Tag Archives: history of Puer tea

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

 

 

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

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…

Gua Feng Zhai – Cha Wang Shu – First Spring tea

HM was back up in Gua Feng Zhai about a week ago and came back with just over three and a half kilos of the first spring tea from Gua Feng Zhai’s Cha Wang Shu.

gua feng zhai mao 2012 cha

gua feng zhai mao 2012 cha

We tried the tea which at that stage was very smooth in the mouth, and sweet, but seemed a little thin in flavour. So about a week later, I thought I would try it again.

It had changed somewhat: still very smooth. The lid of the gaiwan carried the scent of  ‘flowers and honey’. The wet leaves have a dense ‘green’ aroma – a very distinct qing chou wei.  A faint hint of bitterness on the upper palate and ‘retro-olfactory’ hints of honeysuckle in the nasal cavity.

Lao Feng dropped by just as I was pouring out the second steep. We agreed it had improved in the week since we had tried it first. “The very first tips of spring” he said “it’s like an animal that’s been asleep all winter and has just awoken. It’s not fully awake yet.”

gua feng zhai cha wang shu 2012 puerh

Tea Moments – Drinking Tea with Lao Feng. Bang Wai 2011

HM had gone to Menghai to organise some pressings the other day when our neighbour Lao Feng, dropped by. He somehow seems to me like a kindred spirit and I enjoy drinking tea with him.

He came in, and having said he didn’t mind what tea we drank, I found a cake of Bang Wai on the shelf that I didn’t remember ever tasting (in fact I’m pretty sure now I never tried it).  We made a number of 150gram cakes last spring from a range of tea mountains: He Kai, Jing Mai, Naka, Luo Shui Dong, Ding Jia Zhai, Mang Zhi, Bing Dao, Xi gui, Bang Wai, Ban Ma. All in small quantities. At most we had a set or two of each: 10 or 20 Kg.

The Bang Wai tea looks good, though there’s nothing particularly notable from the outwards appearance of the leaves.

Bang Wai 250 gram cake

Bang Wai 250 gram cake from Spring 2012

The broth is exceptionally clean. Early steepings produced a pale yellow broth with virtually no astringency and a hint of bitterness that lingered on the upper palate. Later steepings produced a pleasing rich gold broth.

Bang Wai 2012 Spring sheng Puerh broth

Bang Wai 2011 Spring sheng Puerh broth

The tea has lost any ??? ‘qing chou wei‘ that it had and has yet to develop any noticeable ?? ‘chen wei’.  Initial impressions are of tobacco and old books, hints of leather.

By the end of the first couple of steepings, I could feel a warmth creeping up my occiput and face. The tea feels quite penetrating and both Lao Feng and I begin to feel the effects in the palms of our hands: a warmth and energy that makes the skin slightly moist. I can also feel it around my upper arms and shoulders.

Sharing tea experiences with Lao Feng is enjoyable, not least because he is very interested in the energetics of tea. Not from a scientific, Newtonian perspective, but from an experiential one. We concur that one sign of a good tea is how much it penetrates energetically. He comments that ‘some teas are powerful as they enter, and some powerful as they come out.’ It’s certainly so with this tea. The rukou had no clear sweetness or xiang qi – but there is a powerful, floral sweetness that floats up through the throat from somewhere deeper inside and penetrates the nasal cavity.

Bang Wai leaves after 5 or 6 steepings

Bang Wai leaves after 5 or 6 steepings

We become very still as we focus inward to better perceive/appreciate the process. Another friend comes by and quietly joins in. He too, quickly notices the effects this tea produces. He says he feels it first penetrates to the 丹田 ‘dan tian’ and then spreads out to the hands.

We recall a Chinese sage – no one can remember their name – who said about only drinking seven cups of tea. With this tea, it seems to be true. The experience is quite powerful and after 5 or six steeping we’re all happy to pause and enjoy the lingering sweetness and aroma that continues to float up in the throat for another 40 minutes or so.

 Bang Wai broth after 6 - 7 steepings

Meng Song Ku Cha – Bitter Tea

Sinensis assamica var. Kucha – or in plain English, bitter tea, is a sub-variety of sinensis assamica that grows in the Meng Song area. For reasons which are doubtless obvious, it’s not the most sought after of Puer tea, but with a light touch when brewing it can be rather pleasant, with a distinct, lingering, but not overwhelming bitterness.

A friend just dropped by with a few handfuls. We plopped some in the gaiwan. It’s not the prettiest maocha you’ll ever see, but it’s totally honest, unadulterated.

Meng Song sinensis assamica var. kucha

With maybe 5-6 grams in the gaiwan and very quick steeping times, the bitterness does not become overpowering and there’s some decent flavour and fragrance.

Meng Song Bitter Tea leaves after three steepings

The soup is clean – when sampling it’s good to use a gaiwan – not a pot – and no strainer. The broth has a pleasing colour with a hint of pale, almost pinky, gold.

Meng Song Bitter Tea broth

See here for an earlier post about Meng Song: www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/stone/

Wan Gong and Bai Cha Yuan

HM has been recently spending a fair bit of time going up to Wan Gong where we found a little tea last year, and Bai Cha Yuan . Our hope this year is to build on last year and make some more tea from a couple of tea gardens up there.

Old tea tree around Wan Gong

Old tea trees that were cut back and then left untended

The trees in the photo are typical of a fair number of the trees in this remote area near Bai Cha Yuan – they are maybe about 200 years old but were cut back heavily many years ago and have subsequently been left untended for a long time.

HM and some tea farmers from the area have built a small makeshift ‘pondoki’ where we will make tea, as it is much too far from any more permanent tea making facilities.

A rough shelter on the mountain

A makeshift shelter

We have improvised two small woks for frying tea.

Two makeshift woks for frying tea in the field

A rather splendid view from near the top of the mountain.

A view from near the top of the mountain

A view from near the top of the mountain

2012 Lao Ban Zhang

Yesterday we received our first little bit of 2012 Lao Ban Zhang. A few kilos, brought in by our friend from Menghun.

lao ban zhang 2012 mao cha

Lao Ban Zhang 2012 mao cha

Quite nicely made, and with a very ‘chun’ – unadulterated, pure flavour. It seems like it could have used a little more drying time perhaps. The kuwei is pronounced, the huigan a little slow, materialising after a couple of minutes, but pleasing enough when it does show itself.

Lao Ban Zhang Mao Cha from early 2012

Mao cha and gaiwan

It has that slight smokiness which disappears after the first couple of steepings and that I’ve almost come to expect of Lao Ban Zhang. As someone said to me a couple of years ago, “If it’s not smokey, it’s not Lao Ban Zhang.”

It’s just been made, so we’ll give it a little time.

2012 Lao Ban Zhang mao cha broth after four steepings

Lao Ban Zhang mao cha broth after four steepings

 

The leaves after four steepings look pretty good. A nice eveness to their appearance

2012 First Spring Tea

We recently started to get some samples of this year’s tea. A handful here and a kilo there. It’s still early. We had three samples of Lao Ban Zhang. One of them was not bad except there was a hint of ‘new wok’ in the flavour.

Peng Zhe from Xishuangbanna Tea Association also brought in some samples he had got from Liu Da Cha Shan area. One was also rather pleasant. Here’s a picture the aftermath of some late evening sampling.

Tea dregs from 2012 early spring tea sampling

We were also debating the rule of thumb, that one ought not to sample more than 3 teas in a day, but we pretty much all conceded that during Spring there is no way to abide by such logic – often sampling many more teas a day.