Tag Archives: puerh tea

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.

 

 

Ban Zhang & Hekai Old Tea Trees

ma hou pao – 马后炮

A friend told me today of some news from Lao Ban Zhang and He Kai: “Ban Zhang and Hekai have decided not to pick summer tea.” It seems a little disingenuous since we’re already into the autumn tea season, but it’s a step in the right direction, as long as they haven’t changed their minds by next year. Or is it?

The issue of over-picking tea, particularly on old tea trees is important, and not that straightforward. There are some seemingly common misunderstandings about exactly what ‘over-picking’ implies.

Not picking summer tea, the least sought after/cheapest harvest of the year, is not going to suddenly make everything right if other issues aren’t addressed. Ban Zhang autumn gu shu is on the market at 1,500 yuan/kilo, so the cynic might say they can afford not to pick summer tea, but whilst it would have given trees a chance to recover a little had it happened, it won’t necessarily improve next spring’s harvest.

Over the next few posts, I hope to explore this issue further and try to get to a deeper understanding of what the issues are, and how they would best be resolved.

 

* ma hou pao, is an expression that translates as something like ‘Firing the artillery after the horses have charged.’ Rather like ‘shutting the door after the horse has bolted’.

 

There and Here – more on puer storage

After comparing two Bulang Peak teas whilst I was in the UK, I thought it might be interesting to bring some of the 2010, UK stored tea back to ‘Banna to compare with some of the same tea that has been stored here in Jinghong.

This therefore, is more an ‘apples with apples’ comparison than the one in the UK which was comparing a 2010 tea stored in the UK for 18 months with a 2011 tea that had been in Jinghong. This time we have the same tea, same batch.

bulang peak 2010 cakes

UK cake on left, 'Banna on the right

The first thing is that the difference between the teas is not that obvious. Looking at the colour of the cakes, the broth colour and the dregs, there is some difference to be detected, but it’s not that pronounced.

bulang peak 2010 uk stored cake detailbulang peak 2010 cake stored in JinghongThere is a slight difference in colour between the two cakes – most visible in the tips which are a little darker in the ‘Banna stored tea and in the slightly ‘greener’ hue to the UK stored cake. The top photo (right) is the UK stored cake, the lower one the ‘Banna stored tea. It’s not obvious in the photos here but the ‘Banna tea also looks a little richer, more moist than the UK stored cake, but perhaps I’m just imagining that.

The broth also produces marked difference – at least of the kind that I might have anticipated.

The broth from the first steepings of both teas looks pretty similar in tone.

I started using these two cups – the UK stored tea is on the left – but then realised my mistake as the shape of the cups and their translucency was affecting the appearance of the broth.

bulang peak spring 2010 broth

So I switched to two identical cups to see how the appearance of the broth was altered. I tried to steep the teas as close to simultaneously as I could in order to minimise any differences caused by oxidation of the broth and steeped the UK stored tea first, so that oxidation would not exaggerate any difference.

bulang zhi dian broth comparison

As can be seen in the photo above, there is no very obvious difference. Possibly the broth on the left (UK) is a mite lighter than the ‘Banna broth. Both are the third steeping.

Here is the broth from both teas after steeping for 5 minutes. This time the broth on the right (‘Banna) is more noticeably darker, but it’s still not much.

bulang peaks broth after five minutes steeping

The difference is most clear in the flavour – perhaps as one might have expected. The UK stored cake has kept more of its youthful floral/fruity notes and is very sweet. At the same time it is very slightly more astringent than the ‘Banna stored tea.

The ‘Banna stored tea has lost most of those fruit/floral notes and has started to show hints of something deeper, though as yet, no obvious chen wei. Both teas, when pushed, show a decent kuwei and both resolve quickly to produce a good huigan.

So is there a conclusion?

Of sorts, there is an interim one. It could be that the astringence in the UK stored cake is due to the fact that it has aged more slowly than the ‘Banna tea (and we have forgotten how it was when young) and that with further storage it will diminish. The other possibility, it seems, is that it has been influenced by the dryness of the UK conditions and this has produced the astringence. Only further storage time will tell.

bulang peak broth and dregs

 

 

Tea with the Chens – From He Kai to Ge Deng

I have recently had cause to hang out with two different Chens – a Chinese name something akin to the English Smith. One in Hekai, on the edge of the Bulang Mountains, and the other from Guangdong who sources tea from the Six Famous Tea Mountains area.

