Category Archives: Tea

Tea Shop Lore

There’s a bit of tea shop lore that says ” 一苦,二涩,三回甜/Yi ku, er si, san hui tian.” So ‘The first leaf is bitter, the second astringent, the third sweet.’

It seems like it’s true, but I was recently wondering if there was any scientific evidence to back it up. I was thumbing through a book I picked up a couple of years ago and found a discussion on the topic.*

Table of the variation in quantity of flavour producing compounds in same branch, different position leaves

Across the top of the table – is the leaf position: i.e. 1st leaf, 2nd leaf etc. with old leaves (lao ye) and (nen jing) supple stems at the right.

Down the left hand side are: dissolvable solids (水浸出物), polyphenols (茶多酚), catechins (儿茶素), caffeine (咖啡碱), amino acids (氨基酸) and water soluble sugars/pectin (水溶性果胶).

What the table shows is that polyphenols are highest in the first few leaves. The catechins are also highest in the 1st to 3rd leaves, caffeine is likewise highest in leaves 1-3, as are the amino acids.

If I might paraphrase, the author says “….Where the catechin and caffeine content in tea is relatively high, the liquor is full and refreshing, and is an indicator of high quality tea.

On a tea branch the level of polyphenols, caffeine, etc. is determined by the position of the leaf. The younger leaves have higher amounts of these bitter substances than older leaves, especially the first and second leaves after the bud. From there the levels of polyphenols, caffeine, etc, reduce.

Substances that cause astringence in tea are polyphenols, aldehydes, iron, and other compounds, of which catechins are particularly important.

The bitterness and astringency of ester type catechins (EGCG, ECG) is particularly strong. The content of these in the tip and first leaves is much higher than in older leaves.

Under normal circumstances, plucking a bud and one to two leaves will produce a tea with a much more bitter flavour than plucking three or four leaves. So, better quality tea that is picked more finely has a more bitter taste. It is also what makes poor quality tea taste relatively weak.”

The second table also has the same leaf position along the top, with theanine (茶氨酸), reduced sugars (还原糖), sugars/sucrose (蔗糖), and starch (淀粉) down the side.

What the second table shows is that the theanine is predominantly in the first and second leaf – with most in the young stems, reduced sugars and sucrose are predominantly in the 3rd and 4th, and older leaves (lao ye). Starch is markedly higher in the 3rd leaf.

Again, to paraphrase;

“There are three types of substances that produce a sweet flavour in tea:

1. Free monosaccharides and oligosaccharides such as: glucose,
galactose, fructose, rhamnose, maltose, sucrose, etc. which are the main compounds producing sweetness in tea.

2. Dissociative amino acids, such as: glycine, alanine, serine, threonine, proline and hydroxyl groups and those formed during tea processing: leucine, isoleucine, tryptophan, tyrosine acid, bitter alanine, methionine and valine.

3. Synthetic intermediates of catechins and dihydrochalcones and their derivatives and products of coumarin isomerization, etc.

The substances that cause sweetness in tea are more plentiful in spring and autumn tea, its taste is sweeter,richer with less bitterness and astringence, which makes it better than summer tea.

So looking at different leaves on the same branch, sucrose, sugars, etc, sweet substances are more abundant in  old leaves than young leaves, and gradually increase with the age of the leaf.”


*Taken from  ‘Deciphering Puer’ by Xu Ya He, published in 2006 by Yunnan Publishing Company/Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing.

** L theanine is believed to contribute to the ‘unami’ or brothy flavour of tea and is said to counter bitterness, as well as being attributed with other psychotropic effects, caused by raising levels of GABA Gamma-aminobutyric acid and dopamine.

Hand Made Paper from Man Zhao – Correction

For the last few years I’ve been under the misaprehension that the paper made in Man Zhao outside Meng Hun, the hand-made paper which is used widely for wrapping puer tea, was made from the bark of the Mulberry tree. I was wrong.

The bark now rarely comes from local sources as there are insufficient trees to support the village industry, so most of it is imported from neighbours: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos. It’s called gou pi shu locally – which I somewhat predictably assumed was ‘dog skin’ tree – it is in fact  构树/gou shu, Paper Mulberry, broussonetia papyrifera.

I could perhaps be forgiven as the leaves do look a little similar.

There are a number of photos here

And some links here:



The Map is Not The Territory

Download the USGS dataset for this region, and you’ll find yourself staring at something that looks like the skin on a Sharpei.

Because it’s a big file and takes some time to download, I have edited a small section and added a couple of major towns for reference. The purple dot in the middle, with no name, is Jinghong, on the banks of the Mekong.


Google Earth is useful for similar reasons, as one can get a good idea of the topography of the area.

For the likes of Google however, Xishuangbanna is undoubtedly a cartographic backwater: some of the images are years out of date.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the last two years pawing over Google maps, and the less popular Microsoft Maps (now Bing).

