Tag Archives: Puer tea

Dongguan Zhi Zheng Tea Shop

We weathered the coldest spell Guangdong has had for many years to attend the opening of a branch of Zhi Zheng Tea Shop in Dongguan, Guangdong which is on the main Shenzhen – Guangzhou highway.

Dongguan is known for its manufacturing industry (as well as other related service industries, which somehow, in China, seem to be deeply interwoven with doing business), so we were happy to dwell in the rarefied atmosphere of tea, for which Dong Guan is less well known.

Dong Guaners’ enthusiasm for tea – particularly Puer tea – is considerable. The shop is actually in Da Ling Shan which was once a small town that has now been subsumed by Dongguan, and Da Ling Shan alone has more tea shops than Jinghong. 

Two dragons and their leader, with Wu Meng Zhao (left), Chairman of Guangdong Tea Culture Association and (right), Li Gui Rong, owner of Dong Guan Zhi Zheng Tea Shop.

The shop, which opened in typical Guangdong style on the 5th of January, is on two floors and has rooms on the second floor for tea tasting/drinking, and meeting friends.

 

Tea Heads

We’ve recently been going to Nan Chun Tea Factory in Menghai to get some work done. One day while we were there, HM discovered that they had previously made som ‘cha tou‘ or tea heads. This is basically a large ball – 1 or 2 kg – of tea. H.M managed to convince Nan Chun Cha Chang’s lao ban to personally make some cha tou out of some Nan Nuo Shan mao cha that we had left from this spring.

The weighed tea is steamed in the usual way and emptied into a cloth bag.

The tea is then rolled,

puerh tea heads getting a roll

hammered,

making cha tou

and squeezed

detail of making tea head using puerh mao cha

into a near spherical shape

nan chun cha chang lao ban with tea head

Nan Chun Tea Factory, Peng Lao Ban with a ‘tea head’

What you end up with is a pretty dense ball of tea – it could certainly do some damage if thrown in the wrong direction. (You’ve heard of Gunpowder tea – this is cannonball tea)

It has to be dried in a low temperature oven because, despite all the beating and squeezing, the moisture content in the centre is still relatively high so normal air drying would run the risk of the centre of the thing going mouldy.

The end result is rather pleasing – a solid lump of tea!

 

Make Tea According to What You See (More on wilting)

The expression in Chinese  ‘kan cha, zuo cha‘ is saying ‘Make tea according to what you find, according to the situation.’ or as my grandfather used to say “Conditions determine.”

In light of some recent online discussion on withering tea, I thought it worth revistiting the topic here.

The debate centers around a couple of issues; Why are some Sheng  ‘greener’ than others. The second issue is the supposition that the degree of ‘green-ness’ in a young Sheng Puer is determined largely by the length of time that the fresh leaves are withered.

This is a fair assumption, but it’s a partial reality. Wilt time, as previously said, will have some affect on the flavour and appearance of tea, but so also will the provenance, the type of trees, the season, the method and degree of drying and also the method of drying the pressed cakes. Last but not least, how long the mao cha is stored for prior to pressing, and where the tea is subsequently stored will also impact the teas flavour and appearance.

Two most common reasons that a Sheng Puer will seem more ‘green tea’ like are these:

Shaqing/frying temeperature: a higher temperature (say 90 + C) will do this.

The tea  isn’t sun-dried and the temperature of drying is a little high.

Habits vary in different areas, and from season to season. Some farmers do not wilt at all, others wilt in the spring but much less in autumn. Wilting may be done for 40 minutes or for a few hours.

Kan cha, zuo cha‘ – A farmer is less looking at his watch than looking at the tea, feeling it, smelling it in order to decide when to start each step of the process – from picking to drying.

As teas from different regions and different farmers vary, so do ours. What works well for one tea, may not work well for another. No two teas are made exactly the same. What we strive for is to produce quality teas from different regions that maintain their uniqueness.

 

Post-conversation Conversation (On Wilting Shai Qing Mao Cha Part II)

I was recently talking with Wu Ya of Yunnan Scientific and Technical Publishing who, besides producing books on Puer tea, also publish the quarterly ‘Yunnan Puer Tea’ Magazine.

