Puerh tea in 2014 – News from the mountains

Ancient Puerh Tea Garden in Mengsong

Ancient Puerh Tea Garden in Mengsong

We’ve been in Yunnan for the past couple of weeks & been travelling to a few different mountains, drinking some teas, chatting to folk and trying to get a feeling for the situation this spring. Each year the tea market seems a little stranger than before, but this year it seems to have taken a seismic jump in strangeness. The tea price has shot up pretty much everywhere. The famous areas are commanding ever more insane prices, and there seem to be more and more people travelling to the tea mountains… both tea tourists, who drive to the mountains and bring back a few kg of tea as a souvenir and businessmen, new to tea, but intent on making a lot of money. Both of these types of people drive up the price. The tourists have travelled to the mountains and don’t want to leave empty-handed, and the businessmen, hungry for profits who want some ‘Lao Banzhang’ or ‘Bingdao’ no matter what the price (or quality it seems!).

Picking ancient puerh tea trees in Mangzhi

Picking ancient tea trees in Mangzhi

While in Menghai last week, we bumped into a farmer from Lao Banzhang we’ve known since 2010. We stayed in his house in 2011 and, despite not buying their tea, we’ve always found him friendly and surprisingly frank about village life there. When we met him, he was in Menghai for a couple of days – he said to escape the hecticness of the village. From his account, there is a fairly constant stream of 4×4’s turning up to buy tea. He estimated that many families in the village have a daily turnover of around £200,000 at the moment. How accurate or not this is, I don’t know, but if it’s anywhere remotely approaching that, there’s a serious amount of money going through that small village.

When we asked him if he thought the situation in Lao Banzhang was sustainable, he conceded that it probably wasn’t, though at the moment he’d invested in property in Menghai and Lijiang and had saved quite a bit of money. He said that if the demand for Lao Banzhang tea were to crash tomorrow, he’d still have enough for the next couple of generations of his family to live comfortably. He lamented the loss of much of the community spirit in the village though – before everyone became cash rich there was a tight-knit community, who’d work together and help each other. Now, outside of each immediate family group, there is less cooperation and if you need help with something from your neighbours you’ll often be expected to pay them some money.

Picking ancient tea trees in Mangzhi

Fresh buds in Mengsong

We made a couple of trips to some mountains that were new to us, mostly for the purposes of taking some video and documenting the production process of puerh. We visited some lovely unspoilt tea gardens in Mengsong, deep in a protected forest area with very old trees growing naturally. The trees were just beginning to sprout buds, so there hadn’t been much tea produced from this garden yet this spring, but the little we did try was excellent. I have high hopes for this tea garden & hopefully we’ll be able to press some tea from there this Spring. We also visited Gedeng and Mangzhi, where I hadn’t been before.

Tea Garden & puerh tea processing in Mengsong

Tea Garden & processing in Mengsong

Elsewhere, it’s been a bit of a difficult time. It seems more and more forest is being burnt and cleared for rubber and bananas at lower elevations. Higher in the mountains, in the tea gardens, the signs of agrochemicals are everywhere – whether obvious from just looking at the tea garden, or from tasting the produced tea. Since they were so pervasive in the teas we tried last year, it’s difficult to tell whether their use is increasing or not.

Rubber rubber everywhere

Cleared hillsides, now planted only with rubber trees

We have also been noticing many tea gardens where the soil has been turned. This allows the farmers to control the weeds effectively & encourages the tea trees to sprout more buds, but at the expense of the thickness and richness of the tea leaves. It also risks harming the tea tree in the long term through regular disturbance of the beneficial bacteria within the rhizosphere. When we asked one farmer in Mangzhi about this though she replied that whether the tea is rich or not is an issue for the tea drinkers – her job is just to grow the leaves. When the price is reasonably fixed and the teas all sell whether they are excellent or not, it’s easy to see things from her point of view.

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Tea Garden in Gedeng – The soil has been turned & the ancient trees look dull, weak and overpicked

Reflecting on my own writings and experiences in the tea mountains & wonder if I’m overly pessimistic or critical. Plenty of other visitors to the mountains seem to have lovely experiences & find good tea everywhere. Maybe we have different expectations, or maybe I’ve become jaded in the short few years we’ve been making tea, but I find it difficult to have much to be hopeful about. There are still good tea gardens in places and an overwhelming majority of lovely & very kind people in the mountains. I think perhaps a lack of education about the dangers of agrochemicals, influence from visiting outsiders, a sudden influx of newfound wealth and accompanying temptations doesn’t bode well for many of the tea regions. I often wonder how long we’ll be able to find pure puerh tea for.

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Boy near Menghai

Spring is here

It’s that season again… I’m packing up my bags and about to set off for Yunnan again. I’ve spent the past few weeks drinking through the teas we’ve pressed over the past five years, trying to glean whatever experience I could from them. In general they seem to be ageing well. A couple of them seem to have emerged from a bit of a slump that they were in for a year or two. A couple have become a little thin, but I’m pretty happy overall… especially that our tastes and abilities to choose tea seem to be improving year on year.

Kathy’s been in Yunnan for the past week, catching up with her family and making some arrangements for our trip to the mountains. We hope to do some filming when we’re there and post some videos here on our blog. I think in this digital age, it’s really nice to be able to make some videos & help share our experiences in the tea mountains with those who will drink the teas.

I’ve been hanging on in the UK waiting for a shipment of teapots to arrive. They’ve finally turned up & I’ve spent the day checking & photographing them and listing them on our website. You should be able to see them on our Yixing Teapots page.

Yixing Teapot

Hopefully by this time next week I’ll be in the tea mountains!