It would  be an exaggeration to say that oxbow lakes have formed since Google updated some of its images, but it’s close: rivers have certainly changed their courses, villages have disappeared, highways have been built: the main highway from Jinghong to the Lao border, which was finished soon after I first came here seven years ago, is still not on the satellite images.

A while back, I was with a friend in the mountains, and we were identifying villages as we went. I asked a couple of times about a village I had seen on Google satellite images, but my friend was insistent that no such village existed. On arriving back home I compared Google and Bing images. In the former photo there was a village, in the latter, no village. The entire village had moved and been razed. My friend had no recollection of the village, but it was surely there some years ago.

This particular image was updated at the beginning of March 2013. The previous image was from 2001. A lot can happen in twelve years.

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai. Dated January 2001

What’s good about this is that Google provides an historical reference. Many roads have been built or changed and villages moved in the last decade, and many of Google’s images of this area date from 2001/2.

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai

Google Earth image. Puxi Lao Zhai. Dated March 2013

Bing generally has better resolution pictures, and is more up to date, but it’s good to reference them both for comparison – not least because of cloud cover, as in the image above. The resolution on recent Google images is much better than earlier photographs: older images can often look like this:

Me Yang – Google

Rather than this:

Me Yang – Bing

So a caveat for Puer drinkers who are inclined to spend hours on Google or Bing trying to find exactly where their favourite tea comes from. Amazing as Google and Bing are – who would have imagined ten years ago that this kind of information would be freely available – they have their limitations.


Early Spring Tea

Well, the hoopla of early Spring tea is done. Yet another round of price increases with plenty of exaggeration thrown in for good measure. Ban Zhang xiao shu for 3,800/kg, Man Song for 4000 to 6000 a kilo depending on who you are and who you talk to, Bing Dao for seven or eight thousand.

HM’s riff is that sheng cha has not yet reached it’s ceiling and that compared with Long Jin et al. it’s still very fairly priced. He is certainly not averse to paying top price for what he believes to be top grade tea, so I was surprised to hear him voice the idea that this year’s Bing Dao was not worth that much.

zhi beng ancient tea tree gardens

Zhi Beng ancient tea tree gardens

The rain early on in the year brought the first flush sooner than has been the case in the last few years, but then the tea was thinner in flavour. After the third week of March things improved, so there was a relatively brief window of time when the tea was good, and then it was Ching Ming Jie which, according to Han tea culture, signals the end of early Spring tea. Of course, it works as a rule of thumb for the most part, but there are always exceptions. Many tea farmers will try and tell you that in any case, the second flush is better than the first, but nobody much believes them.

In fact, it might make more sense to consider the lunar calendar rather than the solar – on which Qing Ming Jie is based – when picking tea, and by which it seems like harvesting might best be done on a waning moon.

Tea from more bei yin tea gardens have, to my mind at least, produced more interesting tea. Though this is not the case everywhere. The weather of the previous two or three years was in a sense an aberration and it is perhaps good that it has not continued. Though the current situation is also cause for concern.

drying early spring tea Ma Li Shu

Looking across to Mi Bu

Since the February rain, nothing. Hardly a drop in most places. So the second flush has not yet shown itself in many areas, though this is not universal. Many farmers reported a drop in gu shu yield this year, which is always good for helping to push up the price, but others reported above average harvests. Of course it’s not just the climate. There may well be other factors, like over-picking, that could bring about a drop in yield.

Sourcing good tea is not getting any easier: One needs to be paying attention, be resolute, have good contacts, have a good wad of money in one’s pocket, and some good luck too.

There was the usual flush of stories: like the sacks of tea in Gua Feng Zhai with last year’s gu hua cha stuffed in the bottom and some spring tea on top.

mi bu near ma li shu

Near Ma Li Shu. The tree in the background with red flowers, but no leaves is a Kapok.

I was in one village, Ma Li Shu I think, when a tea farmer was lamenting the current situation: “These cha lao ban who only want tou chun tea. Whose going to buy the rest of the tea?” For them the trend of distinguishing between gu shu, da shu, xiao shu and first flush, second flush etc, is not particularly to their benefit. They perhaps feel that they need to be making significant sums of money on the first flush in order to offset the income from the rest of the season.

Certainly, the bigger producers, like the folks from Guangdong in Ya Nuo are good news for the villagers, as they will buy tea from all three seasons, so the farmers do not get stuck with tea that they have a hard time selling. This is a much more reliable income than picky tou-chunners who leave the farmer in a precarious position.

mang zhi -yang lin

Looking across from Yang Lin. The mountains to the left of the valley are Ge Deng, to the right Man Zhuan

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.

