Ma’ley A Disappearing Naxi Tradition of Tea Preparation

Lijiang’s long role in Yunnan province as a kind of ‘in-between’ market town of colour, flare, copper, and leather has given way to the ways of modern tourism. During the times of trade (more than a thousand years of it) the Tibetans referred to it as the happy market town of ‘Sadem’. All manner of goods could be acquired and all manner of men and women transported these goods. Go-between towns had a bit of swagger about them, a bit of mystery and tea was being passed through it in huge amounts.

The indigenous Naxi were nomads who moved into the Lijiang valley, finding peace, fertile grounds, and a safe haven from harassing Tibetans and other ethnic groups. The Naxi, their culture, language, and even their tea has been of the ‘middle ground’ with traditions that have reflected (but not entirely copied) the traditions of the borderlands around them.

My own time in Lijiang’s ‘evolved’ pandemonium of close to 6 million domestic tourists a year, I’ve found a nook of Naxi culture that reflects a little more authentic culture and a little less frenetic pace…and a tradition of serving tea that I can well imagine disappearing in no time.

West of Lijiang, I sit next to a young woman who simply calls herself No’la. Around me, lean ‘mountain’ chickens strut about in a kind of hyper-active state, amidst sun flower seed shells and dust. Skies above are bolt blue and the air has the clean cold wafts that are carried from the nearby Hengduan Mountains, which act as an entry point to the eastern Himalayas. The Tea Horse Road had passed within these regions on its long and daunting journey northwest into the Himalayas. We are not far from the huge spires and altitudes of the great mountains. While the tea leaves themselves varied little amid this part of Yunnan, the methods of mixing and consuming them did.

No’la has a kind of typically local ‘shy-but-proud’ spirit about her as she explains one of the tea world’s very rare tea concoctions whose proponents and preparers are fast disappearing. No’la explains carefully that “youth don’t take much interest in Naxi culture”, and rather prophetically tells me “this tea tradition will die out soon”. Though not yet 30, No’la speaks with the jaded gravity of an elder who has already seen the signs. She sits crushing hemp seeds (which grow almost casually here in northwest Yunnan) with a mortar and pestle. Around her are a number of other incredible ingredients besides hemp seeds that will be added to this ‘tea’ mix: peanuts, a massive chunk of butter, egg, salt, a bowl of ground chilli peppers, and dried tea leaves.

Hemp Seeds ground for Ma'ley Tea

An unlikely addition to tea: hemp seeds sit ready to be ground.

This Naxi tradition of tea preparation is known as Ma’ley, and though it reminds me a little of the fiercely potent Tibetan butter tea preparations, it is something entirely unto itself, with far more ingredients to enter into the equation. Though my palate has long preferred simple un-processed teas, this little harmony of additions hints at something curious and wonderful.

No’la’s small frame belies a pair of powerful hands. Her movements are slow, methodical and entirely ‘crushing’. After her crushing of the hemp seeds, the peanuts then get the same treatment being carefully pulverized until they too are nothing but a fine-grain pile of dust. The peanuts are then put into a separate bowl. All of this ‘work’ reminds me of one of tea’s innate bits of timeless value: one needs time to prepare it, time to consume it, and in this there can be no substitutes. The very number of ingredients here in particular seems to enhance this ‘ancient’ and timeless wisdom. I wait.

Peanuts ground with hemp seeds for tea

Both hemps seeds and peanuts get round up for Ma'ley. Both add both caloric and medicinal aspects to an already 'busy' tea.

The Tibetans have long been proponents of the ‘tea as food’ ideal. Butter, barley powder and even salt have been added to create a liquid caloric masterpiece, perfect to replace what is lost and sate thirsts in the highest of highlands.

This concoction before me emphasizes this notion that tea can be a base from which to work from. Entirely necessary but also only ‘one amid many flavours’. Hemp, long known as a medicine and relaxant for locals; peanuts adding a bit of protein; butter, the calories; salt to rehydrate; and egg for a little more of a ‘protein addition’…and then of course the crowing bit of beauty: the tea itself.

Around this little space that No’la and I occupy, along with all of the ingredients, women from the local town (which is a mix of both Naxi and Bai indigenous peoples) pass by, taking little glimpses at the action. Perhaps they too have already forgotten the preparation of this Ma’ley.

No’la has all of the ingredients in various bags and containers – a veritable plethora of this region’s old world items. A dog passes by, wags a bored tale and after seeing nothing of interest moves on in search of something more substantial. Evidently, this Ma’ley holds little interest.

A small bag of locally grown tea sits as though reminding that this preparation is still about tea, regardless of how many other ingredients are lined up waiting for the ‘plunge’. My wait continues

Hemp and peanuts, ground down and at the ready wait as No’la readies the wooden cylinder that I’m more familiar with for Tibetan butter tea. Peanuts, hemp, chili peppers, butter are all put in. Amounts are rough guesses rather than anything precise. Nearby a kettle burbles its little song and a copper tea pot has dried tea leaves put into it.

Dried white tea leaves

Vital and eternal - tea leaves are added to a kettle and will be prepared on the side before being added to the main ingredients.

No’la is now smiling as she works and pulls this masterpiece of tea diversity together. Such is the range of ingredients that I cannot fathom what this eccentric band of ingredients will create…

As I continue to watch, tea in this Ma’ley form seems to blend into a mix that is medicine, food, stimulant, and ceremony all at once. Here as the altitudes begin to climb, tea’s purpose becomes an all-conquering source of caloric fuel. It becomes far more than simply a liquid result infused with tea’s life-giving properties; it becomes a more efficient version of an “all-in-one”.

Once water has boiled it is poured into the copper kettle with the awaiting tea leaves eager to add their own wonderful stain into this blend. The amount of tea leaves (a rough handful) ensures that its bitter blessings will not be wiped out by the various additions but rather serve to add some bite.

Then, the kettle with tea is placed atop a burner and brought to a boil for a few minutes. The tea becomes more of a powerful stew, and then – and only then – is it added to the cylinder of hemp, peanuts, and a smidgen of the chili peppers. No’la uses the plunger to gently bludgeon the mixture together. A glob of butter, and some salt are added. Again the plunger does its work forcing the ingredients together. At last, the final addition – two raw eggs that were collected this very morning – is ready. Quickly and without a fuss the eggs are broken and they too are mixed in.

Wooden cylinder of hemp, peanuts, and a smidgen of the chili peppers

Strong tea is poured through a strainer into the main cylinder which contains all of the rest of the ingredients of this 'smorgasbord' of elements.

I wonder how much more the cylinder can handle in terms of ingredients. It gurgles and chortles as No’la relentlessly plunges the ingredients into…I don’t know what. It is a grand and almost monstrous alchemic experiment that has me entirely enthralled.

No’la continues her production by presenting up homemade bread patties in preparation for the first sip. I care not for the well-meaning ‘solid’ food. I only care that at long last I might sip or eat of this wonderful mess. She allows a smile to reach her mouth. The Naxi, like their distant cousins the Mosuo and the Yi people practice matrilineal ownership, so that property is inherited or passed down through the mother’s line. Women here traditionally have had much say in a family’s affairs and No’la’s power and pride have worked towards this moment.

A large bowl that is frothy, chunky, and strangely ‘fluid’ is poured out with No’la’s expression appearing almost motherly. She tells me simply to drink. It has always impressed and humbled that so much time and effort can be put into something, only to consume the result in quick seconds.

