Category Archives: Tea

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.

banna-gmted

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For the likes of Google however, Xishuangbanna is undoubtedly a cartographic backwater: some of the images are years out of date.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What’s good about this is that Google provides an historical reference.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.

doorway-han-jiang-ancestral-temple-detail

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.

 

 

Ya Nuo (You Le Shan)

the road to ya nuo

There’s plenty of tea to be found on the road out from Jinghong to Jinuo Shan, but it’s not until you get some way past Jinuo Shan Town that you start to see anything that looks like you might want to try drinking it. And not until you get to Ya Nuo, some 10 km later, that you start to see some forest and ancient tea tree gardens.

tea trees typical of Yanuo ancient tea tree gardens

Formerly known as Long PaYa Nuo is a Jinuo village on the Menghun side of Jinuo Shan. It is one of two original ‘buluo‘ that the Jinuo inhabited. Originally, there were two extended families with fifty odd households living under one roof in a large bamboo structure with a grass roof. All the buildings in the village now are brick and concrete.

In the late 1970’s, when the Jinuo people were officially recognised by the National Government, the families in Ya Nuo were joined by families from the second village.

The Jinuo are a Tibeto-Burman group with a population of about 21,000. Their language shares some similarities with Burmese and  belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. Jinuo people are animist and traditionally, hunter-gatherers and tea farmers. The Jinuo ‘creation myth’ is that they were born out of the sun drum – a large drum with pegs holding a taught skin over the end of the drum that radiate out resembling the sun’s rays. All Jinuo villages have a male and female drum which are of central importance in festivities as they embody sacred spirits.

Traditional Jinuo culture was egalitarian, with clan members hunting and farming together and sharing their spoils equally amongst all families. Tea  was traded with ‘ma bang’ caravan traders in exchange for commodities that were needed, such as salt, cotton and ironware.

The most important festival is Temaoke or ‘Iron Forging Festival’ which falls early in the new year and is referred to as the ‘Jinuo New Year’.  See here for some photos of a Jinuo New Year festival. For Tamaoke, a cow is slaughtered and shared amongst the villagers such that each household gets an equal share of all parts of the animal.

Jinuo people tradionally make tea by wrapping it in a large leaf and roasting it in the embers of a fire. The leaves are then removed and brewed in a length of bamboo,or nowadays, in a large kettle. The resulting tea is strong and sweet.

traditional Jinuo tea

Older Jinuo people – particularly women, chew betel nut ‘Burmese style’ using areca nuts and betel leaves and continue to wear traditional dress, but most younger people now only do so for special occasions.

At Ya Nuo, there are 2,800 mu of old tea tree gardens, owned by the original families of the village. In the 70’s, a co-operative, that is now defunct, was set up and tea bushes planted around the village. The later arrivals have no old tea tree gardens.

From the back of the village an area of protected forest extends all the way to Menglun, and it is mostly in this area that the ancient tea gardens are to be found, at altitrudes ranging from 1300 to 1700 metres.

jinuo shan-autumn-tea-tea-drying

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/