Category Archives: Puer tea

It’s Good For You

In the Yorkshire Dales where I grew up, the village school had no kitchen and school ‘dinners’ as we called them we ferried in from the town about seven miles away. I remember them arriving mid-morning in big alloy warming containers. The food wasn’t good and I had a particular dislike of the carrots which were badly overcooked. I unfortunately took the dislike home with me, where carrots on my plate were an unwelcome sight. ‘They’re good for you.’ my mother would say, which my eldest sister, being the enforcer, would reiterate. It took me till adulthood to re-calibrate my perception of cooked carrots. It maybe also left me with a residual disregard for doing something ‘because it was good for me’.

I can’t imagine many people drink wine or whiskey, or coffee, because they think ‘it’s good for them’. We drink those things because we enjoy them, savour the taste, the aromas, the sensations they produce in us. Unfortunately tea seems to have got boxed into the ‘drink it ’cause it’s good for you’ corner. My first reaction to hearing somebody championing the ‘drink it ’cause it’s good for you’ point of view is that whatever it is they’re drinking probably doesn’t taste good if that’s the main justification for drinking it. Why else would you use that as a selling point?

Puer, particularly raw Puer from old or ancient tea trees has got more than its fair share of stuff that’s good for you in it.  Many years ago it was ‘ripe’ Puer that got the attention: the ‘weightloss tea’. The tea that some footballer’s wife drank to help keep in trim. Much early research also seemed to focus on pile fermented Puer because, I imagine, to a chemist the process of pile fermenting is somehow a more interesting topic for research.  ( I certainly have a dog in the race and might as well at this point stick my neck out and say that I think ‘cooked’ Puer shouldn’t even be called Puer, having no historical basis, and bearing little resemblance to real Puer. Like coffee and instant coffee, they share a passing resemblance but can hardly be confounded). Anyway, it was a few years before there seemed to be much research around on younger and naturally aged Puer tea. What came to light was that pile fermented Puer had greatly reduced amounts of substances such as catechins, gallo-catechins and what have you because in the fermenting process much of the naturally occurring constituents got converted to gallic acid and thearubigins (the stuff that makes it look red), etc, and conversely there was actually more caffeine in the ‘pile fermented tea than in the ‘raw’. Conversely, it appears, that naturally aged raw Puer tea has a balance of whatever it had in it originally, but over time the less stable compounds: gallocatechins, epigallocatechins, being the first to get reduced to other things: equally good for you.

If you think something is good for you, it probably is, even if for others it may not be so. Surely the most injurious thing is to persist in something which you believe to be bad for you. So drink tea you enjoy. And if you think it’s good for you, it probably will be.Tea Health

 

 

There Goes Another One

It’s ‘Swing Festival’ again. Hard to believe. Another year gone. I’m not sure I could satisfactorily list what I’ve accomplished in the last 12 months. It seems like not much, but I’ve made a fair chunk of tea, and drunk a lot too. Some of it courtesy of an Aini tea farmer on Nan Nuo Shan whose tea gardens are between Shi Tou Zhai and Ban Po Zhai.

Someone once said to me ‘The thing that’s special about Nan Nuo Shan tea is that there’s nothing special about it’. It’s not exactly true: at it’s best it’s floral-fruity, with plenty of body, some heftiness with a distinct bitterness and astringency, and a good hui gan. A good solid tea that has so far escaped some of the extreme, fad-driven price fluctuations that have affected some other places. There’re differences between villages or tea gardens of course. Ban Po Lao Zhai is often a little more astringent than Shi Tou Zhai, etc. and of course, Ba Ma is another story.

This year it was raining heavily the day we went so we skipped the swing and stayed inside eating and drinking tea. The village, like others on Nan Nuo Shan runs on tea. They have tea gardens above Ban Po Lao Zhai even though they moved down from there many years ago to a village nearer the road because they still maintain land there that was apportioned to them at the time of the move. As with many other villages, people here grow some other crops too. Some rent land near the foot of the mountain to grow paddy, and they often grow some vegetables near the village.

Clouds rolling up the valley

The day before, I went to Pasha, where I hadn’t been for ages, but after repeated invitations from a tea farmer there I decided it was time to go. I went on the ‘new’ concrete road that was finished a couple of years ago that runs around the south of Nan Nuo Shan to Gelang He. It shortens the trip from Jinghong by about half. On the way I bumped into the tea farmer from Nan Nuo Shan who, on his way home had just had the misfortune to have a scrape with a Range Rover on a tight, sloping corner. They were lucky. Neither he nor his wife, who was on the back of the motorbike were badly hurt, but his bike was unrideable. He was waiting for his brother in law to come and pick them and the bike up. He forked out 2000 yuan to pay off the Range Rover driver to boot, even though it was questionable who was at fault. That’s the cost of riding an unregistered bike (something that many mountain dwellers do here), particularly on a tricky mountain road in the rain.

 

The road to Pasha from the foot of Nan Nuo Shan

The road to Pasha. Maize and rice are grown at lower altitudes.

Pasha, like Nan Nuo Shan is inhabited by Aini tea farmers. Their language and customs are the same. They both celebrate Ye Ku Zha – Swing Festival – at around the same time of year.

I think I’ve finally figured out how the date of the festival is determined: according to some folks it starts on the first ‘bull’ day of the sixth month of the ‘nong li’ or traditional farmers’ calendar. But there’s a problem with that because in Pasha it started this year, 2017, on July 13th, which was the second ‘bull’ day of the sixth lunar month and the rest of the Gelang He area it started on the third ‘bull’ day. According to my host, they start on the third ‘bull’ day in the Julian month of July. Make of all that what you will.

