Category Archives: Puer tea

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/

 

Menghai-Mengsong

The old Menghai road looks like they once thought about repairing it, but then gave up on the idea. There’s not much traffic, but there is some mining up there, so there’s quite a few trucks on the road. Fortunately they’re not big, but they’re probably mostly overladen, which has taken its toll on the road. Mengsong is some kilometers off to the north of this road. Further into Menghai there are many tea factories along the road – witness to the fact that until the end of the last century, this was still the only route from Jinghong to Menghai.

liu sha he river xishuangbanna from old menghai road

Liu Sha He had much more water in it than the last time I was here back in the early summer. Being in the mountains at this time of year is pleasing: the air is redolent with tree blossom – jiang hua line the sides of the roads, providing a dense fragrance that counters the slightly sour pungence of latex tapped from rubber trees that is pervasive at lower altitudes. There is also the smell of damp forest mixed with the alcoholic aroma of fruits that have fallen and lie on the ground untouched.

Besides tea, Autumn is a time to harvest rice and maize. Rice is usually not sold and the maize is typically dried and used for pig fodder.

not only tea - maize harvested in Autumn

Bamboo is cut in the autumn after the zhu chong – bamboo grub – has hatched. If bamboo is harvested at other times of year, the grubs, which have not hatched out, will eat the bamboo, then eat their way out of it.

Long zhu, or Dragon Bamboo, is known for its thick base which is substantial enough for kitchen implements to be fashioned out of it: mugs,jugs,etc.

jug made from base of dragon bamboo

dragon bamboo on horticultural tractor

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’.

 

Humidity

There has been some stuff online in the last few months about Puer storage and humidity/temperature, so I thought it would be interesting to explore the issue a little. See the links at the bottom for reference.

The long dry spell here broke finally with a decent downpour. Prior to that, relative humidity (RH) had got as low as the fourties along with temperatures in the low thirties, which is exceptionally dry for Xishuangbanna.

Aini village long ba men - protective gate. Nan Nuo Shan

Since then, in the last couple of weeks, the temperature has seen highs of 35°C and a low of just above 24°C. The relative humidity has been as high as 84% and as low as 44%. The highs and lows of temperature and humidity don’t of course necessarily coincide in that way; within the broader context of seasonal fluctuations, typically (here at least) humidity tends to drop as daily temperatures rise. Sitting in the shop now, at around mid-day, it is 30°C and 68% humidity.

These short term fluctuations have little impact on the ageing process of Puer tea. More long term, seasonal conditions are what is important.

You only need to tout your temperature/humidity guage around a little to realise a few things:

The first thing that is clear is that making assumptions based on generic weather record figures – assuming they somehow reflect the temperature and humidity inside one’s house, shop, or whatever – is of little value. It gives no more than a broad idea of what might be happening.

In Jinghong, where I can live with all my windows and doors open maybe 360 days of the year, there is a difference in both temperature and humidity between the inside of my apartment and the balcony (outside in the shade), and there is a further difference in a room where I have a little tea stored, to which the door is shut most of the time.

Anyone living in a climate where they are not afforded the luxury of the near ‘al’fresco’ experience that we are here, would be wise not to assume that what happens to the weather outside the house reflects too closely what happens inside.

There is also a significant difference in Jinghong between the ground floor and say the 5th or 6th: Most people in Jinghong will tell you that the ideal storage for tea is between the 2nd and 4th floors. The ground floor may be too damp, the higher floors tend to be dry.

Secondly, as MarshalN has said, it’s of questionable use to consider relative humidity without talking about the thing that it’s relative to. i.e. temperature.

Absolute humidity is the expression in g/m3 of the maximum mass of vapourised water (moisture) that a given mass of air can hold at a given temperature. RH is an expression, in percent (%), of the ratio of actual humidity to the absolute humidity.

Some dim recollection of schoolboy chemistry tells me that the more heat a volume of air contains, the more energy it has, so the faster the molecules are moving around. i.e. they are less likely to condense out and the air can consequently hold more water.

To make a couple of comparisons:

Air with a temperature of 30°C and an RH value of 70% – fairly typical for Jinghong – contains more than two times more moisture (21.36g/m3) than air at 15°C 70% RH – fairly typical of northern Europe – with an actual humidity of 9g/m3. What this means is that with the example given here, a cake of Puer tea in Jinghong would be exposed to twice as much moisture as one in say, the south of England.

Pushing the humidity without increasing temperature is not going to resolve this difference. You need both to achieve a decent Puer ageing environment.