Butter tea Naxi style

Butter tea with the addition of ground hemp seeds, ground peanuts, salt and even raw egg is added to the main tea kettle for a 're-heating'.

The sip is more tentative than forceful. Texture isn’t something I normally worry about but the addition of raw eggs have made the strangely wonderful taste seem like a secondary effect. Another taste…all has come together and become something else, something with all of effects but none of the particularities of the ingredients. It is a masterpiece in that in such a short time, all elements have contributed to the taste. It is also a credit to No’la that it has worked. The result feels more ‘mealish’ than it does ‘liquidish’. The hemp and peanuts have added a layer of nuttiness without taking over and the butter has acted as an adhesive in the blend soothing all sharp tastes and providing a kind of backbone. And of course the tea leaves – simple green leaves of the small leaf varietal – have done what they always do: inject some bitter green.

No’la sips her own bowl satisfied, without me having uttering the slightest word. She knows it is something very special, this Ma’ley.

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Master Cheng: The Man of the Song Tea

A Hong Kong original opens his vaunted doors and prepares an ancient tea

Legends often have that quality of being in plain site, of being unremarkable in almost every possible way….that is until one meets them and is treated to exactly why the legend is in fact legendary. Whether it be a performance, an ability, or simply because they are something unique, singular, and charismatic these legends do still remain often in their own little realms.

Song Tea - roasted Oolong

Before we drink, tea leaves begin in their whole leaf form, after which they are ground, and then boiled along with the water.

Fresh off of a 16-hour flight and arriving to green torrents of rain from above, Hong Kong’s New Territories seems like wet streaks of road and grey skies of which I see through a film of humidity. I’m on my way to an appointment with a legend of the tea world; a legend who doesn’t simply run a tea shop and wax eloquently about tea, or grow the tea trees. Cheng Yu Hung is a man that one mast ‘reserve’ time to see and a man that not simply anyone can see, meet, or drink with. It isn’t that he is snobby, or an elitist, but rather because like legends the world over, he isn’t always in the mood to be appreciated nor I suspect does he actually want to see just anyone. I’m honored that this is even happening, though I feel jet-lag like a cement weight in the mind and the need for tea is upon me in a huge way.

My guide Miss Tsao knows our resident master and is one of a few who has been a guest to Master Cheng’s creative masterpiece sessions and passions as they relate to tea. She is in so many ways the necessary link and these legends all need their links to the outside world.

Arriving to a small lane off of Sham Hong Road, I am a soggy, blurry-eyed mess who needs a jolt of tea to convince the body that it isn’t jet-lagged at all. We are expected and the door to Master Cheng’s shop is open in the humid air. Rain continues to pound and we arrive under dark skies just before the manic dinner hour (which in Hong Kong takes ‘intense’ into a new direction, so frantic it is). This is perhaps not the time to need a dose of bitter green given that we are about to meet a master, but there is little concern as what better way to sate a thirst than with a master?

It doesn’t take long to find, and Miss Tsao is a blur as she races out of the rain to the sliding glass door and disappears inside. Two shops wide the Cheng Kee Store is nothing less than a colorful chaos of the very highest and most wonderful order. Buddhist chanting music is cranked so loud that the very idea of savoring the smooth relaxing mantras has been blown away by sheer volume. But, there in the flesh, tilted backwards on a wide wooden chair with a thatch of thick hair is the master himself. Master Cheng has a nickname, “Samadhi Tea Man” – Samadhi being the feeling of completely clear consciousness that comes after a meditation. I quickly reinterpret this as a clarity that comes with huge amounts of tea, served well, and served often.

Getting up he limps over and shakes hands and welcomes me in slow English and then in slow Mandarin and then in rapid fire Cantonese which almost shakes the room with its power. The stereo is thankfully turned down while I can sit back at a massive wooden tea table to take stock of this entirely eclectic shop of items that go far beyond tea. Buddhist icons, coffee, wooden oboes, a back room of gas fired stove tops, hordes of tea and a series of slightly glitzy lights all add to the splash sense that a being of intense and disjointed tastes resides here.

What Master Cheng is known for is what I like to refer to as a bit of the ‘darker arts of tea’, in other words he is an alchemist rather than a performer. Rather than being obsessed with simply the tea, the vintage, the name, etc, Master Cheng is singularly obsessed with the process by which a tea is prepared. Within minutes he is in full cry about tea’s lost arts, the skills and the passion. His voice is a rakish throaty noise of power and conviction as it comes out of his mouth. His children – apart from one son – have no interest in tea or even what their father does with tea and he seems very aware that what he does and represents is on the very edge of becoming extinct.

Master Cheng asks point-blank what kind of tea I prefer and Miss Tsao once again reminds me of this unique aspect of our host, telling me that ,“He prepares the tea leaves – any tea leaves – in the manner that was popular in the Song Dynasty”. During the creative Song Dynasty (960-1279) tea innovation, creativity, and experimentation blossomed, and powdered tea (the origin of Japanese ma’cha powdered tea traditions) became an art of sorts called ‘dian cha’. In the Song Dynasty it wasn’t so much about ‘where’ a tea might be from as it was a case of ‘how’ the tea was prepared.

While we sit, the odd customer comes in to purchase items. Usually they are friends of our Master Cheng but he isn’t really interested in the business of running a shop on this day. What is clear is that this dynamic man with hair and a throaty voice has a love of speaking about tea and about the forgotten methods of actually preparing the powdered tea. Forces that have nothing to do with profit move him, he is moved by an ideal of his own that is inspired by the past.

Master Cheng beckons me to join him as he asks me to choose a tea from his collection. I’ve chosen a roasted Oolong. Carefully he measures out three portions of 8 grams each of the loose-leaf tea.

His little counter of tools, utensils and tea gear is neat in an untidy and personalized way. A gas burner sits where it can be used without fuss. Atop the burner sits a heavy walled copper pot, and beside that a huge cloth strainer sits like a fishing net awaiting inevitable instructions. Looking over while he sets out a couple of portions of Oolong Mr. Cheng tells me that he prefers white teas to all others.

In the Song Dynasty – a dynasty the Master Cheng openly praises and reveres – there was a great marriage of the practical and the artistic elements of tea culture and white teas in particular were promoted. It is in many ways as though this man and his appreciation of tea culture are a throwback to another time.

During this golden Song Dynasty, steaming (rather than frying) became the preferred method of fixing a tea’s taste after being plucked. After being dried the tea was then mashed and ground into powder that then was whisked (using the very same whisk that would ultimately find its ultimate expression in Japan) in wide bowls (another tradition that would be eternally preserved in Japanese tea culture). This method would become known as the Song tea ceremony and it was this ceremony and style that Japanese monks studying in China would take home to Japan – and perhaps ironically end up preserving long after the tradition had almost disappeared in China.

Grinding roasted Oolong tea leaves

Master Cheng grinds the whole dry tea leaves into a fine broken powder using a mortar and pestle.

After Master Cheng has the portions ready, he puts them into three bowls and proceeds to grind them using a hand-constructed mortar of copper. A smile appears on his face and it might be related to the fact that by grinding the tea leaves to a crushed powder he is in some ways changing the very character of the tea. His face with its hair and a large malleable head look somehow godly. This could be any divine artist anywhere preparing himself for an onslaught of pleasure…he needs no audience but the audience is appreciated because it appreciates his efforts.