Aini (Hani) people are outward-looking, readily adapting to and taking on things they like or see as useful – Nan Nuo Shan is pretty well stocked with upscale cars these days – and they are much more open to outsiders than say, Bama’s Lahu people. They are also often quick witted business people. But they have an interior life which is less easy to access – they have an Aini name, for example – not the name on their documents, a public name, a name ‘for the government’, but a name only used by close family or friends that someone like me will likely never be allowed to utter. Last year the tea farmer I just visited for Ye Ku Zha actually told me his name, but at the same time made it clear that it wasn’t for me to use it.

Whilst their lives are changing rapidly – everyone who can, gets a car, pulls down their wooden house to replace it with something ‘fait de beton’ – Aini people, in this area at least continue to value their own culture and are not in immediate danger of being ‘han hua’d’ any time soon, maintaining, apart from their own festivals, their own language and customs – children all grow up speaking their mother tongue – and they still take time to make some of their own clothes and bags, albeit only worn on special occasions.

Boots ‘n’ Brolly for a Rainy Day

 

 

Autumn – Nan Nuo Shan

I’ve been to Nan Nuo Shan more times than I care to imagine so I guess I feel like I know it fairly well and I had pretty much given up on the idea that I might find a tea garden there that was not over-managed, but this Spring on a spur of the moment decision I decided to do some exploring whilst I was unaccompanied. It was fortuitous since I found my way into some tea gardens that are part of Ban Po Lao Zhai, but that I had not visited before. There was one area of the tea gardens that particularly interested me and a second area which also looked good. The garden’s on one of the higher parts of Nan Nuo Shan, at a hair under 1800m, and the surrounding environment is surprisingly good.  It’s a tea that turned out to be one of the pleasant surprises of this year.

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After a rather sedentary summer, I went again to Nan Nuo Shan a day or two ago , this time with some friends. We visited some tea gardens that are part of Shi Tou Zhai, but lower down the mountain at a height of around 1400m, so not that high, but good enough. Some of the gardens here are managed with a slightly heavy hand but some, higher up the slope, toward the top of a ridge are better. Quite a few of the trees here have been copiced at some time and there are also quite a few smaller trees in amongst the larger ones. Some of these are clearly trees which were cut, or burned right back to the ground, but others look like they came later, naturally or otherwise. The environment around the gardens is quite good. My friend says he tasted some tea from here in the summer and that it was not bad so he’s toying with getting some Autumn tea from here this year. So, let’s wait and see.  The gardens looked OK, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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Some Old Tea Tree Gardens (and some lessons on transliteration)

Last week, I had a few days’ trip in the SFTM area. The weather was good – dry, warm in the day, cool at night – and I got to re-visit some places and also go to a couple of new places.

I’ve been trying to get to Ma Pia (吗叭/ma ba in Chinese) for a couple of years. I think it was the autumn before last, I was with some friends in Ding Jia Zhai who had just come back from Ma Pia with some tea. One of them had a couple of pictures on his mobile phone. The tea wasn’t up to much – there were some problems with processing – but the trees looked interesting.

Laos China border region


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Spring Tea

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

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

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

 Wa Long village in Man Zhuan

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

walong old tea trees

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

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

wa long looking across to gedeng

Lao Ban Zhang gets a Bank

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

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

Read the original article on China Puer Tea website.

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

Roundup

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

mountains in border region between china and laos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what to do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lao Huang Pian

I was around Ge Deng somewhere drinking tea with Chen Lao Ban (Guangdong Chen) when a tea farmer brought a bag of tea he had made for him. Chen Lao Ban makes his own tea and also has some local people make tea. There wasn’t much, no more than three kilos. He looked in the bag, looked up and asked “Where are the huang pian?”  “You complained about them last year” the farmer said, “so this year I took them out.” Chen Lao Ban, looked up, shaking his head in disbelief, but said nothing.

Bada Shan Autumn 2012 Lao Huang Pian

Such is the story of huang pian, or yellow leaves, sometimes called ‘lao huang pian’.

As indicated in the previous post on the causes of bitterness and sweetness in tea, it is the older leaves that are sweeter.

Tea farmers: Aini, Bulang, Jinuo, etc, would not traditionally use young leaves to drink themselves. They use the sweeter ‘lao ye’, which they brew up in a kettle – traditionally in a bamboo tube – maybe having baked the leaves first.

For them, younger leaves, and all the tea brewing paraphernalia, is a Han Chinese thing which is alien to them. Many a tea farmer will tell you that when they were young, they never had a gaiwan or bowls. It is something they have now, rather as part and parcel of doing business.

If tea is growing quickly, the leaves, even including the fourth leaf are supple, pliable, and will not produce huang pian. When tea is growing more slowly, or has been left longer before picking, the lower leaves become less pliable, and if they are picked, will make huang pian. These leaves will not be made more supple by time or the frying processes, and remain un-rollable.

Ideas about huang pian in Puer tea change. From an appearance point of view, they are less desirable, but from a flavour point of view they are fine, and in small number, will not be detremental to the flavour; bringing a little extra sweetness.

The practice of picking them out is to please the customer who is primarily concerned with appearance. In Spring tea there should never be many. Autumn tea has more, and summer tea the most.

If the tea leaves are picked well and there are are few huang pian, the farmer can pick most of them out when they are firing the tea. When there are more, the laboriuos job of picking them out of the mao cha has to be done. The benefit is that they then become a ‘product’ in their own right.

Too many huang pian will lower the value of the tea, but most tea producers are happy to see some in their mao cha, which they can then decide to leave in or pick out and sell separately.

At Zhi Zheng, as there are generally very few huang pian in our mao cha after it has been dried, we prefer to leave them in the cakes rather than pick them out.

 

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

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.