will be taken away from the offender and given to the person who identified the transgression.

It’s certainly cannot be failsafe as there may well be people willing to collude or look the other way. At the same time, it sounds a little reminiscent of earlier times, but maybe it can work…

Tea with the Chens – From He Kai to Ge Deng

I have recently had cause to hang out with two different Chens – a Chinese name something akin to the English Smith. One in Hekai, on the edge of the Bulang Mountains, and the other from Guangdong who sources tea from the Six Famous Tea Mountains area.

Chen No1 is based in He Kai. I went up there a few weeks ago and then accompanied him to Lao Ban Zhang where he got 30 kg of fresh leaves. The cost of fresh tou chun leaves in Ban Zhang this year was anything from a little over 400 to over 600 RMB/kg, and this Spring, just over 4 kg of fresh leaves was making a kilo of mao cha.

We got back to his place with the tea around mid-day and spread it out to wilt for a while. He started frying tea later in the afternoon and continued till almost midnight, putting the tea out to dry the next morning, which is normal practice.

His sha qing approach is a little different from some tea makers as he tends to fry the tea for considerably longer than is typical, and then rolls it for a relatively short period of time. When tea is heaped in the pan during frying in the fashion described above, it is locally described as ‘dui de‘ or piled.

He Kai Chen left his tea to wilt for a fair time even though the weather’s very dry – although it had been raining a little at night when I was there – (one reason for wilting, apart from allowing the moisture content in the leaves to drop, is to allow it to even out, so that there is a more uniform amount of moisture throughout the leaf – from tip to stem. If this is not done, it’s easy to burn the leaves).

Typical tea frying woks in the Bulang Shan/Hekai/Ban Zhang area are set flat on a brick oven. Initially, the tea leaves are kept moving in the pan which must be done to stop the leaves from burning and to produce an even roast. As the tea is roasted, the heat is allowed to drop a little and the tea moved less. After frying for a while – maybe as much as 15 minutes – during which time the tea is turned and shaken out repeatedly (this allows some of the heat to disperse), the process slows down and the tea is turned and then piled in the centre of the wok and left for a minute or so. This process is repeated many times.

Chen Lao Ban then takes the tea out of the wok and leaves it on a tray for several minutes – again piled as opposed to spread out, which is the more common practice.

Making tea in this way, he then machine rolls it in an old electric roller with a wooden drum and tray, but only for a few minutes. The result is a tea that is very fragrant, has good body, with a light clear broth, little astringence and good hou yun.

When He Kai Chen makes tea completely by hand, as he did with some of the Ban Zhang tea, he does not follow this method, and has a more typical approach to frying and rolling.

Across the other side of Xishuangbanna, a few weeks later, I was in Ge Deng and bumped into another Chen. Chen Lao Ban is from Guangdong where he sells tea. He spends quite a lot of time in ‘Banna and has been sourcing/making tea in the Liu Da Cha Shan area for 5 or 6 years. He has set up a few small chu zhe suowhere he both processes fresh leaves and collects some mao cha.

Guangdong Chen has had a wok made according to his requirements: the wok is also set flat on the oven in a manner similar to Bulang Shan woks, but it’s a fair bit higher. One only has to fry tea for a few minutes in a wok in say, Nan Nuo Shan, to realise how important the height is! Most Aini people are relatively short, and build their ovens accordingly, so this can be back breaking for anyone taller.

His approach to tea making is almost as far from Hekai Chen’s as Ge Deng is from Hekai. The wilting time is probably about the same – somewhere between 3 and 5 hours, but his approach to sha qing is quite different. Tea Urchin referred to this style as ‘medium rare’. I like that description. I think a lot of people I know here would say it was ‘sha bu tou‘ – not fried enough, but Guangdong Chen (and lots of other people in Guangdong) seem to like tea with this kind of flavour; a little less smooth feeling in the mouth than is typical, a fair bit of astringency, and not much obvious fragrance; either in the leaf or the cup. And virtually none of the retro-olfactory aromas that He Kai Chen produces.