Miss Tsao and her energy are bouncing around excitedly. She is bound to this most informal of ceremonies just as I am. I am bound to this man whose passionate reverence of something of the past is so present and so tangible. It is beyond anything monetary or pretentious…it is about a belief and maintaining a belief.

Once the ground tea leaves (he almost shouts as he tells me that any tea can be produced this way) are ready, he starts up the little gas burner and begins to heat water in a thick copper pot. Simultaneously another little gas burner is set alight and an empty pot is placed on it upside down so as to heat the inside surface. This will be to ‘roast’ or flavor the broken tea leaves. Breaking leaves releases flavors and essences more quickly and Master Cheng, after rinsing the bowl with some hot water, allows me to sample a couple of heaving wafts into my nostrils. It scent is powerful and narcotic.

Master Cheng is a study of concentration as he focuses on the first addition of water – a mere hint of it – to the wide ceramic bowl. When about a half of the bowl is immersed in the water with the ground tea leaves floating happily our host grabs a nearby whisk (the very same that is used for the Japanese ma’cha ceremony) and gives the whole concoction some heavy action whipping the contents for about a minute. The resultant mix, which is briefly frothy, is ready for consumption and I’m generously served first and heave back a monster sip of the Oolong, that has been transformed into an Oolong with a difference.

Master Cheng prepares roasted Oolong tea

The color of Master Cheng's tea is deep and the taste is potent as the powder imparts its strength and nature much more quickly than a whole leaf or rolled leaf.

Like any chef or creator the world over, Master Cheng’s face and more particularly hi eyes were in a look of expectation and almost rapture. It didn’t feel as though it was an expectation that I should necessarily ‘like’ the tea but rather that I’d ‘feel’ how it was different. And different it was!

It’s strength from the first touch of fluid in the mouth was like a force. From the first wafts that hit the nostrils it was a force. From the first bite as the Oolong – normally controlled in its strength – unleashed itself into the mouth cavity and over the gums and teeth it was force. A force created by a force himself.

Outside the rain continued its noisy drive into the asphalt and it in turn released its own vapors and created its own flavors of hot stone and must.

Master Cheng with his own bowl and with him, Miss Tsao finally both join me in sipping. We sit at the huge wooden table which forms the center-piece of his entire shop.

A second even more potent bowl and then a third – all from the original three bowls of tea leaves that he had ground up – all were consumed infusing our blood streams with the kick – that I in particular – needed.

As we sipped Master Cheng unleashed more and more of his philosophy and own life-story. The son of two mainland parents, and whose father was a dedicate of the green leaf, Cheng had dug into tea’s very soul reading everything about tea and its preparation. He had become an advocate of the Song method of powdered tea as he thought it “most quickly and purely represented the essence of tea”.

Finishing off our third round of tea Master Cheng begins anew with another kind of tea – this a Puerh – prepared in the same manner. At one point of preparation a man walks in off the street and is greeted by Cheng. “My brother”, Cheng tells me. The same tell-tale hair on a taller frame, this is a larger less animated version of his brother, Master Cheng. Speaking about tea, he tells us that he doesn’t (cannot) share the same intensity of purpose for tea as his brother, though he acknowledges his brother’s special mentality and special efforts to keep alive something special and timeless in a world that values the ‘brief’.

Sipping his own tea he quietly reflects that such efforts are “necessary in all spheres of life”.

With that yet another tea is plunked in front of us. Efforts on this day at least, are marvelously appreciated.

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Lock Cha Tea House

Air is heavy and heated and there is a rare break in the June rain, and it is a break of just hours. I am amidst Hong Kong speed – its every-single-day-speed – and I move amidst its controlled waves with a thirst. It is close to lunch hour, and this ‘speed’ is massive increase in tempo from that which I am accustomed.

Young children in white school uniforms cruise by in groups, immune and perhaps used to the heat. Miss Tsao and her controlled steps are escorting me towards a place of tea. She negotiates heat, bodies, and heated asphalt with competence and verve. I slightly stagger towards what I’m hoping will be a sanctuary.

Lock Cha Tea House Hong Kong

Lock Cha Tea House in the Shatin district of Hong Kong

My destination is one of Hong Kong’s oldest remaining buildings, which houses the more specific purpose of my journey: the Lock Cha Tea House in the Shatin district of Hong Kong. Just above the financial district with its adjoining hub of fashion and suits and its immaculate kind of mania, it reigns as something beyond simply an air-conditioned retreat. Its sign states in smaller letters to the side “Fine teas and tea wares. Dim sum and veg dining”… and that is it. An institution that has happily withstood the frenetic pace of ‘restorative’ and often destructive advances in a city that has perfected speed. It stands proudly and cleanly announcing itself and there is a little feeling of relief as though some small part of me wasn’t expecting it to actually still remain standing. As much as I need it for my thirst, I need it to be there just to satisfy my need for something slightly (if only slightly) timeless.

Entering into any building at this ‘heated’ time of year in Hong Kong is at times for me like walking into a soft cold wall, as the air conditioning seems to simply erupt from the interiors of structures and happily encase the body. Miss Tsao and I walk straight in from gray heat into a cool frantic vault of colors, movement, and thankfully a wall of tea. All is well as I veer left to a small wooden counter, behind which is a series of bags and drawers stuffed with various teas. The bodies of serving staff are already swishing around dashing around efficiently.

My tea comrade on this journey has kindly joined me to take tea, and proudly show an institution and a soft mecca of cool peace within the bustle of a city that rarely slows. She has come to share the leaves and share time in a place where time is beyond rare.

There are only couple of tables free and we install ourselves at one of those Asian hardwood tables that are more like institutions than furniture. It looks to have been created and installed in another time, when furniture was made to last five centuries, rather than simply adorning a corner of a room. Just seeing it in its state of happy solidity is pleasing and shortly, there will be tea upon it.

The word “Lock” means fortune or happiness and the spirit of the place isn’t so much a place of tea perfection and minute detail as it is a place that brings together the essentials of the tea philosophy: people, ease of communication, peace, and some tea. Lock Cha is meant to hint at something beyond simply taking tea, it seems to point at the necessity of friendship, peace, and harmony when taking Asia’s eternal green commodity.

Miss Tsao is pointing hurriedly at the menu as she has already an imprint of what we will be ordering. “And we will finish with this…” her finger points to something on the food menu that I cannot quite see. My eyes are tuned into a tea menu as it is tea that is required in short order. Only a few teas are on offer on the menu, but I know that there is a sumptuous bevy of teas available for sale both here and for export.

Hong Kong teahouses in the late 1980’s and early 90’s were largely made up of teas that had been imported as base teas and then re-roasted, manipulated, flavored, and restored into different teas. The teas were in fact recreated teas with almost nothing left of its former selves. In fact many in Hong Kong will admit to not ever knowing what a pure tea tasted like as the city was a bastion of ‘kitchens’ which manipulated the base products and of sorts where all sorts of tea treatment was conducted. Lock Cha and its founder Ip Wing-chi sought to throw a surprisingly simple curve into the Hong Kong tea community by sourcing directly from tea gardens in China. Then, rather than manipulating, simplifying and simply destroying the teas, Lock Cha served the teas as they were. Fresh, pungent, dark, and complex teas came from fields and factories direct

Lock Cha Tea

Lock Cha is about doing meals with tea and they aren't embarrassed to admit it.