Chen No1 is based in He Kai. I went up there a few weeks ago and then accompanied him to Lao Ban Zhang where he got 30 kg of fresh leaves. The cost of fresh tou chun leaves in Ban Zhang this year was anything from a little over 400 to over 600 RMB/kg, and this Spring, just over 4 kg of fresh leaves was making a kilo of mao cha.

We got back to his place with the tea around mid-day and spread it out to wilt for a while. He started frying tea later in the afternoon and continued till almost midnight, putting the tea out to dry the next morning, which is normal practice.

His sha qing approach is a little different from some tea makers as he tends to fry the tea for considerably longer than is typical, and then rolls it for a relatively short period of time. When tea is heaped in the pan during frying in the fashion described above, it is locally described as ‘dui de‘ or piled.

He Kai Chen left his tea to wilt for a fair time even though the weather’s very dry – although it had been raining a little at night when I was there – (one reason for wilting, apart from allowing the moisture content in the leaves to drop, is to allow it to even out, so that there is a more uniform amount of moisture throughout the leaf – from tip to stem. If this is not done, it’s easy to burn the leaves).

Typical tea frying woks in the Bulang Shan/Hekai/Ban Zhang area are set flat on a brick oven. Initially, the tea leaves are kept moving in the pan which must be done to stop the leaves from burning and to produce an even roast. As the tea is roasted, the heat is allowed to drop a little and the tea moved less. After frying for a while – maybe as much as 15 minutes – during which time the tea is turned and shaken out repeatedly (this allows some of the heat to disperse), the process slows down and the tea is turned and then piled in the centre of the wok and left for a minute or so. This process is repeated many times.

Chen Lao Ban then takes the tea out of the wok and leaves it on a tray for several minutes – again piled as opposed to spread out, which is the more common practice.

Making tea in this way, he then machine rolls it in an old electric roller with a wooden drum and tray, but only for a few minutes. The result is a tea that is very fragrant, has good body, with a light clear broth, little astringence and good hou yun.

When He Kai Chen makes tea completely by hand, as he did with some of the Ban Zhang tea, he does not follow this method, and has a more typical approach to frying and rolling.

Across the other side of Xishuangbanna, a few weeks later, I was in Ge Deng and bumped into another Chen. Chen Lao Ban is from Guangdong where he sells tea. He spends quite a lot of time in ‘Banna and has been sourcing/making tea in the Liu Da Cha Shan area for 5 or 6 years. He has set up a few small chu zhe suowhere he both processes fresh leaves and collects some mao cha.

Guangdong Chen has had a wok made according to his requirements: the wok is also set flat on the oven in a manner similar to Bulang Shan woks, but it’s a fair bit higher. One only has to fry tea for a few minutes in a wok in say, Nan Nuo Shan, to realise how important the height is! Most Aini people are relatively short, and build their ovens accordingly, so this can be back breaking for anyone taller.

His approach to tea making is almost as far from Hekai Chen’s as Ge Deng is from Hekai. The wilting time is probably about the same – somewhere between 3 and 5 hours, but his approach to sha qing is quite different. Tea Urchin referred to this style as ‘medium rare’. I like that description. I think a lot of people I know here would say it was ‘sha bu tou‘ – not fried enough, but Guangdong Chen (and lots of other people in Guangdong) seem to like tea with this kind of flavour; a little less smooth feeling in the mouth than is typical, a fair bit of astringency, and not much obvious fragrance; either in the leaf or the cup. And virtually none of the retro-olfactory aromas that He Kai Chen produces.

Chen Lao Ban says that when the tea is stored (in Guangdong), the astringence mellows, though I have to say, that in my (limited) experience of drinking tea in Guangdong, even after several years, tea is often still markedly ‘apre’. He Kai Chen also says his tea ages well. I have had some which was 3-4 years old which was reminiscent of a rather older tea; very smooth, good hou yunand a pleasant chen wei.

What is most interesting in all this is that Puer making methods, within a broader understanding of the process, can vary considerably. There is not necessarily any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things – and I suspect there never was – although it is easy to find people who will swear by one particular approach.

The Road to Gua Feng Zhai

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

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

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

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

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

gua feng zhai tea gardens

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

ancient tea tree in Gua Feng Zhai tea field

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

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

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

Cha WAng Shu processing facility

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

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

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

a view on the road from mahei to gua feng zhai

Road to Heaven – or is that Hell?