Chen Lao Ban says that when the tea is stored (in Guangdong), the astringence mellows, though I have to say, that in my (limited) experience of drinking tea in Guangdong, even after several years, tea is often still markedly ‘apre’. He Kai Chen also says his tea ages well. I have had some which was 3-4 years old which was reminiscent of a rather older tea; very smooth, good hou yunand a pleasant chen wei.

What is most interesting in all this is that Puer making methods, within a broader understanding of the process, can vary considerably. There is not necessarily any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things – and I suspect there never was – although it is easy to find people who will swear by one particular approach.

Road to Heaven – or is that Hell?

To pinch the title of the excellent Bill Porter book ‘Road to Heaven – Encounters with Chinese Hermits’.

Recently, one of my laoxiang (fellow countrymen) – I’ll call him Chris – has moved to Jinghong and we have been getting together fairly regularly to talk dhamma, or solve the problems of the world.

Chris first came to China 20 years ago and taught in a school in Simao. He drinks Puer regularly – maybe every day – but says he knows little about it. He’s planning to make a visit to the UK next month and wants to take some tea back with him as gifts, so he asked me what I thought about a couple teas he has.

The first, a nondescript cake of questionable origin, is making my stomach twinge just by looking at it: obviously bush tea and of very low quality at that. I told him if he threw it away, he wouldn’t be missing anything. He said he found it completely uninteresting, and could not bring himself to drink it.

The second, a cake from 2011 that he got from someone he knows up in Nan Nuo Shan, is really quite decent. I suspect the trees are not as old as would be ideal – xiao shu. but really not bad: the flavour is OK, the fragrance not bad, and the huigan is pleasing. It’s just a little too astringent to be Nan Nuo Shan gu shu.

What was interesting was that, with some exposure, even given his professed ignorance, Chris had a sense of which tea was better, even though he wasn’t able to articulate what or why. It seemed to me to exemplify the process of change which takes place, quickly or slowly, in a tea drinkers expectations.

This was reiterated when I met a German guy in Lao Feng’s tea shop recently who used to be in the confectionary business: we were remembering what Austrian Reislings were like in the 60′-80’s. How they were insanely sweet (remember glycol?), but for many, it was an acceptable first step into the world of wine. His assertion being, that the German collective palette has evolved, become more sophisticated, and people now tend to favour Reislings, or other wines that are less sweet.

Lao Feng also was telling me a couple of weeks ago about someone from Shanghai who had amassed a fair amount of Puer tea – a houseful to be more precise – but then, after finally drinking some good quality, ancient tree tea, realised that what he had was, to him at least, no longer drinkable, so he literally gave it all away.

So, Mahayana or Theravadan? Instant enlightenment or gradual cultivation? Whichever way you get there, one minute you’re not, the next you are. Then what do you do with your tea?

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

1,000 flavours of Lao Ban Zhang

I first met Chen Jian Ming five years ago. We went up to Hekai together where he was making tea. He has been making tea there since. He now has a shop in Jing Hong where we were trying some samples of Lao Ban Zhang that he’d got in the last few days. One was made by ‘lao bai xing’, i.e made by villagers following their own methods/standards. The other two were made by villagers, but to more exacting standards.

The other two samples were also from the village: one, the flavour somewhat fuller, the bitterness more pronounced (Lao Ban Zhang kuwei seems stronger this year than last year, for which I ‘ve heard a couple of explanantions, the most plausible of which is the climate – the dryness), the other kuwei less pronounced, more fragrant with a quicker huigan.

Lao Chen, calculates that ‘there are 500 households in Ban Zhang. If they all make tea in their own way, that means there are 500 flavours of Lao Ban Zhang tea. If each has, say 2 different tea tree gardens, then there are 1000 different flavours’ ….and so on…there was a further parameter which increased the possible variations exponentially, but I can’t think now what it was.  But you get the idea: there’re likely to be some broad similarities in tea from any village, but within that, there will be significant, often easily perceptible, variations. So having a fixed idea about ‘what this or that places tea tastes like’ is not particularly useful

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