Tag Archives: tea production

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’.


Nan Nuo Shan Dian Hong

I  was in Nan Nuo Shan yesterday where a friend of mine gave me some da shu black tea to try.

Nan Nuo Shan has a history of tea making. When Nan Nuo Shan Tea Factory was set up in the late 1930’s, it produced black and green tea, and in its heyday was producing hundreds of tonnes of tea a year, mostly for export. Although they planted large areas of tea trees, initially they made black tea from the old tea trees on the mountain which was, by all accounts, very good.

Fu Hai tea factory was set up later, also in Nan Nuo Shan. My friend worked there as a young man and learned the skills of tea making. He later was employed to teach new apprentices and was one of the first farmers in recent history in Nan Nuo Shan to start making his own tea: prior to that, the custom was for farmers to pick tea and then take the fresh leaves to the factory. Because of this, many farmers at that time had limited experience of making their own tea.

But making black tea is becoming quite popular in Nan Nuo Shan. My friend had made a couple of different batches. One we drank at his home, the other I tasted in Jinghong.

nan nujo shan black tea

It’s not the most beautiful Dian Hong – as Dan San says, there would be more tips in bush tea, but the leaves are impressive. Most people making tea in Nan Nuo Shan ferment it quite lightly. This is a little more heavily fermented. The dry leaves are still quite fragrant, but the flavour is deeper, stronger, more full bodied than typical Nan Nuo black tea.

It’s got what I think of as that kind of peppery sweetness which seems to typify Yunnan Dian Hong. Some hints of caramel and spices whose names don’t come to mind. The flavour is quite robust and has both some bitterness and a little astringence. The broth has that classic bright, golden – orange colour, but deepens somewhat on later steepings.

nan nuo shan black tea old tree dian hong broth

I was expecting this tea to be slightly more fragrant than the one we tasted in Nan Nuo Shan, but it was not obviously so. Muted, elusive, perhaps some hint of flowers, so it’s sweetness is the thing that stays with you – lasting for quite some time.

The leaves after a few steepings. As one can see, this is still not very heavily oxidised. The leaves are still very much intact and a testimony to the trees they came from.

nan nuo shan black tea broth after a long steepingAfter steeping for several  minutes, the broth darkened somewhat. It has nice clarity and lustre.

By the way, the small beaker above is Thai celadon, made in Chiang Mai using an ash glaze. They specialise in tableware and produce this quite ‘costaud’ style which feels very comfortable in the hand and is pleasant to drink from.


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


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…

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.

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

Water, Storage – and the importance thereof

This recent blog posting by discipleoftheleaf on one of our teas – Bulang Peak 2010 seems to bring home, apart from the fine palate and descriptive skills of the author, the importance of good tea storage, and the quality of water used for steeping.

Each time we send out tea, we continue to emphasise the importance of giving tea time to acclimatise to a new environment – in my experience, this typically takes around 3 weeks. So it makes sense, if the tea has arrived from anywhere with a climate that is different from one’s own, to wait at least a couple of weeks before even bothering to try it. There is always a handful of people who can’t wait, or don’t think it matters. But it does. And I think this is particularly true of more nuanced teas.

The importance of water quality is also fundamental. There is an essential choice to be made; find teas that suit your water, or find water to suit your tea.

There’s not much point in using water with significant amounts of dissolved solids, and along with that, probably quite high alkalinity on a complex, fragrant, nuanced tea. If one is set on water with a higher pH, better to seek out teas that work with that kind of water. Younger teas seem more fickle than older Puers which, with age, are more robust and tolerant of a wider range of conditions.