Mang Zhi

When one thinks of Gong Ting (Tribute Tea) one first thinks of Man Song and when one thinks of places of historical importance related to Puer tea in Xishuangbanna, one perhaps first thinks of Yibang or Yiwu, or maybe Gedeng, but Mang Zhi has its share too.

Man Ya is below Hong Tu Po and the quickest way to get up there is from the Xiang Ming road.

the road up to Man Ya

Once across the bridge, it’s quite a quick journey up to Man Ya where the ancient tea tree gardens are. Like many places here, the original village no longer exists and the inhabitants have all moved further down the mountain.

One reason that this has happened is because of a lack of water, or the need for it outstrips the resources. Another is simply convenience. Sometimes villages have also been moved by the authorities.

tian an men

These trees, known by the villagers as Tian An Men provide a fitting entrance into the area where the gardens are. As with many places, the gardens are a mixed bag with some xiao shu near areas of older da shu and gu shu, but the general feeling is still good.

Most villagers make tea in or on the edge of the tea gardens, while several sell the fresh leaves they have picked to someone else from the village to process.

puer tea drying in man ya lao zhai

Many of the trees are similar to those in other Liu Da Cha Shan areas, but a few are significant, like the one below with a girth of 60 or 70cm.

man ya gu shu

The gardens have good ground cover with plenty of ‘za cao’ or weeds.

Lost in the undergrowth are a couple of tombstones which appear to be maybe Ming Dynasty and look like they were for government officials. One has been defaced, it seems by…. well you know the story. The other is still in relatively good condition.


mang zhi gravestone

It is said that tea from these gardens was also Tribute Tea – tea that was reserved for emperors or government officials.

Spring in Banna

Spring has come early this year. A few weeks ago there was some bush tea around and I was in Lao Si Tu where they were processing some old tree tea.

Hong Tu Po near Ge Deng

Bauhinias in the evening near Hong Tu Po

At this time of year in the mountains, hillsides are spotted with white and the air is heavy with the fragrance of Bauhinias. In Chinese the tree is known as zi jing hua -紫荆花 , but in Xishuangbanna they bear mostly white flowers so are known locally as bai hua shu – 百花树.

The road up to Yi Bang was much better than it was a couple of weeks ago: the mud has all but dried up leaving a rock hard surface with deep ruts in places. But it has not dried out to the point that it is terribly dusty. Also, it is early enough in the season that there has not yet been much traffic.

I was in an Yi village some way beyond Yi Bang – He Bian Zhai. A small village with some fifteen households at the head of the Long Gu River.

he bian zhai near yi bang

Ancient tea trees near He Bian Zhai

Most of the ancient tea tree gardens are below the village, but some are next to the houses. A few are quite large, with a girth of maybe 80 cm, but most are more slender. The trees here are xiao ye zhong – small leaf variety, as are many places in the Six Famous Tea Mountains area. The ground here is not treated in any way. The soil is consequently quite hard packed as the farmers do not turn it, as some have taken to doing in other villages.

xiang ming he valley in the early morning

Looking down the Xiang Ming River valley



Yi Bang

Local people use a route to get between Ge Deng and Yi Bang. It’s still quite a distance, but avoids having to go down to the Xiang Ming-Meng Lun road, and then back up to Yi Bang from Xiang Ming.

Stretches of the road are pretty muddy which makes for an interesting motorbike ride. I took a Youle tea farmer friend: as is typical for the large majority of tea farmers, although it’s maybe only 60km away, he had never been there. By the time we got to Yi Bang it was dark, and we and the bike were covered in mud up to the knees.

Evening on the road from Gedeng to Yibang

Yi Bang has a variety of resident ethnic groups but the majority is Yi.  Jia Bu, Xi Kong and Man Song are all within the Yi Bang area along with a number of smaller villages: Man Gong, Ma Li Shu, Mi Bu, etc. The village mostly has small leaf variety trees though in some areas nearby there is a mix of xiao ye zhong and zhong xiao ye zhong.

This is rather typical of Yibang tea gardens. This one is on a steep slope on the edge of the village running down into a ravine with forest on the other side.

tea garden in Yibang - small leaf variety trees

And in Ma Lin Shu, a few kilometers away:

ma lin shu tea garden outside the village

Amongst the trees here there were one or two da ye zhong.

Yi Bang Jie (Yi Bang Street) to give it its proper name, feels like a place resting between two epochs – with a history that it has left behind, but  isn’t yet ready to grapple with the present.

yi bang jie


Puer on Penang

I realised, with the help of my fingers, I that it was on Penang in late summer 2000 that I first drank Puer tea. What I subsequently realised, which was not so clear to me at the time, was that it must have been a rather good aged Puer.

I had been staying in a small Theravadan hermitage on Penang Hill and, the day before I was due to leave, the abbot of the hermitage took me to meet the benefactors who owned the piece of land that the place was built on. We drank a couple of teas: one was the Puer.

