Well it's that time of year again. We've been having a lot of fun in Yunnan, sifting the good from the bad and trying to find some special teas to press and bring back to the UK.
Our cakes are (mostly) all pressed and we're almost ready to begin the annual preorder process. I've been looking back through my emails from last year to piece together names of those who'd asked to be included in previous years. I'll try to not to miss anyone, but if you'd like to receive information about the preorder process this year, please feel free to add you name to the subscription form below. Some of the teas are quite limited in quantity and usually sell out very quickly, so this process allows everyone to receive the information at the same time.
It seems there's no end of "Kings" of puerh tea trees. Every area seems to have it's own 'Cha Wang' (Tea King). The trees are big, old and invariably over picked. Their leaves sell for tens of thousand RMB/kg, sometimes hundreds of thousands so, despite all efforts to protect them, there's plenty of incentive for farmers to pick them under the cover of darkness.
[ Lao Banzhang / Nannuo / Bada Tea Kings ]
This year, in a bid to avoid the chemicals that are becoming more and more ubiquitous in famous mountains in Yunnan (more on that later), our travels took us to the Zhen Yuan area of Simao. This isn't an area famed for vast swathes of ancient tea gardens, like many of the mountains in Xishuangbanna, but they do have many ancient trees, and they do have good tea.
What really makes this area special though is the Wild tea trees, especially those close to the village of Qian Jia Zhai. We've been drinking a lot of wild puerh this year from different places, so we were curious to go and see these ancient trees.
As we travelled north from Puer (Simao) city, the rubber trees of Xishuangbanna were replaced by shining strips of plastic, covering the seedlings that make Yunnan the world capital (according to the local tourist board) of tobacco. It was interesting to note also the signs in Puer airport, which I imagine once advertised tea, were now proclaiming Puer (Simao) as being 'Capital of Coffee in China'. They had just hosted the World Barista Championship and I guess were keen to advertise this growing cash crop.
[ Tobacco Plantations in Simao ]
The roads seemed never-ending, but finally we arrived at Qian Jia Zhai at around 10pm & were delighted to see that it was a little bigger than most tea villages. They had a hotel, which we checked into, and we managed to find someone who'd still cook us some food at that time of night. Surrounded by curious locals, who'd had a stream of Koreans and Taiwanese visit, but were curious to see this 'golden haired' westerner, we managed to find out a bit of information about where the ancient trees were and unfortunately that we'd have to go to see the local government representative in the morning to get permission to go into this protected area.
[ Early morning in Qian Jia Zhai ]
In the morning, after an early morning stroll around the village to take some photos, we sat down for some noodles & discovered that we were sharing the table with the very same government representative that we needed to meet. He informed us that we needed to have already gotten a form stamped in the in the county town of Zhen Yuan (over an hours drive away), but he might be able to help us out - though no foreigners were allowed in. Thus ensued half an hour of petitioning on my behalf - 'I'd travelled so far to see the trees'/'I was trying to promote their local tea'/'I was a tea lover and of course would in no way harm their trees'. These requests seemed to win him over, but despite several calls to his superiors to see if an exception could be made, the response was still no.
Slightly disheartened, but accepting that nothing could be done, we drove to the end of the road and began the 2 hour ascent to the tea trees. The idea was that I could go half-way up the mountain, and wait by a waterfall while Kathy and our friend from Menghai continued up into the protected area to see the trees. I consoled myself with the thought that at least she would see it, and I'd be able to see the photos!
Time passed. I took a few photos of the waterfall, and a few more. I chatted to a few local people who were climbing the mountain - all of them bemused by the silliness of the bureaucracy. I drank some tea and looked at the view and patiently waited. Another group came climbing up and began to chat to me. They also couldn't understand why I had climbed half-way up the mountain but couldn't go further & encouraged me to join them. I explained that the government official in town had told me that I couldn't go. One of them picked up his phone, talked for a minute in local dialect, then told me not to worry - he outranked the official in town and would be happy to bring me up the mountain - of course I should come and see their King of tea trees. I had come all this way after all!!
And so I joined my new group of climbing companions. They consisted of several foresters, working in the protected area, a couple of government officials and several journalists writing for Puer Magazine (a Chinese publication). We continued our journey up and all of a sudden the scenery changed. The rocky, dry mountainside was replaced with lush forest. There were shady glades with the river flowing gently though and beautiful plant-life. I could see immediately why this was a protected area.