Miss Tsao before me has a look of rapture on her face. Food, its preparation, its absorption and ultimately its complete simplicity is a daily obsession in this city of thousands of restaurants. There is an expectation here that one can only find in a few select cities of gastro-obsessive’s. It has been built into the hardwires of people and like any proud takers of food, they will not tolerate sub-standards when the expectation and palates are educated. While the food menu has such divine and succulent plates as roasted pickled bean curd skin, fried lotus flower cakes, and steamed vegetable dumplings, the tea menu is refreshingly simple and uncluttered. Qimen Red, an Anhui Yellow, my Four Season Oolong, and a few other classic teas, which don’t stretch the imagination to much. It is refreshing because it is often the trend of teahouses to offer an impossible array of teas that must sit stagnant (often for years) lying in wait and hope that someone will finally order it. Here it is a stated policy that only a certain amount of teas will be on offer, and those teas will only be fresh.

A younger server in blue swerves past and lays out our first order of the day, tea. My own order is a powerful Oolong that sits basking in a flared cup. Served in a prepared quantity it is place in front of me, the lid is opened and a first infusion is poured. Her own tea, a single estate Fujian green is a reckless looking stain of green leaves within her own flared tea cup. Here the ‘art’ is taken out of the equation and all is simply done for you. Our server also arrives with a kettle of boiled water which will fuel our flared cups. It is placed on a kind of side table close by. Miss Tsao has ordered a bean curd skin with a light oil and vinegar with some spicy chilly.

The only responsibility we have with regards to our tea is to decide upon how long to infuse the tea. But before too many milliseconds pass I’m being told quite directly to “eat” by the diminutive Miss Tsao who has opened up proceedings with gusto.

Around the restaurant has chattily filled up in quick time. There isn’t one free table as the place has swelled with ranks of the business community, a table of monks, and those who’d simply rather dine and drink out than remain in.

Tea is served at every table with each individual receiving their very own tea serving cup and drinking cup. The numbers and Miss Tsao’s assurance that “every lunch hour is a packed house”, back up Lock Cha’s informal philosophy of simple untainted teas consumed simply, and at all times.

My own Oolong is fresh and I allow the infusion time to run on a bit longer than perhaps wise, but I want the tea to burst in the mouth and ‘bite’. It does bite with all of the fresh drive of a train. Small dishes arrive rapidly and another informal philosophy of Lock Cha is made clear: tea time is all the time. During, before, after, and simultaneously, tea is infused and sipped. Again some inherent smarts are on display here as the tea house doesn’t simply do ceremony; it does lunch, it does heathy, and of course, it does tea.

Miss Tsao has a running commentary of the various tiny plates that arrive. Here the idea of dim sum has been fused with tea, and added to that an intimation of Buddhist-veg dining. Small, healthy amounts of freshly produced foods and taken with tea in a clean modern setting. Tea and its taking brought into the modern age while retaining its old charms.

“Lock” or fortune, has been blended with some keen business savvy in downton Hong Kong and in the slightly declining world of tea houses in Asia, savvy counts large.

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La Hiao Tea – The Jinuo People’s Panacea

Sweat comes down my temples in thick rivulets ending up clotted in my shirt collar. I’m not a fan of the heat, which seems to come from the sky, the trees, from the very earth. There are thankfully smells of fruit blossoms, and the beautiful tang of the humid tropical forests which lie still to distract from the heat. There is too, another reason for a little bit of optimism: tea, and not simply any tea, but a tea from one of the ‘Six Classic Tea Mountains’ of Han lore. Above the Mekong River – long a dividing point of classic Puerh districts – Jinuo Mountain borders Gedeng (another of the classic tea mountains) and this is where I presently find myself. The ancient tea mountain of Jinuo is a perfect example of the old tea quote: “high mountains and fog produce classic teas”. High humidity levels and altitudes from 600-1700 meters, and its silent isolation, have long contributed to teas that are called ‘classics’.

Young Tea Trees of Jinuo Mountain

Young tea trees. No more than 70 years old these youngsters are already producing great teas, and only gain in value by having the precious Jinuo Mountain designation.

Not given to simply ‘accepting’ a teas’ vaunted reputation, I’ve actually made my way here to not simply sip of the great mountain’s tea, but to observe – and inevitably sip – one of the traditional Jinuo tea concoctions known more for medicinal and ceremonial use than for any casual drinking. Like so much that is indigenous, the recipe risks being vanquished into the ‘forgotten drawer’ of anitquity unless passed along. Tea in these regions is now more business commodity than the more complete panacea that it once was. The local Jinuo name of this tea concoction Jinuo people is simply ‘La Hiao’. Like the Hani, and Pulang (other of the traditional tea growing peoples) the name for tea in these regions is simply – and wonderfully brief: “la”. A little irony considering that “la” (tea has long been known for its cooling and anti-inflammatory abilities) in Mandarin means ‘spicy’. Like any tea-growing district on the planet, a place’s name is no guarantee of a tea’s quality. Quality is either a decision for the mouth to make, or for a number of stages to come together in a kind of stunning symmetry: great raw materials, careful harvesting habits, and simple production methods.

My host – and hosts are so very important here – is a tiny man with bowed legs named ‘Eggplant’. He doesn’t feel the need to explain this ‘name’, and I feel no need to ask. We hustle along a tiny newly paved road, which swerves through the little town of “Ya Lo” upon Jinuo Mountain. Women, who are equally small to Eggplant, lug baskets brimming with freshly harvested tea leaves to and fro, never forgetting to engage in some chit-chat while on their way. The village is humane, slow paced, and entirely hot, and it is in the midst of the spring harvest which adds a bit of a buzz to the place. We’ve just spent a little over one soggy hour within the young tea forests that line the lower levels of the mountain. We have been collecting the prized delicate end-buds for the creation of this medicinal tea, known as La Hiao. Eggplant has about 300 grams of young spring ‘end’ buds in a small bag with some errant leaves tucked into his small dark fist. He reiterates numerous times that it is only the end-buds that he is interested in for this recipe. These end buds, which poke out of his hand and bag, have more of the fragrance and more of the precious health-giving properties than their elder cousins on the branches, he explains. In much of the west, these end buds are referred to as ‘white tea’, though here they are simply coveted for their abilities to add value to the already famed Puerh teas.

As we round a little bend of bougainvillea, which fearlessly sprays its brightness everywhere, I stop to stare at a bush that stirs something in the mind. Looking closely at the green thing in front of me, it comes to me that it is a coffee bush…here upon one of the great tea mountains of history coffee grows unafraid. I ask Eggplant for clarification about what coffee is doing here…I’m almost taken aback, fearing a kind of invasion from the great ‘bean’ into these lands of the great ‘green’. He looks at it and simply tells me that, “Yes, it is coffee but we don’t know what to do with it”. I stare at him a few moments somehow expecting that he might be lying, or covering up a conspiracy. Further north of us near another of tea’s bastions, Puerh City, coffee’s dark power is being felt as increasingly the less scrupulous (and more profit minded) convert their tea fields into coffee fields. Coffee consumption in China is on the rise, while the flow of tea into China’s youth has stagnated. Feeling this sort of paranoia arise in me, I know it is time to sip some tea somewhere. Eggplant’s home is not far away, so my thirst will soon be sated, or at the very least addressed.

