Tag Archives: tea production

More Glyphosate

There was a brief discussion recently on LinkedIn following a post about Sri Lanka’s decision to ban Glyphosate, and the quandary that poses for tea producers. ‘Should we use Monsanto’s Glyphosate?’ was the title of the piece which went on to discuss how Sri Lanka is facing a dilema over pesticide use. I’m unclear about the timing as Sirisena introduced the ban a good couple of years ago which came after a previous ban was lifted after only a few months, in 2014. So sure, they seem to have been in a quandary over the decision for some time.

It’s a curious question. Imagine one was a world-class athlete who’d got used to taking steroids because they improved one’s performance, but slowly became aware of their harmful effects. If one was winning gold medals it might be hard to give up for fear of lowering one’s level of performance and only getting bronze, or perhaps no medal at all, but in tea there are no medals for performance. What is there to lose? Someone contributed to the discussion by suggesting pesticides are necessary to maintain production levels in an ever more populated world where starving people would ‘willingly risk an excess MRL or two rather than have no food.’ But tea is not food, though it may well be considered a staple by many folks in poorer parts of the world.

And Roundup is not insecticide. Not using it is not going to result directly in infestations of insects that will eat the crops or damage tea bushes, or maybe rust which will damage the leaves. The worst that can happen is that folks have to go into tea gardens and weed by hand. That’s about profit, or maybe reducing losses. But it’s hard to imagine using herbicides to keep labour costs down is going to turn a loss-making business round. On the other hand, opting for more labour intensive/creative methods of dealing with the problem, as Sri Lanka appears to have done may well prove worthwhile if it results in a more desirable tea. With Sri Lanka’s objective of reducing large scale plantations in favour of smaller family run tea gardens, it is ironically becoming more like Southern Yunnan.

Yunnan’s history of tea cultivation is rather different from Sri Lanka’s where the tea industry was developed by the British in colonial times. In Yunnan, the government has at various stages had a hand in developing the tea industry, but in Xishuangbanna there are not that many large scale plantations outside of some of the big tea factories and areas like Da Du Gang. There are a lot more in the Lincang/Lancang area. There were large scale (re) planting programmes around the middle of the 20th century, particularly in the Menghai area, but most tea producers are still smallholder farmers who are their own bosses. Many of them have in the past still choosen to use agro-chemicals in some way, certainly in bush tea plantations, but it has been a personal choice.

Dadugang tea plantations

Da Du Gang tea plantations

Even though the use of agro-chemicals has in theory been banned in ancient tea tree gardens, it still happens, particularly with something like Glyphosate, the use of which will significantly reduce the labour time required by a tea farmer to manage his/her tea gardens. But ‘market forces’ eventually will prevail in most situations.

Sunshine and Glyphosate

Sunshine and Glyphosate

More and more people understand, and are able to detect where Glyphosate has been used, and are averse to buying tea that may have been treated with it. So even when a buyer is not able themselves to detect its use, the fear that a customer may is a factor that will cause a buyer to err on the side of caution. This increasing awareness also brings other complications. Pretty much gone are the days when asking the farmer directly about which agro-chemicals they may have used would elicit a straightforward answer. One needs to be more wiley.

I was with a friend, and a friend of his, visiting some tea villages some way north of Yiwu. I had heard of a garden of 40-50 year old trees that had never been treated with agro-chemicals,so my friend had elicited the help of his friend who was from the area to see if we could find it. When we went into a village and found some tea that seemed like it might be interesting, he would say ‘这款茶不会超标吧’ /This tea isn’t over the limit (for agro-chemicals) is it? ‘应该不会!’ / It ought not to be!’  was the typical response. With its element of doubt, it was all you needed to know.

But doubt is persistent. Despite the EU having an MRL for glyphosate of 2mg/kg, none of the main testing companies, as far as I can tell, includes Glyphosate in any standard testing package. As I’ve discussed before, it’s apparently because Glyphosate requires a different method of testing, so cannot be batch tested along with a slew of other agro-chemicals. So it’s fairly common, here at least, for people to claim their tea ‘meets European import standards’, but miss or omit the fact that Glyphosate is not on the list, as a guy I know did, proudly announcing that four of his teas had all passed the ‘欧盟标准/European standard test’ and were chemical free, but he had missed that Glyphosate was not on the list. (Actually, in order to economise he had mixed four teas together and tested them as one, thus further compromising the test, but that’s another story).

Old tree tea gardens near Yiwu

Old tree tea gardens near Yiwu

P.S.In doing some recent online reading I revisited the Greenpeace – Lipton tea story and realised that there too, Glyphosate was absent. I have tried writing to someone at Greenpeace to better understand that absence: was it that Glyphosate was not tested for, or that it was, and none was found. If that were the case, given the number of other chemicals the teas had in them, it would be news-worthy in itself.

