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

On Buying Tea

  1. This post started off as a response to a question that someone once in a while will ask about how we source tea, but then it developed into a little monologue about visiting tea villages looking for tea. I have left that part till the end.

So first, let’s go back a few years, to when someone once suggested to me, rather humourously I thought, that we might consider changing our farmer – singular – as though there could possibly have been only one.

A couple of things become clear very quickly: if you’re not just sourcing tea from a few places that are near each other, you need a team of people. Some people you can squarely rely on. You can’t be in two places at the same time, and though regional differences exist – Menghai flushes earlier than Liu Da Cha Shan, or whatever, there’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the relatively brief period of time that is (early) spring tea harvest.

Different areas & villages can have slightly different approaches too. There’s a reason for this, so it makes sense to draw on local knowledge and skills, rather than have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Of course, a skilled tea maker can no doubt quickly adapt, but in any case, having one person make all your tea is a physical impossibility, dictated by distance and topography.

So then, the ways that I source tea are essentially these:

  1. Arrange for pickers to pick leaves from a tea garden we have identified, which are then taken to a place where we have someone take in the fresh leaves and make the tea. The trees may not belong to the person who makes the tea. The farmer who owns the trees sells the fresh leaves and may be involved in the picking. In this way we have the most control over the process. It is also useful where a farmer has good trees, but hasn’t necessarily mastered the skills of making good tea.*

nan nuo shan zhi zheng cha zhe suo

The caveat, if it need be stated, is that the person taking in the fresh leaves must be skilled at recognising fresh leaves from different trees and sources, be familiar with, and trust the pickers, and know exactly where the tea is coming from in order to avoid tea from elsewhere being brought in.

Cha Wang Shu

Cha Wang Shu – the small blue roofs are typically tea processing places

In recent years this has become much more common, particularly in places like Gua Feng Zhai where there are often concerns about the origin and purity of ‘mao cha’. The year before last someone said to me ‘Gua feng Zhai fresh leaves are expensive but their mao cha is cheap.’ It’s not completely true, but you get the idea.

  1. Another situation where we might make tea in a similar way is where the tea garden is too far from the workshop to carry the fresh leaves out, and so the tea is made on the spot and carried out as mao cha. Some tea from the Yiwu area is still like that – anywhere where the tea gardens are too remote to be able to carry fresh leaves out to the place of processing – e.g. Bai Cha Yuan before they made a new road from Ding Jia Zhai to the tea gardens.
freshly picked leaves - bai cha yuan

Making tea in Bai Cha Yuan

  1. The third situation is to have a known farmer with good trees and tea making skills make the tea themselves. This also works well, but one needs to be sure of the skill of the tea maker. If the quantity is relatively small – a few kilos – it may be no problem, but a farmer who can make 5 kg well, may have trouble making 30 all to the same standard.

One also needs to be clear if the tea farmer takes in leaves from other villagers – many do and are honest about it, but not all, so one needs to be sure of sources and consistency.

  1. The fourth situation, which is not necessarily separate from the above, is to work with others in the business. i.e. have others who help monitor or supervise the tea making and sourcing. This could be people who are effectively paid or take a cut, or it could be others in the tea business with whom one has a good relationship and with whom you pool resources.
  2. The next situation is buying on spec from a sample. One can occasionally can get some good tea like this, but mistakes can be made. If the volume is small, so is the risk.  In any case, if someone comes to you with a sample of good tea, it’s worth the trouble to go and take a look at where the tea is said to be coming from. I have on occasion bought tea in this way.
  3. The last approach is going cold to a village with no knowledge or connections , this can be fun, but very hit and miss.

You only have to look around online at various blog posts by people who have done this to see that it is probably the least reliable method of sourcing tea, but makes for a good story. Unless you get very lucky, this is at best exploratory – laying the ground for something in the future. It’s rather like a paper chase…

bulang shan - 2008- looking for tea

 

It’s something I personally enjoy doing – going somewhere I’ve never been before and seeing what turns up. But it takes time. You can’t accomplish much in a day. It generally takes a few visits to start to get a handle on the situation in any one village.