The tea concoction I’ve come for is an alternative take on the way tea is perceived. It is a recipe that not only expels heat, but the in local terminology “recalibrates the metabolism”. Also used for ceremonies and for those who had taken too much of anything (including too much of the local firewater), the La Hiao concoction had been a veritable cure-all. Eggplant remembers one of his elder family members saying that the blend “made everything taste better”. This part of Yunnan has long held to the belief that if a meal was served without spice, the meal had no meaning and the recipe in question has some compellingly spicy and powerful ingredients, as I’m about to find out.

Eggplant’s home and even the little village itself, is in the midst of a chaotic turn from isolated tea-outback into a space of big homes that seem out-of-place. But, it is like so much of this region, a place that has come into its own and will decide how to proceed with profits from its prized tea. It still retains an old charm and seems incapable of throwing off its wonderful village-vibe, but here and there new concrete homes appeared in front of the older thatched homes of wood. Thankfully there are still the high-pitched wails of greetings and for the time being at least, the huge homes don’t seem to have erected barriers between people. Eggplant shuffles into his home, covered in a camouflage jacket that was hanging off of one shoulder, but not before depositing the freshly harvested leaves we have gathered on a massive wooden table.

I sit in a sheltered patio section that is simply a covered area where a huge trunk of a tree has been artfully but simply carved into a tea table that runs at least 4 meters in length. Wood, bamboo, and tea, are all linked here as much to eachother as they are to the people. Wood homes, tools, and tables; bamboo used as cookery, boiling tubes, storage devices and tea tables; and tea, long consumed as stimulant, medicine, used in rituals and in healing practices.

Eggplant’s wife comes out of the home holding a baby in one arm and a freshly collected handful of orange tree blossoms in the other. It is the beginning. Following closely on the heels of his wife and the orange blossoms, Eggplant emerges with two small white bowls gesturing for me to peek in. He disappears once again.

Within one bowl, lie the ‘flavoring’ ingredients: two raw garlic cloves, two potent looking chilly peppers (local specialties), and a small amount of salt. Within the second remaining bowl lie five mottled-colored peppercorns (again local). Looking over the potent ingredients I imagine the explosive result, though I’m still not entirely sure how it will all end up. Peppercorns, not far to our south find its bastion in Vietnam, a country that produces and exports more of it than any other nation. Used by the indigenous (and used heavily in Ayurvedic medicine) to help expectorate phlegm, stimulate the digestive system, and clean toxins out of the body, peppercorns join tea and garlic in forming an absolutely complete cleanser and neutralizer.

La Hiao Tea Ingreidents

The assorted ingredients for the La Hiao: tea leaves (left), a bowl of garlic cloves, salt and red chilly peppers, and orange tree leaves (right). The only thing missing from the image are the locally grown and potent peppercorns.

On the table beside me two antiques of wood from another time. One long wooden carved tool looks more like a weapon that anything culinary. It is a pestle and I’m told it is an indispensable tool still now. The Jinuo people are fond of grinding essences together. I know from a few simple meals in the area and the idea that flavors and tastes are blended into eachother is a reoccurring theme in these parts. Medicines in this part of the world have been similarly created, mashing the ingredients together to form cure-alls. The other piece is a carved wooden vessel – more a wooden trough than anything – that looks nothing less than ancient. It is the host in which all of the ingredients will find their way for the final stages of this spiced tea.

Eggplant comes out of the house again ready to begin, but first in a brief show of theater, he waves around us before pointing to the ingredients and explaining: “Everything here is local and from the region, and this is the way we lived not so long ago”. He has quick snappy movements as though entirely high on tea, while at the same time having one of the most gentle and calm sets of eyes I can remember seeing. He begins, softly muttering some little tune while grinding the garlic cloves together with the chilly peppers and salt.

“These provide the base”, he tells me. They are lovingly ground into a pulp. Everything about the sharp fragrances and even the visual aesthetic hints at the power of this combination and my mind is trying to predict what the taste might be, but I know better. The peppercorns are next and it is impossible for the nose not to be moved this way and that by what is wafting out of the simple white bowl and its pulverized ingredients.

Finally it is time for the fresh young tea leaves and the orange leaves to be added. It is as though we’ve come to some sort of climactic moment. With his short powerful fingers he carefully puts the leaves in with the rest of the unrecognizable elements and deliberately folds the leaves, bending them to break the outer epithelial layer. This tear in the skin begins the fermentation cycle and causes reactions within the tea leaf to begin releasing some of its potent abilities.

Eggplant then gently grinds the leaves as if he hopes to simply encourage the fragrances and properties out of their green-skinned homes.

Now comes a moment when he carefully places the pestle down, and pours water into a kettle.

“The water must be heated only without boiling”. Having done this – the water is only lukewarm – he adds a bit of water to the mixture to loosen it, and then stirs it slightly. Then it is all poured into the wooden bowl, with more water added.

I’m then taken by the elbow for a cup of ‘straight’ tea at another little tea-table. The concoction that I’ve been mesmerized by needs 25 minutes to imbue itself, release itself, and whatever else it needs to do in the water. My brain and senses have been almost paralyzed in curiosity and I’ve taken notice of little else around me. The day’s sun and heat have blanketed the whole village and there are other fragrances swimming around in the air, but they are only whiffs that are distant secondary’s to the garlic-peppercorn-chilly blend mingling that bludgeons my nasal cavity still.

We sip the local tea which itself is arousing in its enamel-challenging freshness, but it merely serves to pass time and increase my interest in the ‘stew’ which rests nearby.

When ‘time’ comes, Eggplant and that powerful short-limbed body of his simply jumps up without any warning and I follow behind. There is the curiosity that inevitably arises when one is about to embark on something intimately familiar (in this case tea and garlic) that is out of context. Though not as much of an essential standard in my life as tea, garlic has rarely been out of my life for more than a few days and having grown up eating Hungarian for much of my life it too was a constant and welcome fixture. The resultant mix of these sage elements together into a potent organic mix of powerful antioxidants is what now waits before me.

Taking a ladle that has been carved out of bamboo, Eggplant gently stirs the contents of the wooden bowl to ensure a final blending. And then, without any drama whatsoever he presents the ladle full of the murky liquid. I tip it back trying not to expect anything.

La Hiao Tea Brewed

The ensuing result of the concoction, after having pulverized the ingredients and let them sit together for 25 minutes, the brew is ready for consumption.

What ‘hits’ – and it does hit – is nothing creeping or subtle but rather a number of triggers that seem to explode simultaneously in all areas of the mouth creating flavors and sensations. The garlic is there – fresh and potent in all of its glory – but what surprises slightly is that nothing in the amalgam totally dominates. There is a slight sharp tang from the chilly but again it doesn’t overwhelm. Tea’s influence plays more of a back-up roll as it is there but only as a part of this package. Salt’s satisfying feel on the tongue seems to cool the entire mouth and the orange blossoms soft hints register in the softest ways inhalations.