To pinch the title of the excellent Bill Porter book ‘Road to Heaven – Encounters with Chinese Hermits’.

Recently, one of my laoxiang (fellow countrymen) – I’ll call him Chris – has moved to Jinghong and we have been getting together fairly regularly to talk dhamma, or solve the problems of the world.

Chris first came to China 20 years ago and taught in a school in Simao. He drinks Puer regularly – maybe every day – but says he knows little about it. He’s planning to make a visit to the UK next month and wants to take some tea back with him as gifts, so he asked me what I thought about a couple teas he has.

The first, a nondescript cake of questionable origin, is making my stomach twinge just by looking at it: obviously bush tea and of very low quality at that. I told him if he threw it away, he wouldn’t be missing anything. He said he found it completely uninteresting, and could not bring himself to drink it.

The second, a cake from 2011 that he got from someone he knows up in Nan Nuo Shan, is really quite decent. I suspect the trees are not as old as would be ideal – xiao shu. but really not bad: the flavour is OK, the fragrance not bad, and the huigan is pleasing. It’s just a little too astringent to be Nan Nuo Shan gu shu.

What was interesting was that, with some exposure, even given his professed ignorance, Chris had a sense of which tea was better, even though he wasn’t able to articulate what or why. It seemed to me to exemplify the process of change which takes place, quickly or slowly, in a tea drinkers expectations.

This was reiterated when I met a German guy in Lao Feng’s tea shop recently who used to be in the confectionary business: we were remembering what Austrian Reislings were like in the 60′-80’s. How they were insanely sweet (remember glycol?), but for many, it was an acceptable first step into the world of wine. His assertion being, that the German collective palette has evolved, become more sophisticated, and people now tend to favour Reislings, or other wines that are less sweet.

Lao Feng also was telling me a couple of weeks ago about someone from Shanghai who had amassed a fair amount of Puer tea – a houseful to be more precise – but then, after finally drinking some good quality, ancient tree tea, realised that what he had was, to him at least, no longer drinkable, so he literally gave it all away.

So, Mahayana or Theravadan? Instant enlightenment or gradual cultivation? Whichever way you get there, one minute you’re not, the next you are. Then what do you do with your tea?

Ban Pen 2012 Early Spring Mao Cha

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

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

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

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

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

Making Rain

China’s rain making programme is well documented. Substantial amounts are spent annually on rainmaking technology and its implementation. But Xishuangbanna is mostly still as dry as a bone. A couple of nights ago there was a quite sudden clap of thunder, and it rained briefly, which it seems was ‘man made’, but whatever the potential risks of such endeavors, the effect was quite desultory.

The first flush of tea has finished and pretty much everybody is waiting to see what happens next. By this time last year, despite a dry start to the spring, we had had substantial amounts of rain, but this year, in Jinghong there has been not a drop.

I was up in Hekai for a few days last week, and there it rained a little every night, but Nan Nuo Shan has only seen a little of that. The general consensus is that this year’s tea’s flavour is a little better than last year, but often with a little more astringency. In some teas, the bitterness is more pronounced. We’ll have to wait for another week or so to see what the second flush of tea produces.

 

See here for some more reading on Chinese weather making

1,000 flavours of Lao Ban Zhang

I first met Chen Jian Ming five years ago. We went up to Hekai together where he was making tea. He has been making tea there since. He now has a shop in Jing Hong where we were trying some samples of Lao Ban Zhang that he’d got in the last few days. One was made by ‘lao bai xing’, i.e made by villagers following their own methods/standards. The other two were made by villagers, but to more exacting standards.

The other two samples were also from the village: one, the flavour somewhat fuller, the bitterness more pronounced (Lao Ban Zhang kuwei seems stronger this year than last year, for which I ‘ve heard a couple of explanantions, the most plausible of which is the climate – the dryness), the other kuwei less pronounced, more fragrant with a quicker huigan.

Lao Chen, calculates that ‘there are 500 households in Ban Zhang. If they all make tea in their own way, that means there are 500 flavours of Lao Ban Zhang tea. If each has, say 2 different tea tree gardens, then there are 1000 different flavours’ ….and so on…there was a further parameter which increased the possible variations exponentially, but I can’t think now what it was.  But you get the idea: there’re likely to be some broad similarities in tea from any village, but within that, there will be significant, often easily perceptible, variations. So having a fixed idea about ‘what this or that places tea tastes like’ is not particularly useful

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