Category Archives: Weather

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 takung 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

 

 

Hani ‘Ye Ku’ Festival

According to the Lunar calendar, the full moon in late June or early July is the time Hani people celebrate Ye Ku Zha. The Chinese translation, 秋千节 means ‘Swing Festival’ because, similar to some other local minorities, a large swing forms a central part of the festival. In other parts of Yunnan the festival is also referred to as Zha Zha Festival and rather than a swing they may have a see-saw type arrangement where a horizontal pole, set atop a vertical pointed pole can both pivot vertically and rotate horizontally. There appear to be various founding legends for this festival, but it essentially celebrates ancestors, though in some areas it is said to also be a harvest festival.

hani swing

Preparing the swing

Not all Hani people in Xishuangbanna celebrate it, but on Nan Nuo Shan and other Hani villages nearby they do. The time it is celebrated can also vary by as much as a couple of weeks. Traditionally the swing is made from four tall tree trunks, but due to the scarcity of the right height and thickness of trees, and restrictions on felling, it is common for the frame to be made of steel as it is in these photographs. The cross-pole is made from a thick length of vine and traditionally a number of thinner vines were strung over the cross-pole and braided to form the rope for the swing. Nowadays nylon rope is braided in the same manner.

child on sw2ing

Children lining up to ride on the swing

After the festival, which lasts about one week, the rope is left on the frame to be taken down and replaced with a new one the next year. The swing cannot be ridden before the first day of the festival when a cow is slaughtered and the meat shared out between the villagers. At that point villagers and visitors can ride on the swing and there may be a competition to see who can swing the highest, but according to village lore, the main purpose of the swing is essentially a form of cleansing ritual: by riding on the swing one can cast off ‘bad luck’ or inauspicious events from the previous year.

riding the swing 2

The village champion

At this time of the year, some way into the rainy season,  tea farmers are not particularly busy. There may still be a little Summer tea being made in some villages where they have small tea trees, but generally there will be little tea until the Autumn and any crops that villagers may have planted, like rice or maize will have already been harvested or will not get harvested till the Autumn.

 

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

Weather Report

 

ancient tea tree in Bang Wai

Ancient tea tree in Bang Wai, December 16th, 2013. Photo by Wang Xiong

We are having the longest sustained cold spell in ‘Banna that anyone here can remember. For over a week we’ve been having night time temperatures of 10 Centigrade or less, with two or three nights getting down to 5 or 6 in Jinghong. Daytime temperatures have been getting up to 20. In the mountains it has been colder, with heavy frosts and ice in Bulang Shan and snow in Lincang.

There were a few days in 1999 that were cold, but according to local people, it was not that extreme and didn’t last more than 3 or 4 days.

The general perception is that early spring tea will not be pretty, but the flavour should be good.

bang wei tea in the snow

Another image from Bang Wai – Not sure why anyone would be picking tea in December!

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

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

 

 

You Le Shan – dawn

dawn on Youle Shan

A chilly early morning looking south east towards Mengla from Jinuo Shan.

I was back in Youle Shan last week. The weather here has turned quite cool. The days are still into the 20’s, but the nights can be quite chilly. At this time of year there are some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The area to the right of the picture is all part of Menglun Protected Forest Reserve. The villages tea gardens border on the reserve.

The photo is completely unedited apart from to reduce the size ans was taken with a decent quality digital camera set on automatic.

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/

 

picking basket - summer tea -

Like Picking Money from Trees

Over-picking Puer tea

Periodically, there is some comment online about Puer tea and over-picking of tea trees, so I thought it would be interesting to explore this further, and try to tease (‘scuse the pun) out what exactly this means in practice, and what the effects and implications are. It’s also important to consider this in relation to the Puer tea market to understand how it too may be impacting tea cultivation practices.

The broad picture is that concerns about the quality of Puer tea are becoming more frequent, and the explanations typically include climate/drought, overpicking and the use of a range of methods that are aimed at increasing productivity.

There are a number of factors:

1. The last few springs have been particularly dry which has inevitably affected yield, if not flavour.

2. At least in recent history, prior to 2005, the majority of people in the Puer tea supply chain –  farmers down to customers – didn’t distinguish between old trees and bushes when picking tea. Old tree tea was not specially sought after so there was not the potential to over-pick and stress trees that there is now.

3.There is increasing demand for tea, with ever more people seeking a limited, and probably dwindling supply of old/ancient tree Puer.

4. Farmers have been using practices which, for them at least, are new – from turning the ground around tea trees to applying chemical fertilizers – in an attempt to increase yield. There are concerns about how these practices are impacting tea quality.

4. In recent years, methods of picking have:

a) had the propensity to disregard time honoured wisdom about tea tree cultivation, especially vis-a-vis the impact of weather.

b) been minimally influenced by research and understanding that has emerged and is recommended by tea colleges, universities and government organisations.

b) possibly fallen prey to the pressure of demand amidst a growing global market and big economic shifts for local farmers, many of whom previously lived subsistence lifestyles.

If we assume that inappropriate-picking, above all other factors, is having an adverse effect on tree health and tea quality, we should first consider what is ‘normal practice’ for tea picking, and specifically for old tea  trees.

 

 

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