Another example might be to compare Jinghong with say, Nan Nuo Shan, where temperatures are a good 5 to 10 degrees lower, but humidity – there is often mist in the mornings – can be high. So tea that is stored by tea farmers in sacks in their houses can often end up with a musty smell and not infrequently, obvious mould if kept there for extended periods.

nan nuo shan long ba men detail

It seems like dew point is perhaps a more useful measurement of humidty:

Dew point is the temperature to which air would have to drop, for a given absolute humidity, for moisture to condense out – as rain, mist etc.

The dew point in our first example with 30°C and an RH value of 70% would be 24°C and for the second, 9°C. Both are quite feasible, but assume that the amount of moisture in the air would remain constant as the temperature dropped. This is perhaps not likley, but even so, dew point gives a better indication of how ‘wet’ it is than RH does. i.e. how close to the dew point air temperature is.

What this suggests is that on a day in say northern Europe, during which the RH is 70%, if the temperature fell from 15 to 9°C, water would condense out of the air and on to or into something – like your Puer tea.

long ba men - protective village gate nan nuo shan

The fact that that doesn’t happen (hopefully) is because your home is likely not as cold, or humid, as it is outside.

The other thing that is important, is written on every Puer cake wrapper, but few people seem to talk about is airflow. This does not mean a draught. But there is a big difference between 30°C and 80%RH with a little air circulation, and the same temperature and RH with no air circulation.

Half Dipper

MarshalN

Mcintosh Tea

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…

The Road to Gua Feng Zhai

I must have chosen some of the hottest, driest days of the year to take a ride on my newly acquired bike around the Six Famous Tea Mountains. It was Water Spalshing Festival or 泼水节 ‘Po Shui Jie’, Dai New Year Festival – ‘Songkran’ in Thai – which takes place around Xishuangbanna between the 13th to 15th of April.

I spent a night in Mahei before heading up to Gua Feng Zhai.The road runs alongside the San Jia River, crossing over it a couple of times. Sometimes soaring above it, then dropping back down to run alongside again for a while. One is never out of earshot of the river.

A view of the village before dropping down into Gua Feng Zhai. It is currently a little dishevelled as they have been improving the roads in the village and work has not yet been completed. The village is on the Meng Nai River which joins the San Jia He further down the valley. Meng Nai is the Yao name for Gua Feng Zhai.

There are three main tea growing areas with ancient tea trees worked by people fom Gua Feng Zhai; Bai Sha He, Cha Wang Shu and Cha Ping. Due to inherited land use and land allocation, there are many people, other than Gua Feng Zhai villagers who have trees in Cha Wang Shu. There are people in Yiwu who have land in Cha Wang Shu.

The Bai Sha He tea field below is typical of the type of ancient tea tree fields in the Gua Feng Zhai area, but they are all a good 8-10 kilometres from the village. In the immediate vicinty of the village there are only bushes/xiao shu. In this picture the trees are fairly sparse and land around them has been previously cleared. The trees are surrounded by forest. The simple low frame structures in the foreground are used to place bamboo drying trays 簸箕 (boji) on to dry tea.

gua feng zhai tea gardens

Many of the trees have a substantial base, which gives a better idea of their age but, because in the past they were cut back, they mostly have a number of more slender trunks rather than one main trunk. They still grow to significant sizes and can be 4-5 metres tall.

ancient tea tree in Gua Feng Zhai tea field

With all of these tea fields, because they are significant distances from the village, the common practice is to process the tea in the field and then carry the loose maocha out.

Here is a photo looking across from Bai Cha Yuan towards Cha Wang Shu (the mountain to the right). From here it is is a further 2 hour walk to Cha Wang Shu. It is a little more accessible from the other, Gua Feng Zhai, side of the mountain as it can be accessed by motorbike.

Below is a photo of a simple processing facility in Cha Wang Shu. This is where we made tea this spring.

Cha WAng Shu processing facility

Here is one of the bigger trees in Cha Wang Shu. Again, the tree had been previously cut back and then subsequently left untended.

gua-feng-zhai-cha-wang-shu. Ancient tea tree

The scenery around Gua Feng Zhai is among some of the most pristine in the Six Famous Tea Mountains area, not least because of it’s remoteness. Typical tea fields here are at altitudes of 1,600-700 metres.

a view on the road from mahei to gua feng zhai

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?

Ban Pen 2012 Early Spring Mao Cha

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

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

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

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

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