I was recently back there for a short visit – the first in seven years. I never had much affinity for KL – if I had to be in a large Asian city I’d rather be in Bangkok – so only stayed a couple of days: long enough to look around and drop in briefly on a couple of the usual suspects.

detail on door to han jiang temple georgetown

Georgetown is something else altogether. I have often gone there in the past, thinking to stay a couple of days and ended up staying rather longer.

I have to say that my tolerance for tea-shop sales pitch is rather low these days, and there is a little less of it in Georgetown than KL I fancy. So Penang is a rather nicer place to while away some time drinking tea.

I ended up spending a little time in a couple of shops. My request was to try an example of what the shop believed to be puer tea that had aged well in Malaysia. I only tasted a few teas, but of those I did, none were without issue, even if storage had been kind to them, and in not all cases had it been so.

Tea shops on Penang seem to differ a little from KL. They carry some rather cheaper, more recent tea amidst a majority of older, big factory productions.

Of the tea shops I visited a couple said they preferred to spend their time sourcing older teas from private collections in Malaysia and Southern Thailand rather than sourcing new teas from China. Having said that, it seems most of the tea I was offered had spent some time in Guangdong before arriving in Malaysia.

I heard a couple of common riffs:

Penangers prefer locally aged big factory productions over more recent ‘shan tou’ Puer because they are risk averse to a big outlay for younger, single mountain teas that they fear might end up not aging well.

Malaysia is ‘the best place to age Puer’ and that 1 year here is equivalent to 3 in ‘Banna (heard that before somewhere!). But a couple of shop owners doubted that, suggesting that the difference in aging was less dramatic.


I ended up buying a chunk of late 90’s tea, not because it was the best or anything, but because it’s a tea that seemed to fit my request, and it’s one that has been discussed online here and there. But more of that at a later date.

Out of the Bag – More on Storage

A funny thing. A year or so ago, someone was telling me that they had seen something online about storing Puer tea, and how the author had “blown a hole through the whole Puer storage b.s.” He went on to explain that the article stated that sheng was better stored in a sealed bag, and that there would be enough air in the bag for the tea to age well.

If you’ve drunk any, say, year old mao cha that’s been stored in an airtight bag you’ll likely be a shade skeptical of this hypothesis, but not willing to dismiss the idea completely, I had a look at the article in question and then put a cake of last year’s tea in a ziploc bag and forgot about it.

shop-stored 2011 puerh tea

shop stored tea

sealed 2011 puerh tea

sealed tea









That was just over a year ago, so I decided to open it up and compare the sealed tea with one that has been in the shop. A year’s not long, but there were no real surprises.

There are some assumptions about the airtightness of the bag, which is probably not 100%, and whilst I attempted to remove most of the air from the bag before sealing it, it was a long way from vacuum sealed.

In comparing the teas I was also trying some different water which felt a little too hard to bring out the best in the tea.

The sealed tea is on the left.

puerh sheng cha broth

First steep (sealed tea on the left)


The Bag-stored tea

The tea that was in the bag looked and smelled younger, greener than the other cake. It has retained more of its youthful, fresh aromas: more vegetal and floral. The gaiwan lid has a  honey and flowers fragrance. The wet leaves look greener. The broth is a mid-yellow and has some kuse that hangs on the tongue and upper palate, which comes out when steeping times are pushed. There is a distinct retro-olfactory floral fragrance that accompanies the huigan. Later steepings produced some camphor aromas.

The tea is quite smooth and coats the mouth nicely and the huigan lasts well. The tea has maintained a lot of its freshness. It’s clear that it has not oxidised as much as the shop stored tea.

broth of two puerh teas from 2012 spring

Broth on fifth steep


The Shop stored tea

The tea that was in the shop was a cake we have been drinking and so has been out of storage for a few weeks. It smells damper, more of leaves, earth and leather, and is a shade darker in appearance. It has lost some of that ‘new tea’ fragrance but, not surprisingly, has yet to develop any discernable chen wei.

The gaiwan lid gives off more of a camphor fragrance, with the younger floral qualities mostly gone. The broth is a shade darker than the bag-stored tea. The flavour is a little fuller and softer, with more obvious base-notes. The kuse is not so obvious. It still has some of the retro-olfactory qualities of the fresh tea, but they are more muted – less ‘yang’.

The most notable difference is that the shop-stored tea, whilst losing some of the fresh tea aromas, has developed some depth and roundness that the bag tea has not.


puerh tea leaves

Leaves, again with the sealed tea in the left

Of course, a year in Puertime is no time at all and may not adequately indicate what could happen in the future. The tea in the ziploc bag clearly had enough air to oxidise, but whether that would get exhausted in a few years if the bag were not opened is debatable.