For an earlier piece on Glyphosate plus links to additional reading see here


Weather Report


ancient tea tree in Bang Wai

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

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

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

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

bang wei tea in the snow

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

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.


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.










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.


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.

Conversations – On Picking Tea with Professor Chen


Like Picking Money from Trees III


the three standard formations for tea picking

I thought it would be interesting to get a more learned view on the issue of over-picking old tea trees. There’s always plenty of homespun logic available, but less easy to hear from the mouth of an academic, so I decided to get in touch with someone I’ve known for a year or so who’s just that: Professor Chen is on the staff at South China Agricultural University. He’s in the Tea Science Department.

I posed the question to him: When is an old tea tree over-picked?

His reply went pretty much like this:

‘On the problem over-picking tea trees, the main thing is to consider what is ‘appropriate’ picking. The aim of appropriate picking is to ensure a basis of a good, stable yield, to accomplish both ‘regular production’ and to ‘cultivate the tree’ – there is a paradox between the two.

The leaves of camelia sinensis are a vital organ which through the process of photosynthesis give the tree life. To maintain the trees strong vitality it is imperative to maintain stable, abundant foliage. The tree’s total leaf-surface area is an indices of its life-force.

At the same time, tips and young leaves are predominantly picked for tea production; appropriate picking practices can increase yield and also ensure the longevity of the tree. Accordingly, normal tea picking methods are to leave leaves on the tree. Research has clearly shown that if during spring picking a large leaf is left unpicked on the stem and in summer, the ‘fish’ or ‘milk’ leaf is left, it can improve both the quality and yield of the tree two years later.

Old tea tree gardens are somewhat different from plantations. They are less well managed and trees are more easily damaged. If through picking, the tree’s leaf area is reduced too much, i.e. too few leaves, it inevitably leads to early aging of the tree and in extreme cases, its death. Clearly, an appropriate degree of picking is important to maintain old tea tree gardens. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no scientific research reports on appropriate approaches to harvesting of old tea tree gardens.

He suggested:

1. Old tea trees should not be picked harshly, (that is to say, pick the tree clean – all leaves, irrespective of size – in one go). Each time the tree is picked, a portion of the leaves must be left on the tree.

2. In the spring, during the first and second flush, a large leaf should be left on the stem because June is the time when the tree will lose leaves. In the summer, a ‘milk’ leaf should be left and in autumn, again leave a large leaf.

3. Pick according to the condition of the trees foliage; if old leaves are few, leave more on the tree. If old leaves are plentiful, pick more. In times of drought of course more leaves must be left on the tree. The older the tree, the easier it is to damage its life-force, so it is even more important to leave a proportion of tips and leaves on the tree.

4. When a tree is old it is very easily affected by over-picking. The tree is past its most productive stage and is in a period of decline.

Further research needs to be conducted to understand how over-picking impacts the quality of old tree tea.’

Some people say that the of type approach suggested by professor Chen is not that easy for tea farmers to take on board, and a simpler approach of getting them to re-establish traditional practices in cases where they have been lost would be more effective and would have the same result. However, it’s not all tea farmers who have a lore of tea cultivation in their culture – and certainly not of commercial tea production.

So it’s clear, if not conclusive, that there is, or at the least, there is potential for, a problem. But not so clear how widespread the problem is or how to deal with it. It’s unlikely the regional government, even if it had the will to grasp the issue, would have the ability to police it. So the onus of responsibility is on the farmers and the people who buy their tea.

see here for earlier posts on over-picking tea:






Like Picking Money from Trees II

To try to understand the problem better, let’s first consider what the ‘norm’ is in order to understand what over-picking is.

Methods of picking tea:

To cut a long story short, there are four basic methods of picking that vary according to whether the intention is to maintain or encourage growth, according to season and prevailing weather, and the condition of the tree.

Typical leaf formations that are picked are tip and one, two, three and even four leaves. The leaves that are left on the plant affect growth; anything from 3 or 4 older leaves to a ‘milk’ leaf can be left on the tree.

Also, the age of the tree and the intention of the tea farmer further determine how the farmer picks the tree;  whether they pick high or low, the outer or inner leaves, strong or gently.

See the notes at the bottom of the post for more detail

Here are images from Yunnan Cha Shu Zai Pei Ji Shu (云南茶树栽培技术) showing the basic approaches to tea picking. The fourth approach discussed below uses a combination of the the following methods. Puer tea uses the same approach though typically with Puer tea there has been less rigorous adherence to these standards with tip and four leaves not being uncommon.