A couple of ladles full later, I feel it impossible to ignore an ignition of sorts within the whole physical and physiological body. A kind heat is spreading through the body and there is a welcome clarity and sharpness of the senses. It is as though the soft-focus heat of the day has suddenly had a stabilizing filter fitted on top of it, forcing all senses to feel more. I’m aware too that sweat glands along my rib cage have opened whide. After a few more ladles, I’m almost skidding off of the little veranda searching for a place to relieve the bladder. Eggplant lets a little chuckle out, telling me that it is entirely expected that the body will begin to purge with infusions of the liquid taken. In traditional times, I’m told, an affected or ill person would ease off on solid foods and instead sip away – sometimes for days – on the mixture. The effect of the elixir was to purge the body, while re-configuring the body’s balance through the ingredient’s effects on the organs. A balance of cooling agents (tea), stimulating heating agents (chilly peppers and peppercorns) and salt introduced into the body to pacify, expel, and soothe all at once.

Later, still buzzing on the concoction, Eggplant and I take a walk through the village, with him acting as a kind Master of Ceremonies to the village’s history. I ask when the last time the La Hiao was made for ceremonial use, and he tells me of somewhat recent wedding that was celebrated, with the elixir being prepared by the bride’s aunt.

In such places, beyond the eyes and lush green horizons there still remain these ancient traditions and what makes them special is that, while locals may not be able to explain precisely the effects or the ‘why’s’ of something’s usefulness, they do know that it works.

Later, Eggplant tells me that we should return to the home, to continue in some ‘real’ tea drinking, by which he means tea unencumbered by any other additions. There is little that I can do other than smile, and follow his shuffling body back to his home and prepare for another pleasant onslaught of ‘pure’ tea.

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Jingmai’s Fabled Tea Forests

-One of Puerh’s great tea towns revealed

The town is a casual mess of motorcycles, errant dogs desperate to be left alone, and human bodies carrying sacks over their shoulders. Green pick-ups are jam packed with tea negotiating the little street which seems not to have expanded at the same rate as business. Jingmai in mid-March is happily ‘mad’ with the spring tea harvest – which is just finishing. Few of Asia’s tea bastions can so be so languid and frenetic at the same time. It has the same buzz as ‘one-product’ towns throughout the world. Villages of the ‘grape’ would recognize the energy and pulse and the absolute need to get the green leaves dried, sorted, and sold. The Spring harvest is a month and a half of tea fuelled mayhem and it is for this reason that I have come. Seventy kilometers west of Menghai

The Dai people, Jingmai’s ancient landholders, are neat in movement and the women’s bright sarongs shimmy as move carving little lines through town. A tea producer I’d met before apologizes for not having time to host me for tea as he is entirely wrapped up in his own sacks of tea. He is barely visible, surrounded by 20 kg bags of the precious old tree teas that have made him wealthy. As famous for its policy of open doors and generosity as it is for its tea, southern Yunnan becomes a place of drama and high intensity during the harvest season. Prices have steadily increased, houses have grown and the mighty leaf of Jingmai has only expanded its stimulant powers.

Spring Tea Harvest in Jingmai

Business is brisk in the little town of Jingmai during the Spring Harvest. Here a seller and producer carries 20 kg's of his latest creation to a customer's vehicle directly.

Joining me on my little Puerh venture into the tea’s very forests is Yi-San, a local buyer and sampler. Her mother has also joined us and though nearly blind of eye, seems able to spot a fraudulent tea at a hundred meters. Our itinerary is a simple one. We will track down a local tea seller, sip some of her tea, eat with her family and then repeat the process at two other homes. We aren’t alone, as the population has swelled with tea buyers, wholesalers and middlemen piling into the little town which sits on the side of a tea mountain. Huge 4×4’s line the already stuffed streets and while there is a general lightness of spirit here, there is also the unmistakable edge of business. Smiles run the range between completely insincere to jackal-like, but the locals are in full control of proceedings as it is their wonderful teas that all have come for.

Our first contact comes out to greet us. She is a pocket-sized beauty whose rough hands and smoky voice add to her charisma – not to mention that she has deeper tea-knowledge than most alive. People here in this region pick tea from an age when they can walk and hold a bottle and if they have a good mind – and better trees – they can become a minor ‘god’ of the tea world, selling the precious spring harvest. Clearly ripped on tea and excited by the current business rush, our little hostess races through the streets screaming at friends, greeting others but all the while hustling and leading us to her home. Time and tea are kings here and she doesn’t waste a spare movement. She wears an indigenous dress in bright pink under which are a pair of running shoes that add to her diminutive stature. Her eyes blaze intelligence and intensity and there something immediately attractive about her simultaneously considered and devil-may-care approach to life.

Yi-San greets this stunning little tea boss and I have that wonderful sense that though men dominate the landscape, there is a self-supporting network of women who make things happen. Climbing through the bags of tea of her home, we walk past 5 women – all of whom appear to be over seventy-years old – sorting through tea leaves. One woman gives us a little wave followed by one of those glorious toothless smiles that seem the domain of ‘ancients’. Up three flights of stairs and not one stair has taken me out of the site (and scent) of tea. It is a place entirely dominated by a small green leaf that the locals call ‘la’. We follow our pink-clad hostess up to an enormous fourth floor tea house and I feel the slight throbbing of my tongue that always is a precursor to drinking tea. A slight spike in my pulse also marks my addict’s need as I’m suddenly impatient for a dose of my green love.

Harvesting ancient tea trees

The Dai people have long produced teas and are the guardians of the ancient tea tree forests along with the Hani, the Lahu, the Pulang, and Wa peoples.

The tea house is quite literally the entire top floor of our hostesses’ home. It isn’t immaculate, but rather ‘worn’ and warm, and the very tiles of the floor seem to exhale tea’s earthy green breath. In the words of an old – and similarly addicted – friend, Jingmai’s old tea trees produced teas that were impossible not to like. The local teas were ‘light’, encouraging the mouth to explore their subtleties. Many actively disliked Jingmai for what they perceived as its lack of bite, but in fact it was the one tea that I’d seen slowly win over the most ardent drinkers of ‘hard’ explosive teas. It was in my own estimation a ‘sleeper’ of a tea that created flavors in the mouth and if properly produced was seldom disappointing. This last point, production, was an aspect of Jingmai’s tea history that was enviable. Jingmai’s tea producers had long mastered high quality production of an already outstanding tea and the ensuing teas were predictable and expectations were always high, with the predictable big price tags. Prices this year for the top teas are over $600.00 US a kilogram and with some families producing 1000 kg’s it makes for lucrative ‘little-big’ tea business.

Our little tea fireball in pink is like a piston serving tea, all the while talking, pointing and even – and this impresses as much as anything – going into her little purse which hangs from her neck, for a wad of money for her brother. The brother it seems got all of the stature in the family, built as he is like a prizefighter. He sits with us using a water pipe to take in huge burbling doses of tobacco smoke taking huge inhalations of tea.

Tea and its long liquid fingers seem to spread to not only the immediate surroundings but also into the very psyche of people and bringing them together. Business, money and relationships are as vital – and fluid – as the tea itself. To understand this, it takes a visit to the source of it all to fully grasp what tea is and what it means. Tea is beyond all else a medicinal foodstuff and a thing of the earth rather than simply a distant leaf of esthetic glory.