Wu Ya’s view echoed Tan’s: that it was not referred to in name in the past and that the wei diao period depended largely on how far a farmers trees were from the house. “What is important” he says “is that the fresh leaves are spread out and that they are not left overnight.” Adding that it was important for farmers to have a place (a small gazebo type shade structure) in their tea fields where leaves can be spread out in order that they stay cool whilst picking continues.

This view, not surprisingly perhaps, was reiterated in the Spring edition of Yunnan Puer Tea, which carried an article ‘Traditional and Modern Puer Tea Making Methods’.

The introduction differentiates traditional and modern methods as pre and post electrification. Essentially, tea making methods before and after 1956 (Three Big Transformations/san da gai zao). [This belies the earlier creation of a tea factory in 1938-39 in Nan Nuo Shan which introduced modern electric machines, but as they were essentially making black and green tea, we can perhaps ignore it in the context of the article. It is also of note that, because of the Nan Nuo Shan factory, set up by Bai Meng Yu, tea farmers in Nan Nuo Shan maintain they were ‘au fait’ with the concept of wilting much earlier than other areas, even though, at that stage, they were not making their own tea as they were obliged to sell their fresh leaves to the tea factory.]

Since wodui (wet pile) Puer tea production techniques were developed rather later in the 1970’s, the article does not consider shou cha in this comparison.

The article poses a central question:  “What are the effects on the quality of traditional and modern Puer tea production methods?”

In translation it might read something like this:

Comparison of the effects on quality of traditional and modern Puer tea production methods
1. Wilting 

Traditional method: Traditional production methods stipulate no particular requirement vis-a-vis wilting. If it happened, it was because the place where the tea was picked was far from where the tea was made, rather than being done deliberately. Thus, in traditional tea production, the craft of wilting was not stressed. Furthermore, there was no record or research of the function of wilting.

Modern method: Modern tea production methods, also have no specific requirements regards the wilting process, but some tea businesses, taking the practice from Wulong tea production, made ‘weidiao’ a set procedure in the production of Puer tea. The result is that Puer tea’s ‘kuse’ is reduced a little and the fragrance augmented. Another reason is that the fermentation process is accelerated and the rate of change in the tea is increased. Enzymes are a form of protein stored in living plants, they are one of the most powerful sources of transformation in organic matter.

People in the past referred to them as ‘yeast’ and believed that their function was to cause fermentation, today, modern science has confirmed that the function of enzymes is not fermentation, rather to act as a catalyst in living matter. In Puer tea, enzymes promote the release of fragrances and bring about other changes; enzymes in tea leaves have a direct relationship to the moisture content, temperature, humidity, etc.

After fresh leaves are picked, the process of dehydration is catalysed by enzymes. In the wilting process, between 10 and 16 hours, the activity of enzymes continuously increases up until 16 hours after which it starts to decline. *

The cataysing function of enzymes directly affects the formation of Wulong and Black tea. In Puer tea production, wilting can facilitate change and is beneficial to the teas quality.

Conclusion: Even though wilting is not considered a necessary process in both traditional and modern production, it is beneficial to the changes that take place and the quality of Puer tea, and is absolutely neccessary.”

*The article here is not suggesting that wilting in the Puer making process should be done for such a long time – it is merely describing the activity of enzymes in relation to time.

Yunnan Puer Tea Magazine, Spring 2011.

 

It would be easy to dismiss this as commercial patter serving the interests of big tea business so I thought it might be interesting to do a little ‘sondage’ of some publications to see if this point of view was generally supported.

A quick browse round publications in a local bookstore highlighted the broad acceptance of wilting shai qing mao cha for Puer tea. Pick up any Puer tea magazine and there’s always at least a couple of pictures of tea put to ‘wilt’. Of course, we could dismiss this as serving commercial interests, so here are a few more references;

Looking through some rather more official publications:

People’s Republic of China, International Standards GB/T22111-2008, Product of geographical indication (sic)- Puer tea.

“6.5.1 shai qing cha”

“xian ye tan fang – sha qing – rou nian – jie jue – ri guang gan cao – bao zhuang

Spread out fresh leaves –   kill green  –  roll  –  finish  –  sun dry  –  wrap

Here they use the phrase tan fang – to spread out. There is no further detail

So here:

Yunnan Tea Basic Production Skills (Yunnan cha ye chuzhi jishu)

This book describes 6 steps to produce ‘dian qing‘ a term sometimes preferred for shai qing mao cha – the raw material from which all Puer tea is made.