Normal black and green tea picking standard

Normal black and green tea picking standard

image of picking the top out of a tea tree stem method - leaving more mature leaves further down the stem

Picking the tops out of the stem

Leaving a 'fish' leaf or 'milk' leaf on the tree

Leaving a ‘fish’ leaf or ‘milk’ leaf on the tree

Tree Age, Season and Picking Frequency

Tea trees are generally defined by three phases: young, mature and old. Tea plants in their prime have vigorous growth and can be picked several times a year. The picking encourages further growth so, in this way, productivity can be increased. Borrowing liberally from Yunnan Tea Cultivation Techniques:

A tree that has reached maturity is in its prime. It has many branches and its foliage is plentiful. It has a well developed root system and a strong capacity to transpire. Its ability to photosynthesise is strong. At this stage a tree is at the height of its productive cycle, producing plentiful, quality tea leaves. At this point it is important to maintain the trees abundant foliage. In this phase of the trees life the tree can be picked more lightly (i.e. leaving more leaves on the tree) in the spring, pick more strongly in the summer, and in the autumn leave ‘milk’ leaves on the tree.

To maintain the trees foliage density, spring picking should leave the ‘milk’ leaf, summer, leave one large leaf, and in the autumn again leave the ‘milk’ leaf. At the same time as paying attention to the trees condition, ‘leave fewer leaves higher in the tree, more leaves lower. Leave more leaves on the outside of the tree, fewer in the middle.

Once a tree has reached an old age, it’s growth is less vigorous, it’s ability to photosynthesise is no longer at its peak and the tree becomes weaker. The trees organic compounds are reduced. ‘Chicken feet‘ branches begin to appear in the crown of the tree and new growth is weaker. Branches begin to die. At this stage, picking should be stopped for one or two seasons to allow the tree time to recuperate…..

Typically, tea bushes are generally picked three times in the spring, again in the summer, and then again in the autumn. Occasionally, also in winter or very early spring.

Mature tea trees are typically not picked in the winter, but are still often picked two or three times in the spring and again in the summer and autumn.

When a tree reaches an old age, it is accepted practice to reduce the number of times it is picked. In this way, an older tree may be picked once or twice in the spring and then again in the autumn. Though summer picking is often considered necessary to promote an autumn harvest. Trees in their ‘N’ hundreds of years may well only produce leaves in the spring, so are only picked once.

Clearly, appropriate-picking must take into account the season and age of the tree in order to preserve tree health.

From Yunnan Cha Shu Zai Pei Ji Shu

1. The aim of this method is to encourage growth in the crown of a bush or tree. This is typically used when plants are only a few years old. In this method, a stem is left till it has 5 or 6 leaves on it, or until it stops growing further leaves, and then the tip and two or three leaves are picked, leaving 3 or 4 older leaves still on the plant. Each flush is picked one or two times in the same way – picking the upper leaves, leaving the lower to encourage the plant to branch and produce more profuse foliage in the crown.

2. The second method is a combined approach. In this method, trees are left to grow till they have tips and 3 or 4 leaves, or sometimes tips and 4 or 5 leaves before picking, at which point, tip and two or three leaf formations are picked, leaving one or two mature leaves on the tree. The aim is twofold: to encourage growth and to harvest tea. The decision to leave one or two leaves is determined by the season and the strength of the plant.

3. The third method is in Chinese referred to as ‘Leaving a fish’ method because the tea picker leaves a small leaf on the tree which perhaps looks like a small fish. It is also referred to as ‘liu nai ye’ – leaving a ‘milk leaf’ method. This is the principal method used in picking many kinds of tea. Generally, picking is done when there are new tip and one, two or three leaf formations. The small ‘milk leaf’ is left on the tree.

It is typical to pick a bush ‘clean’ as if this is not done it will influence the following flush.

4. The last approach is to pick ‘according to local conditions’. This is understood as ‘whichever leaves sprout first, pick first, whichever leaves sprout later, pick later’. i.e. ‘Pick those leaves that have reached the standard (e.g. tip & one, two or three leaves), those that have not reached the standard, leave till the next phase of picking, those that have already passed the standard, pick according to the standard.’ Superfluous leaves are left on the tree. In this way, the tree is picked clean and there is an even distribution of both young and older leaves and whilst suiting the requirements of the tea farmer, picking is determined by the trees age, rate of growth, season, etc. In this way a tree can be picked many times in a year.

Autumn Tea – Flowers, Nuts & Yue Guang Bai

Autumn is the time for tea flowers and nuts.

tea fowers and fruit on old tea tree

This is an ancient tea tree near Shi Tou zhai near the old Nan Nuo Shan Cha Chang.

On the way, I dropped in on a tea farmer we work with who had made some yue guang bai. Made, in this case, from old tea trees Yue Guang Bai is shade dried and does not undergo any other processing.

white moonlight - yue guang bai drying

An inescapable sweet fragrance fills the work area where the tea has been drying. The tea is a little more astringent than spring harvest, but the fragrance is fine and the broth sweet. There is a little hint of fermentation, probably related to the slight oxidation that inevitably occurs during drying. This could be more or less, depending on   the weather.

autumn yue guang bai broth

The spent leaves look a little like black tea as there is inevitably some oxidation in the drying process.

yue guang bai leaves after steeping