As I ponder all of this imponderable stuff, action takes place in much the same way everything seems to happen in the tea regions: without warning. True to form though, the action isn’t what I expect. It isn’t a visit to another tea house as had been proposed, but rather a quick drive to the nearby Mangjing Ancient tea tree forest which is a massive and almost sacred green-space of nothing but tea trees. Said another way, we are going to where all of the green goodness comes from.

A few kilometers away is a world away. The forest of tea trees is the forest. Gentle things, bent things, climbing things, and all of them are tea trees. Yi-San simply sits down amid the trees and beckons to her mother to join her. Mother, though has other ideas and is up a tree in seconds looking at the tea leaves in the heights.
Having slightly smaller leaves than the monster leaves of further east, the tea species itself here in Jingmai is different from many of the other tea forests of Xishuangbanna though still part of the Yunnan big leaf family. I wander contentedly though the draped figures of the trees which create a kind of roof over the pathways. The forest is protected by law and while it is a shame that laws must be in place, if it protects the mighty forests then all continues along in green peace. Pulang, Dai, Lahu and Hani people reside in the areas but there are careful regulations as to whom can actually sell and ‘call’ their teas a ‘Jingmai’. Only residents of Jingmai, or those who harvest and produce their teas in and from Jingmai might label their product as such. Similar regulations are in place throughout southern Yunnan’s vast tea belt to ensure that fakes, copies, and outright lying about teas is limited.

Many of the tea trees bare the adornments of parasitic orchids that weave their way around the trunks and branches in a kind of elegant dress. Moving through this massive garden of stimulant joy it again strikes me how crucial the ‘source’ is. Without it, how can one even conceive of what tea – or for that matter, anything – really is. Above me too visible and audible are tea harvesters high in the tea trees above me clipping the tea leaves in the standard ‘one bud and two leaves’ format. All of the pickers on this day are women covered in big sun hats to protect themselves against the raging sun. The women hurl out laughs, songs, and comments to other harvesters and the whole process, while labor intensive, has the very ‘social’ energy that I’ve long associated with tea in these parts.

A local tea producer has invited us to his tea production plant later in the day. Yi-San is impressed. The little factory is immaculate and two women sit sorting leaves chatting in the nasally pitches of the local Dai people (whose language and culture mirror much of the Thai people to the not-distant south). Racks of tea lie slowly withering on the first floor and a massive covered rooftop provides a final drying space for the tea. Our host is a lean handsome man with quick eyes – and apparently – stunning teas. The teas we are served are in fact stunning, though the whole debate about ‘great’ teas is at times entirely moot. Twelve people at the same tea table sampling the same tea at the same moment will ‘feel’ and taste a tea entirely differently. What I do know about the tea that we sip, is that it hits with soft power and encases the mouth with some of Jingmai’s famed subtle touches. It has also been well produced which is perhaps one of the less-stated but infinitely vital elements of a good tea. Too high a frying heat, too much time in the sun, not enough aeration, or simply a lethargic fryer can all adversely affect a classic tea in waiting. For all of the commotion made about the harvesting space of a particular tea, all will be wasted if the production isn’t up to standard and produced with the same attention that the tea trees and bushes have put into ‘hosting’ them.

Sorting the tea leaves

Elder Dai women carefully sort through the tea leaves taking out leaves or any refuse that is unsightly or of inferior quality.

Heaving in yet another sampling of tea, there is another of those wonderfully sudden moments when without warning a decision is made. Our lean host decides it is time to eat. He tells me that a good tea not only helps digestion, but it also prepares the digestive track for an upcoming meal. He presses a bag of tea into me telling me that it is a gift. I do not even make the pretense of attempting to say “no”.

Dinner could be summed up as “every possible thing local”, including a spicy dish of chilies and tea leaves. It is a huge feast that seems to gain momentum with local friends from the tea community showing up and joining us for dinner. Tea stained hands from clipping the leaves, fryer’s hands rough with the dark ‘extra layer’, sun-kissed faces and the warm smell of sun all join at a huge round table that fairly oozes with vegetation, mountain chicken, and leaves.

Following dinner, tea is again served up and somehow despite the festive environment, the tea acts as a kind of tonic. This year’s leaves are discussed, the prices are spoken of, and the world of the green leaf inevitably reigns supreme once more. In this part of the world, the word tea in whatever language is spoken is rarely out of site or mind.

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Obukucha: A Tea for The New Year Matcha’s Magic

Matcha

Our spartan and immaculate tea room moments before we are admitted as a group.

A small door swishes aside pulled open by a lithe arm draped in silk. And there stands Soyu Makai, in all of her precise and minute glory. Light boned, and layered in dark silks ‘Soyu’ (a title name given to the tea master) is known beyond her tea circles as Yumi Makai. A high priestess in my mind, she is in reality, a respected 25-year veteran and teacher in the Urasenke school of Chado, the Japanese ‘art’ of tea. Eight other guests await as I do for a ceremony of powdered matcha and there is the immediate sensation, seeing this immaculate teacher that another world exists on the other side of the door. I feel sloppy somehow from my rough Yunnan tea traditions, and have very consciously made sure that I’m as ‘neat’ as can be expected for this event.

Far from my ‘roots’ in Yunnan, where the simpler ways of tea focus on the tea itself, the ceremonial tea ritual I am here to attend adds meaning to every single aspect of serving, sipping, and preparing of tea. The entire world I am about to enter seems dedicated to removing everything non-related to this tea moment out of the psyche.

There is a deliberate and imprecise geometry everywhere around me as my newly slippered feet take me into a small sanctum of squares that is not quite square. The ‘flooring’ is a series of interlaying mats that way more than 30 kg’s each. The center-point of the room is a thick black kettle, which is fired from below by smokeless bamboo charcoal. Briefly a small gold leaf of flame is visible, but here in this silent room even fire is carefully controlled. Not one wisp of smoke slips into the air, but I’ve already felt the control and absolute adherence to seamless traditions here and I expect nothing but precision.

This little gathering which I’m grateful to attend, is to bring in the New Year. In a ceremony known as Obukucha, the nine of us will adhere to a posture of sitting, observe the rules of the ceremony, and finally sipping of the divine green leaf.

Soyu Makai

Soyu Makai enters with her immaculate set of tools.

We are carefully ‘placed’ into our respective kneeling spots in two small lines boxing in our master and the black kettle. Behind ‘Soyu’ another sliding door leads somewhere and at her side the sculpted and sublime tools of the upcoming ceremony.

Powdered tea, introduced by Eisai (1141-1215) to Japan after he returned from study in China, was once the tea of ritual and tribute. Eisai also introduced the refined traditions of Renzai Zen, but the tea seeds he returned with and subsequently gave to monk Myoe to be planted, were the beginnings of the powdered tea tradition. The traditions of both Zen and tea complemented each other and it was together that they evolved in both esthetic and intent. Quiet surroundings, quiet posture, but vigorous focus, were keys to both ceremonies.
Tea gatherings in Japan are all (as they have always been) about ‘one time, one meeting, one tea’, so the event is something slightly different and special each time, with the intention of taking one ‘away’. Though many formal schools differ in details, the intention is largely similar: to be able to focus the mind and heart upon an original and unique experience.

Within our group there is the slightly nervous apprehension of those who are about to embark on something fascinating and utterly ordered all at once. I am all too aware that my tea habits are about to be disciplined and part of me worries that I will somehow slip up.