“Basic process of making sun dried tea (Shai qing cha ye chu jia gong)”

2 – tan qing

After fresh leaves have been collected, they should be spread out to a suitable depth. 10-15 centimetres, allow the fresh grassy smell to disipate and the fragrance to augment. No moisture should be visible on the surface of the leaves. When the leaves have lost about 10% of their weight they are ready to fry.”

Here they use the phrase tan qing but the meaning is the same as tan fang and the objective – to reduce the moisture content in the leaves – is the same.

One could also dismiss these government publications on the basis that they also have interests to look out for, so I picked up  a book I haven’t looked at in a while:

Liu Qin Jin is a fan of cooked Puer tea and no great fan of young Puer – he states in his book ‘Appreciation  and Brewing of Puer Tea’ that Sheng cha should not even be called Puer tea until it has acquired the properties that are associated with aged Puer tea – i.e appropriate cake and broth colour and flavours/aromatic qualities that are typically associated with a well aged tea. He puts that at a solid 15 years.

He describes what he outlines as the ‘Steps in making Traditional Puer Tea’, where there is no mention of withering, but on the next page, where there is more detail of the steps involved, the first is ‘Spread out the fresh leaves’ (xian ye tan fang).

He recommends spreading the tea to a depth of 15-20 centimetres until the moisture content has been reduced to around 70%. This suggests a slightly longer wilting time than others propose.

So, by way of drawing some kind of provisional conclusion, we might note that wilting has become an accepted practice, albeit without very clear stipulations, particularly regard to time. There appear to be no indications that wilting Puer tea for Sheng Puer is in any way detremental to the tea, or to the ageing process of that tea. It is most certainly widely practiced to varying degrees and has been done so for several decades.

Jian Shui

I hadn’t been to Jian Shui for more than four years and recently got the chance to go back there. Jian Shui, to the south of Fuxian Lake is a pottery town, renowned for its purple clay which is very dense and, after using a variety of techniques; throwing, carving, inlaying, is burnished using stones to give a high polish without the use of glaze.

Double Dragon Bridge is a few kilomteres outside Jian shui, an excellent example of Qing Dynasty (18th Century) architecture. At the confluence of two rivers – Lujiang and Tachong Rivers – it originally had 3 spans, but was later extended due to a change of course in the river.

Apart from its large city gate which is currently being renovated, Jian Shui is well known for it’s Daoist Temple, built in the style of the Qufu Confucian Temple in Shandong, during the 13th Century.

The Dao is Natural

Here’s a small teapot I acquired whilst there. Because of the process of making Jian Shui pottery, it is apparently rare for pots to be made by one individual, rather they are made by a number of people, each of whom specialises in a different skill. The image on the pot is made by first engraving the pot and then filling with different local clays which have unique colours.

Conversations – on Wilting Shai Qing Mao Cha

The issues of wilting Puer tea, good and bad tea making processes, and the consequent suitability of a tea for ageing are perennial.

Tan Lao Shi is probably in her 50’s. She’s already retired. She grew up in Luo Shui Dong where her family have been tea farmers for several generations. Her childhood, up until her early teens was spent at Luo Shui Dong.

I asked her about how the tea making process of Puer now varies from when she was young and specifically about the weidiao process; Could she confirm that wilting fresh leaves before frying was a recent introduction in the Puer making process.

The idea, she said, is only from the late 80’s or early 90’s. Prior to that there wasn’t that thinking. But of course, the tea was wilted. Not to wilt the leaves; “zhe shi bu ke neng de.” – ‘It’s impossible the tea was not wilted.’ she says.

She went on to describe a typical day and the tea making process; after breakfast, around 8 a.m her family would go to their tea garden to pick leaves. “The garden was as far as from here to the school. Not far.” (Jinglan cha cheng to the local primary school – perhaps 100 metres) “They would pick tea until around 2pm, putting it in big baskets, then they would bring it back to the house. In the afternoon, they would go again and pick tea, up till maybe 8 at night.”

Tan described how only when the afternoon’s tea was brought back to the house, and the morning and the afternoon tea was put together would it be fried and rolled. In her estimate, at the very least, tea was left for 5 hours before frying; so, whether it was done unwittingly or not, the tea was wilted. In fact, the idea of picking a relatively small amount of tea and taking it back to the house to process immediately seemed implausible to her.