There were a few tea trees, 6-8m tall, then some more - even bigger, then more…. and more. I was amazed - I'd seen tall wild tea trees before, but never anything of this size. They must have been ~20m tall, with 100cm girths - and not just a few, there were a lot of them, the bigger ones numbered and recorded.
[ glade /group / trees / trees ]
[ Scenery and wild tea trees inside the protected area ]
We continued on - all of us, apart from the foresters, out of breath and needing to stop every now and again to rest. The 2400m altitude combined with the long steep climb was taking it's toll on all of us. I was glad that the unfit government officials and journalists were with us, so that it wasn't just me and the foresters - who looked that they could have jogged backwards up the hill without breaking sweat. As the climb grew steeper, our small group spread out according to levels of fitness. I tried to put some extra effort in to keep near the front, slightly out of a little pride about not wanting to be a westerner slowing down the group, but moreso to outpace one of the journalists who seemed to be burdened with distinct inability to enjoy even a moment of silence and who had fixated his verbal attention on repeatedly telling me how he didn't really like British and American people (because of Iraq/Afghanistan etc.), but that I seemed ok and that he would make an exception for me. Needless to say, after a few rounds of this conversation I widened my stride, preferring a little extra burning pain in my leg muscles to more of his rant.
The King of Trees
At last we neared the end of the trail. There was a small (vacant) guard's hut, a shabby barbed wire fence that couldn't have kept out very much at all and a couple of signs prepping us with information about the as-yet unseen 'No 1 Tea King' and prohibiting us from drawing on the tree.
I don't know what to say about the 'No.1 Tea King'. The signs have told you all the factual information, and the photos capture some of the majesty of the tree better than any words. Perhaps I'll just leave you with the pictures...
And to finish it all - lunch and an impromptu concert in the foresters' hut.
As the winter comes to a close, we're in the midst planning our Spring trip to Yunnan to source and press our 2013 Puerh tea cakes. This season always leaves us a little stretched - both financially & also in terms of space in our storeroom once the boxes of tea begin arriving back to the UK.
To prepare for this, we've decided to offer a sale of some of our previous year's puerh teas. This offers a good chance for those wishing to stock up on these teas, to not only have a discount on last year's prices, but also to buy before we reach the usual price increases each Spring.
Until the end of March, our 2010 & 2011 cakes are available with a 20% discount and our 2012 Qishenggu and Baotang cakes with 10% discount.
Click the picture above to view the sale page on our website.
We've been meaning to buy some more of these magazines for a while. They are one of the very few publications in English that deal with Chinese tea in any real depth & we're happy to be able to offer them.
We've just restocked most of the old issues and we also have issues 11,12 & 13 of The Art of Tea.
I haven't had a chance to sit down to read them properly yet, but I can very much recommend Issue 11 for those interested in Liu Bao tea.
Unfortunately our last shipment of Yixing teapots took a bit of a bashing and there were three more pots with broken spouts. I've tidied up the spouts and one of these is available for free with each order over £100. Just add the pot to your order using this link:
Well, it hasn't been quick & I've been living in fear of having the unfired clay pots damaged, but we've finally managed to get Master Zhou's Yixing teapots fired. He made each of these in less than a couple of hours during his talks in the UK - the first in Postcard teas in London, then the second in the Leach Pottery in St Ives. Thanks again to Matthew Tyas for the Youtube video of the second pot being made.
Special thanks to Michel Francois for firing them - I know he was dreading anything going wrong during the firing, but I think they've come out really rather well.
We had a small shipment of teapots arrive from Yixing today. Inside were some small Shui Ping pots and some Xian Piao pots made by apprentices of Master Zhou. Upon unwrapping, my heart sank as I heard the tell-tale tinkling sound of broken clay. At final count, it turned out that three of the Xian Piao pots had damaged spouts.
I was packing them back into their boxes, wondering what to do with them, when it occurred to me that maybe they could still be a good teapot for someone new to tea. After all they would still brew tea well and, while the pour wouldn't be perfect, the clay was still good and they would be better than many other pots one could end up with.
A short while with a Dremel later, and the pots now have flattened spouts, of varying lengths. These are available for free with orders over £100. Just add them to your shopping cart here: Edit: These have all gone now.
The culmination of several weeks of planning, tasting, bank transfers and email writing, I'm very excited to introduce a range of puerh teas of a very high standard. Over the past year we've been trying to find some good ancient tree puerh to offer for our website. We've been tasting many samples from many producers, but none of them have displayed the depth of character and adherence to quality across the board as those from Mr. Feng.