Because of this, it’s worth considering how best to go about it.

Ideally maybe, you would look at the trees first, assuming they’re nearby and you can find them, then visit the farmer with the best looking gardens. But this is neither practical nor reliable, as you likely still need someone to show you round and in any case, the owner of the best looking gardens may not make the best tea, or it may already have been sold.

So a better option is going to farmers’ houses and see whose tea making looks the best (most professional, consistent,) and try some of their tea. You can always look at the tea gardens later.This is also time consuming. The first tea you get offered is likely not the best – the tea farmer is also testing you: he’s not going to sell you his best tea if you can’t tell the difference – and you could easily spend a few hours getting to the better stuff. If you do that in a couple of places, the day has gone. It’s impossible to go round every house in a village in this way, so inevitably there’s some luck involved in where you go.

It’s a long time since I read Walden, but I remember the observation that “A farmer’s wealth is measured by the extent to which the barn overshadows the house.” or something like that.

It’s useful logic. You’re probably not going to find the best tea by going to the poorest looking house in the village – particularly one where they have old tea trees. Anyone now, who has old tree tea gardens, should be getting a decent price for their tea if it’s any good. Of course, there could be other factors: the farmer has old trees, but because of size, poor management, etc. it doesn’t provide a good income, or they’re just not good at business – A Hungarian winemaker told me his father would say “A good winemaker must be a good man, must be good wine-maker, and be a good businessman.” It’s the same.

So a reasonable way to start is to see who looks like they’re doing decent business. It doesn’t of course mean their tea is good. They might just be good at doing business, or the owners just took out a hefty loan to build the house, but there’s a chance you’ll find something, and they might know what good tea is, and maybe know where to find it.

Occasionally you might get lucky: someone ordered 60 kg of tea, but then didn’t come through, or only bought 30 kilos in the end – spring tea buying can be a little frenzied and sometimes folks bite off more than they can chew – so, if you’re timing is right, there it is waiting for you.

A couple of other things are important:

The first, is village politics. Villages often comprise of two or three extended families, and they don’t always all get on. Once one gets to know one farmer in a village, they will likely rather jealously guard the connection. One has to be a fine diplomat, or a little thick skinned to navigate the network of connections both within, and outside a village.

Secondly, if you don’t know what the tea from village X should taste like, it’s better not to attempt any serious tea buying. It’s foolish to assume you’re beyond being fooled.

You should know roughly what the price is before you go. Tea prices are actually fairly transparent: very early in the spring, when there may only be a few kilos of tea around, if you were to ask how much tea ‘A’ is, the reply will likely be ‘I don’t know, the price hasn’t come out yet’ “不知道,价格还没出来。”. But a week or two later everybody knows – ‘So-so Pa Sha is about X a kilo, higher quality, around X+Y′, or whatever it is.

Like taking an un-metered taxi: to ask the price of going to ‘A’, only shows your ignorance. They see you coming. If you’re only buying 5kg of tea, the price will be higher than if you’re buying 50.

Bartering is worth it if you think you’re getting a bad deal and or, you don’t have too many hopes of developing a longer term relationship with the farmer. If you want to build mutual trust, trying to hack the farmer down on the price is not going to help much, but letting them know you have an understanding of quality and value is surely worthwhile.

*It is quite  common for farmers to sell fresh leaves to someone else in their village, and in this way ensure a potentially less profitable, but more secure income. In the past it has been quite rare for farmers to make their own tea. The common practice was for farmers to pick leaves and sell them to a factory for processing.

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.

 

Tea Shop Lore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, to paraphrase;

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hand Made Paper from Man Zhao – Correction

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

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

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

There are a number of photos here

And some links here:

efloras.com

Wikipedia

Kew.org

 

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.