Her explanation for lack of historical evidence is that people wilted the tea unknowingly. They were just putting it to one side until they were ready to begin frying. There was no specific aim. She challenges me to find the words weidiao or tan qing in any literature. “There’s no mention of it because no one recorded the information, but it still happened.”

She went on to talk about how the tea was piled up and not spread out on mats as is the manner now and how, as children, they would jump into the big piles of tea which was fun, but because they were worried about their parents being angry when they returned to the house, they would sweep all the tea back up into a pile prior to their parents return. So this tea was most certainly oxidised.

She talked about how, prior to the early 50’s, they would pick tea fairly crudely, picking older leaves along with younger ones. After that (probably 1952-53) they would still not be selective in their picking, but when they took the tea back to the house they would separate out the older leaves from the younger tips and leaves – up to maybe tip and three leaves.

The tea made form these older leaves would be put in baskets after rolling, bamboo skins were placed on top and stones ( she described the kind of large stones that were used for sharpening knives) were placed on top of the bamboo skins to weigh them down. As a consequence the leaves were tightly compressed. This tea was left for two nights. “We used to put eggs in the tea. After three days the eggs were cooked.”

She also described making autumn tea and how the weather in Luo Shui Dong could be quite cold, but when they put their hands in the tea it was hot. On the third day this tea would be put out to dry. After handling it, their hands were ‘black’ from the tea.

I asked her what the tea broth looked like. “Not black like shou cha is now.” she said. “About the same colour as that.” and pointed to some tea in a ‘piao-yi-bei’ that had the colour of say a 4 or 5 year old raw tea – a brownish, ruby-red.

This ‘fermented’ tea was sold to an export company for export to Russia. Tan describes when she was a child how Russians came looking for tea. She said the Russians knew the difference between spring, summer and autumn tea, and would not buy the summer tea.

The tip and leaf formations from the process described above were not treated in the same way. After rolling they were shaken out and left till the next morning to be sun dried. This tea was typically given to local officials and the like.

Where’s it from? – Part 4

Despite a number of friends coming round several times to taste the tea and HM making a trip around Man Nuo and Pasha to see if we could identify where this tea actually comes from – everyone agrees it’s excellent – we still haven’t nailed it down. On the way, we did come across some very nice tea from Man Nuo though.

In the meantime, a customer who has tasted a sample of the tea, has offered to put up enough funds for us to be able to think about buying it!

We’re now waiting for more samples of the tea to arrive – maybe tonight, so we can see if it really is as the seller says….

Old Tea (Let's go and have lunch)

We were drinking tea in the shop yesterday morning with a tea-friend when someone he knew walked past. His acquaintance was carrying a brick of  ‘thirty year old sheng cha’. A piece was uncerimoniously broken off for us to try. 

HM brewed the tea, poured us all a cup  then, after one mouthful,  “It’s not that old!” he  pronounced.  “Lets go and have lunch!”.

Later he conceded that the huigan was not bad but the cha qi, xiang qi, yun  were all lacking.  It also had that kind of flavour that I can only associate with shou cha. 

HM said ” I’m not sure how they made this stuff “.  Concluding it was wet-piled for a week or two to lighlty ferment it such that it could still be called (by some ) ‘sheng cha’, then after pressing, wet-stored and aired.  “That’s the kind of rip-off you get with Puer tea.” he declared with a sad expression.

More "Where's it from?"

Provenance

The issue of provenance in Puer tea circles is a tricky one.  That we be concerned with where our food and drink comes from is not irrational.  Perhaps as a result of increasing industrialization, supermarkets, globalization, etc. in the latter half of the 20th C many western consumers became dissociated from the sources of their food.  Provenance has been an aspect of the wider ‘real food’ (organic/fair-trade/slow food, etc.) movement. Knowing where something comes from, how it was made, who it was made by is important to us.

 

It appears there is some kind of correlation between price, provenance and expectations. We are often willing to forfeit knowledge if the price is right. No one is going to ask  where a 2€ bottle of ‘Vin de Table’ in Miniprix came from, but if one’s buying a nice ‘Cru Artisan’ Medoc from a vintners one may well want to know the who, when, what, where, etc.