We first met Mr. Feng a couple of years ago in Yunnan. We bought a few cakes from him at the time and were impressed with the quality, but we forgot about them until recently when going through tasting some old cakes in our collection. Mr Feng's cakes were outstanding and we contacted him again to see if he had any of his back-catalogue of pressings still available for sale. Fortunately he did & sent us a box of samples to taste. We have selected our favourite four from these and are now very pleased to offer them for sale to tea lovers in the West.
You can find Mr. Feng's pressings in the Young Puerh section of our website
We asked Mr. Feng if he would be happy to write a little about himself for our website. He provided the following:
I began my tea business in 1998. From that time I had the intention always to be honest to my customers and to keep a high standard of quality of my teas. I knew this was going to be a difficult path, but it seems like the only way to do tea business successfully. Around the year 2000 I met a Taiwanese tea business person who advised me that to continue in the long term I needed to strike a good balance, making a reasonable and steady profit, but also selling the tea at a price that the customer thinks is reasonable for the quality of the tea. He advised me not to look at the short term profit, but plan for the longer term. At that time I couldn't understand it because I was too young, or hadn't thought carefully enough about it. After many years, I've come to realise that this advice made sense, so I started to plan ahead for my business and make sure the quality matched the price.
From my understanding, to engage successfully in the tea business, you need to have an honest heart and let the customer taste the pure original flavour from the leaves. Puer tea doesn't just belong to Yunnan, or even to China, but to the whole world. It's much nicer to share with other people rather than keep this for ourselves.
Over the years Mr Feng has pressed his puerh tea under several different brands. In 2010 he began to use the name "Shang Yuan Cang" for his teas.
"Shang" alludes to previous generations, a reminder that these ancient tea trees have been passed down from the ancestors of the minorities of Yunnan and that the people today should remember their kindness and take care of this gift. "Yuan" is an abbreviation referring to 'original natural environment'. Good quality tea has to be grown in a natural, pure environment. If we don't protect our natural environment all the good things will disappear someday.
When I communicate with the tea farmers in the mounains & explain my thoughts and the meaning of my brand. Some of them can't understand, some others try to find a shortcut and go against the natural environment, using pesticides and fertilisers to try to make the ancient trees to produce more leaves but they don't know that this way will cause the ancient tree to die and will destroy the environment around the ancient tree. This is how the oldest tree in Nannuoshan died previously. Some people have visited the tea mountains in recent years, calling themselves experts. They bring a lot of ideas, but after the farmers use these ideas, the environment is just getting worse and worse. This has ruined many places & I've had to abandon making tea from a lot of tea mountains.
The third character 'Cang' refers to 'hide'. Good teas are hidden, as if behind clouds. To taste good tea is not easy, we need to have a heart, always with appreciation for the people providing us with the good tea, like our farmers. I have been telling the farmers not to use any chemicals, don't keep using fertiliser, pesticides and weed killer. Don't keep destroying the natural environment. Every year I go to visit the tea farmers in the mountain, I keep offering to them that if they don't know how to hand-fry the tea, they can ask me, I will share my knowledge with them. I also learned to hand-fry tea from some farmers with very good skill. I said to those farmers "I can never fry tea better than you because you are frying many days of the year, but what I can share is my opinion on the taste of tea & the quality of the dry leaves. These are the areas in which I do have some experience."
Below are some of Mr. Feng's photos from his visits to the various tea mountains that the cakes we offer are sourced from. Click on the pictures for a high resolution gallery.
Over the past couple of weeks we've been tasting some puerh samples from a producer in Yunnan. The samples were from teas he has pressed over the past 5 years and the quality has been outstanding in general. The quality of the teas and my satisfaction in drinking them has made me think about what it is exactly that makes a good tea. This is a personal thing and not everyone shares the same list of criteria, or with the same weighting, but I thought it might be useful to write a little about some of those that affect our selection of teas.
- This is the number one and is the make or break for any given tea. It makes really very little sense to drink it if it's going to harm your body. Once you get a feeling for identifying them in a tea and recognising the effects, it's not very comfortable to drink that tea any more anyway. Signs to look for are a tingling or numbing sensation on the tip of the tongue or the lips. Also paying attention to the throat is a useful habit - notice how the throat feels before beginning to drink the tea, notice how easy it is to swallow some saliva in the mouth. After drinking a tea with agro-chemicals, the throat will often constrict, making it more difficult to swallow or even painful to swallow in more extreme cases. Unfortunately once you've got a feeling for this it makes the vast majority of teas in the market almost totally undrinkable.