A Journey With Liu Bao – A talk by Master Lim Ping Xiang

I’ve had this video for a while, of a talk that Lim Ping Xiang gave in Kunming last spring in a small teahouse in Kunming. One of the regulars in the teahouse filmed it and gave me a copy of the video. Kathy & I worked a bit over the Christmas period and subtitled the video.

There’s really not a lot of information about Liu Bao tea available online, especially in English, and not many people more qualified to talk about it than Master Lim. I hope this video proves useful for tea drinkers in the West.


Handmade Wuyi Yancha – Master Huang in Chinese TV documentary

I thought I’d share this documentary showing Master Huang and his sons making Wuyi Yancha. His eldest son (Shen Hui) gives much of the commentary, but Master Huang can be seen with his sons, workers and some of their old trees from 35:00 to 38:50. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles, and there doesn’t seem to be any way that I could add subtitles, but please find below a brief translation of the relevant section. For those who speak Chinese, the rest of the documentary is also very interesting.

http://jishi.cntv.cn/special/djsb/cha/index.shtml

walking

34:52 (voice-over) – Of all teas, oolong tea has the most pronounced fragrance. Wuyi yancha is a type of semi-fermented oolong tea. Today, the highest grade of Wuyi yancha is called Da Hong Pao. This name originated from six trees located behind ‘Tian Xin Yong Le’ (Heaven’s heart) Temple.

35:26 – Each year, during the tea harvest, the tea pickers wake up at dawn and hike for over two hours to the tea gardens.

bushes2

35:34 (Huang Shen Hui) – In Wuyi Mountains, the best quality teas are located in the area known as ‘San Ken Liang Jian’ (Three Peaks, Two Valleys). The tea growing within this area is of a very high quality. The time that the sun hits the leaves for is short, and the leaves grow thick. When brewed, the tea from this area is very full and rich. These bushes are growing deep in the mountains, isolated from the rest of the world like monks practising in retreat, meditating in this peaceful environment. These teas have this kind of feeling.

36:07 (voice-over) – At the end of a day of hard work, the tea pickers carry the leaves for over two hours back to the processing studio. Tian Xin village’s Huang Shen Hui’s [family] still use traditional methods to make Handmade Da Hong Pao.

rollfry

36:20 (Huang Shen Hui) – In Wuyi Mountains, we speak of three factors that need to be in balance when making tea; the geographical environment, the processing environment and the people. When these three factors come together in harmony, it is possible to make very good tea. One needs a good environment for growing the tea, the best people to process the tea and the best environment to process it in.

yaoqing

36:43 (Huang Shen Hui) – Yao Qing (shaking the leaves) is a very technical process. When the water content of the leaves is correct the edges of the leaves will slightly redden due to the beginning of oxidation.

During Sha Qing (the kill green stage) the wok reaches temperatures over 200°C. If not careful, your hands will blister.

When rolling, we use baskets with pronounced edges, and the manner resembling the practice of Tai Qi. Your hands need to be quite flexible, moving left to right, right to left to curl the leaves. To curl the leaves you use internal strength.

High-quality tea needs slowly roasted at a low temperature. We use charcoal to roast slowly for 20 hours.

shaking

37:33 (voice-over) – The highest grades can be roasted nine times. At the end of the process, the dry leaves are light, smooth to touch, with a gentle sheen. The leaves resemble a Loach [long thin fish], giving rise to the name “fired Loach” (泥鳅火).

tasting

37:48 (Huang Shen Hui) – When tasting Wuyi Tea, we taste noisily to complement the tea. This is ‘Cuo Cha’ (slurping the tea). Slurping the tea allows the tea to reach each part of your mouth. The strengths and weaknesses of the tea will become apparent on the surface of the tongue.

38:11 (voice-over) – Each year, Huang Shen Hui will bring this season’s handmade Da Hong Pao for the Abbot of Heaven’s Heart monastery to taste.

sifu

37:48 (Huang Shen Hui) – In earlier times, we lived inside the mountains in an area called ‘Shui Lian Dong’, very close to Heaven’s Heart Temple. Afterwards, I ended up living in the temple for six years.

38:26 (Abbot) – We’re grateful to everyone who drinks our tea, they make us who we are.

38:35 (Huang Shen Hui) – This experience gave me another feeling about tea. When I returned from the monastery, I made the determination that I would like to spend my whole life with tea.

The most expensive Puerh Tea?

The prices achieved in Chinese tea auctions for antique puerh teas never cease to amaze me. Like with wine or whiskey, it seems there is almost no limit to the prices that some people will pay for the rarest of the rare.

The most expensive puerh tea

A friend sent me a link this morning to a recent Chinese tea auction. Included in it was a tong of FuYuanChang puerh tea from the early 1900s. The price achieved for this 2060g of tea was just over £1 million (1.7 million USD). At over £500 a gram, a pot of this tea would set you back around £4000.

The prices aside, these teas are really something special. There is something that happens to ancient tree puerh tea when aged for 50–100 years that even the most sceptical of critics would find hard to deny. The flavours and sensations become more and more elegant, and the qi becomes ever more refined and powerful. It’s an incredible experience, but whether it’s worth the asking price is another matter and one for each buyer to decide for themselves.

Unfortunately, for us tea drinkers of more modest means, the market prices of less expensive aged puerh teas are linked to these flagship antique teas. The price of Song Ping will be a percentage of the price of FuYuanChang. 1950s Red Mark will be a percentage of the price of Song Ping, Blue Mark and Yellow Mark a percentage of the price of Red Mark and so on. These record prices for flagship antique puerh cakes spell bad news for lovers of puerh tea as the more moderately aged cakes rise in price in proportion to the rise in prices of these antique cakes.