 

Also, nobody in their right mind is going to ask where say, Dayi 7552 or Menghai 7572 comes from. They probably couldn’t tell you anyway without looking it up in a book as these are blended teas from a variety of sources. But with small producers this question becomes relevant and, to varying extents, important.  A small producer (particularly if they are lacking a reputation) who neglects or declines to state the origins of their tea is typically seen as suspect, which may be valid if a little irrational.

 

The error here is twofold;

1.  Assuming larger producers are the best upholders of standards.

2.  Assuming that small producers are not easily capable of producing better tea than the large name-brands.

 

One problem with Yunnan’s Puer tea is that the government and tea industry are a long way from achieving the kind of controls that the French government has in place for wine -there is currently some semblance of nomenclature according to regions/mountains but it’s not regulated and it’s far from water-tight. *

 

There are some generalizations that can be made about teas from different mountains, different seasons, etc. but within that there are seemingly infinite variations. So, one may have an understanding of what Yiwu tea normally tastes like, but it’s broad, and there are always going to be teas that defy the norm. The reality is there are fairly few people, even after years of experience, who on inspecting and tasting a Raw Puer can tell with any degree of accuracy where it came from. There are people who have a profound knowledge of the teas from one, two, three areas, but rarely all of them.

 

Let’s take an example: Borne out of curiosity or the belief that you can circumvent the ‘middlemen’ many a Puer merchant or enthusiast’s dream is to go into the mountains to find their own maocha and press it into cakes or whatever. This, on the face of it seems feasible.  Since it’s easily accessible, many people will head for Nan Nuo Shan where there is a long tradition (a thousand years or more) of Aini tea cultivation but, possibly because of their location, they are also rather adept business people.

 

Some villages in Nan Nuo Shan will take in tea from other villages on the mountain which they then sell on to outsiders.  So in this case one might go to a village and assume that the tea was from that village, but quite likely it would be a blend from a variety of sources. All of this is without considering different types of tea trees: Ancient trees, Old trees, Tea bushes, that might be in the mix.

 

Nan Nuo Shan’s tea farmers will also trade with farmers from other areas so it is quite possible that if one went on-spec and was not paying attention, one could unwittingly buy some tea that was from somewhere else all together. It wouldn’t make it bad tea. It might be very good tea, but it wouldn’t be Nan Nuo Shan tea. One of course would put one’s hand on one’s heart and say it was just that, after all, that’s where you bought it.

 

So does this matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t: One hopes that everyone is honest about where their tea comes from, but part of the loss of confidence in Puer a few years ago was precisely because it was found that people were passing tea off as coming from places other than where it actually came from, mostly with the aim of getting a higher price. But that aside, if one buys tea under the impression that it comes from Ban Po Lao Zhai but it actually comes from Ban ma, one hasn’t been badly duped, but if one then drank some Ban Po Lao Zhai tea one might, assuming one can tell the difference between the two, be unsure who to believe, this guy, or the last guy. Lao Ban Zhang is similar: Lao Ban Zhang and He Kai Shan are both considered to produce Lao Ban Zhang tea, but they are quite different. So within the broader nomenclature of Nan Nuo Shan or Lao Ban Zhang there are many variations.  Both of these by the way, despite their obvious differences, could also be called ‘Menghai’ teas as both mountains are in Menghai County. There are a couple of reasons why someone may refer to their tea as Menghai tea:

 

1.  They believe it be very good tea and want to try to limit others from figuring out exactly where it came from

2.  They can’t tell you anything more precise about it – mostly likely because it’s a blend.

 

Looking at the tea and drinking it will confirm which is the case.

 

So the far more important question to which “Where’s it from?” is secondary is “Is it good tea?”. Or perhaps “Is it a good example of ‘Whatever Mountain’s tea?”  The first question is easily within any interested tea drinkers reach.  The second accessible to a much smaller number of people who will likely focus their attention on one or two tea mountains and explore them thoroughly in order to get a deep understanding of their teas.

 

 

*In recent years apparently, some small French wine producers have bucked the system in preference for their own standards which they believe to be higher than those stipulated by the government. Lack of classification doesn’t always mean a poor product – indeed, these wines can bring a higher price than those with a seemingly more prestigious classification.