2. Body Feel
- It should leave the body feeling comfortable upon drinking it. It should not make the mouth, throat or stomach uncomfortable, rough or with a scratchy feeling.
- It should have no off flavours from storage, processing etc. It should be pure and not tainted with any foreign matter. The flavour should be pure and clean and the natural flavours of the tea should be able to shine through.
4. Mouth feel/Throat Feel
- The tea should be full and rich in the mouth. It should be satisfying to drink in the same way that a good mushroom or chicken soup will be full bodied and rich in the mouth. It should coat the mouth and throat with an oily layer, leaving a lasting flavour and full sensation.
- This is more subtle, but an important factor in our choosing of teas. It is also related to body feel, but also affects the mind. It should leave the body and mind feeling comfortable and relaxed or energised in a pleasant way, quite different from the effects of caffeine.
6. Flavour & Aroma
- the most obvious aspects of a tea. It is important that it has a nice flavour and aroma. This is fairly easy to understand and quite shallow in one way. On a more complex level, one can pay attention to how the flavour transforms in the mouth and throat, how any bitter notes change and leave a lasting sweetness, also how long the flavour lasts and whether it induces saliva, bringing a long sweetness into the mouth.
All of these aspects are important and I'd weight them in roughly the order that I listed them. For many people, at beginning their tea journey, and even for some people who have been drinking tea for many years, some of these criteria are not obvious.
The agrochemicals for one is a big thing. Many people think that the tingling they're experiencing in their mouth or the numbing of their tongue is a good thing. This is only too obvious from a quick scan of many of the tea review blogs on the internet. Paying attention more and more in this area will really open up a new awareness, not only in your tea drinking, but also in everyday life. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for your body) it's going to make enjoying a lot of things more and more difficult - you'll begin to notice it in lots of non-organic fruit and vegetables, chocolate, coffee and a whole host of other foods and drinks. If one tends to eat a lot of non-organic food, your mouth and body can become numb to it, so it might be worth buying some organic veg and having a few days off the pesticides, fertilisers and weed-killers to give your body a chance to normalise. The difference then becomes all the more obvious.
It's not really a choice between choosing organic or non-organic, it's more about gaining the ability to differentiate tea (or food) that is contaminated with chemicals from those that are grown naturally. Some ingestion of chemicals is unavoidable in this modern world, especially if one wishes to have a balanced lift, but minimising this and gaining an awareness for it can only be a good thing.
The presence or absence of agro-chemicals is the first one, and the big one for us. The others cascade roughly in order of importance. It's interesting when looking at this list and thinking about my priorities for a tea - I think towards the beginning of my tea journey my intuitive list would almost have been in the opposite order. As a newcomer to tea, the aroma and flavour were the most obvious and the most important aspects. Although it's not the case for everyone, in the beginning I found it relatively easy to be aware of the qi of good teas, though it takes a while to appreciate them in a more balanced way. Mouth feel and moreso throat feel were less apparent - in Asia these characteristics of good food and drink seem to be more highly prized and explicitly thought about than in the West, but once you begin to think about these more and more, you'll notice these characteristics in good food/drink/tea everywhere. Cleanliness is apparent, but one really has to get to know a tea or type of teas before able to accurately pinpoint what is a natural flavour of the tea and what is a storage problem or processing problem. With bodyfeel I look back at the teas that I was drinking when I started and am pretty shocked. Some of them are pretty terrible really & they must have been making me very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, through inexperience or lack of understanding or attention, I carried on, not realising that it didn't need to be like that.
These are just a few of the major points that are important for us, but when tasting teas they are some points which might be helpful to keep in mind.
We had a great time with Master Zhou and Master Lim during their recent visit. They stayed in the UK for 2 weeks, first in London for a week, then retreating to the seaside for a week in Cornwall. Since Master Zhou's visa for the UK wasn't approved until a couple of days before he was due to arrive, we hadn't been able to arrange a demonstration in Cornwall, but with some last minute planning the Leach Pottery in St. Ives offered us some space and were eager to see Master Zhou at work.
Our plans to video the events in London in decent quality fell through, but fortunately someone turned up with a camera and tripod to record the demonstration in the Leach Pottery. Apologies for the quality and strange camera angle, but I thought it was worth posting online for those who are interested. Master Lim's commentary also makes for a very educational experience. I hope you enjoy it.