My very mortal knees are in for a particular treat of pain and I am already fully aware of it. While movement is permitted during the ceremony, guests are ‘encouraged’ to remain in a kneeling position and remain still. My grandmother always used to say that discomfiture focused the mind, but I’ve never completely subscribed to that particular philosophy, so it will be an invigorating experience in many ways. Soyu’s soft voice introduces the wish for a harmonious New Year with the Obukucha ceremony. It is a ceremony that is specific in our case to brining in the New Year. ‘O-buku-cha’ itself hints at its ceremonial use, meaning “tea of great fortune”. Soyu Makai introduces the tea that we will take. An Obukucha itself may differ depending the seller, the producer or the tea master. Our own ceremony will be a high-grade powdered tea from the fabled and famed Uji region near Kyoto. In the Obukucha ceremony there is no rule or law as to which tea can be served, but it is inevitably a classic tea that isn’t normally had. In this case our tea will be served ‘thick’. Only the highest levels of matcha are considered for use in thick tea, as their astringency levels are far less. The temperature – one of the tea world’s great almost neurotic details – should be no more than 60 degrees and only 30 cc’s of water will be used. As a point of interest, a ‘thin’ tea will be used twice as much water, with temperatures twenty degrees higher.

As Soyu Makai introduces the minimalist tea utensils, the ‘kama’ (kettle), ‘jawan’ (hand made tea bowl), Chatsubo (tea jar), an assistant in a fuchsia colored kimono drifts through that hidden door I had noticed upon entering, to add water to a hand-crafted water container. Her entry is formal and invisible, though it is hard not to be drawn to the small precise steps and impeccable coordination that she displays. One could not fail to see the ritualistic and practiced movement to every single aspect of this ‘time and place’.

Somehow, the assistant who is never introduced, disappears noiselessly back through the same door carefully closing it behind her. A moment later, she appears again, this time with a sweet for the first guest. Moving in a clockwise order this hard candy is offered before each kneeling – and in my case almost excruciatingly painful – guest a folded white napkin. As it is placed before us, the fuchsia assistant bows to the receiving guest, placing her two palms face down just behind the offering. This little ‘aperitif’ of sorts will set up the mouth for the tea which will follow, but we cannot touch it quite yet.

The kettle meanwhile has not even purred, somehow being maintained at a constant temperature. Soyu then becomes silent and busy, and I am pulled into her world of tea preparation. A long bamboo curved spoon (natsumè) is used to collect brilliant green tea powder out of the black tea container. Soyu somehow manages to maintain a perfect little mountain of tea upon the bamboo tool, then twists her wrist dumping the little lump of green goodness into the ornate tea bowl and then in the silence of the room she does something that is both sudden and almost spiritual in its immediacy. She ever so slightly hits the bamboo spoon once against the cup to ensure every last bit of match powder has found its temporary home in the ornately tea bowl. Soyu then uses a folded serviette in a smooth movement to clean the bamboo. Every movement stands apart from one another, while seamlessly blending into one another. The serviette is then tucked into her silk sash that ties the kimono to her waist.

The silence, and formal precision of every single breath of this ceremony demands total attention and in that total attention the mind and body leave the outside world, precisely where it should be left, outside. It is explained later that this is one of the intentions of the chado. There is a much told story in Japan, of tea houses being one of the select few places that the famed Samurai didn’t bring their swords. The tea ceremony was not part of the everyday; it was rather an escape of the everyday.

Soyu Makai rushes nothing, and in every moment of her thorough ritual she carves out more of my respect. Adherence to a tradition in a world, where laziness is often camouflaged as ‘spontaneous’ and creative, this ritual seems somehow to hold onto something of itself.

bamboo hand-carved whisk

Our tea master whisks the powdered tea using a bamboo hand-carved whisk. The bowl, as all tea bowls are in the Chado, is significant for both the design aspect and the creator themself.

Soyu has moved on in her own choreographed series of preparatory stages. She delicately picks up that marvel (in my own eyes at least) of the Japanese matcha ceremony, the bamboo tea whisk (chasen) is put into use. Hot water from the kettle is then spooned carefully into the tea bowl, at which point the spoon is carefully put to rest. Soyu Makai picks up the bamboo whisk and stirs the water and powdered tea. There is the faintest touch of sound but I suspect that our master has even the exact number of stirs worked out. A serving of tea is almost complete.

In succession, each guest is served by the fuchsia colored assistant (who reappears), who nods to each individual in succession that it is time to eat the sweet which has remained untouched in front of each of us. When this sweet has ‘prepared’ my mouth, a fresh bowl of thick matcha – only 30 cc’s worth – is placed in front of me. All of this waiting has strangely enough made me appreciate the paltry amount even more. After bowing my thanks I take the bowl and rotate it three times clock wise and sip the semi-bitter froth back where it ever-so-briefly suggests a creamy spinach broth (that is, what I imagine a creamy spinach broth would taste like). I have been told that the liquid should be taken in as few sips as possible, so my little slurp session incorporates only two inhalations.

My pulverized knees – temporarily – forget the pain and there is only the faint feeling that I could do with a few more bowls of the goodness.

The next guest is waiting though and they (and no doubt their punished knees) deserve the little frothy treat as much as I.

As we exit twenty minutes later, somehow and unbelievably walking back into the outside world, a question is put to Soyu Makai by one of my fellow drinkers, which slightly startles as it is the first ‘outside’ sound I’ve heard beyond our tea master and her utensils in nearly two hours. “When did you finish your tea studies”?

The answer seems so wonderfully consistent with what we’ve just been witness to when Soyu answers “One never finishes learning the way of tea. I am not close to being finished”.

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Snow Tea – The Highest of High Mountain Teas

Here in Shangri-La (aka Zhongdian) or Gyal’thang as it was once known to Tibetans, the mountains bask in high mountain bolts of sunlight and in the altitudes that have long protected and to some degree isolated all beings and things. My home for most of every year hosts winds that shriek as they pummel their way east out of the Himalayas. In the summer, monsoon rains that pound, and a vibrant bio-diversity that exists on the mountains every slope has been happily been maintained.

My thrice yearly runnings into the tea regions of southern Yunnan which lie almost 500 miles south of my mountain sanctuary have long yielded kg’s of gorgeous green stimulant, which inevitably comes back to my loft in the old town here in Shangri-La. I sip these teas daily and when there is a supply shortage I know that in mere days a shipment can happily make its way up to me, even here. There is no way around the fact that the teas which stimulate and ease my days, do not (and cannot) grow here. The 3,200 meter heights are not conducive to that which needs moderate ‘everything’ to coddle and feed the camellia sinensis plant.

Apparently during tea’s heydays along the tea caravan routes and the Tea Horse Road, an intrepid Tibetan businessman and trader tried unsuccessfully to plant and cultivate Pu’erh tea along slopes of the Himalayas and its extensions. The idea, which bursts with noble intentions (at least in my green-fed way of thinking) was to cut the times it took to transport the precious teas by caravan into the high mountain markets of Lhasa and Nepal which long craved the green-leafed gifts.

Ancient Tea Horse Road

Ancient Tea Horse Road

Tea that the world has come to know needs a bit of sweltering heat, good slopes, a lot of mists, and some shade. It also needs certain soils to thrive, and this highland region is simply not kind to that which is known as tea.

Locals though – hardened mountain men – will speak of a tea called ‘White Snow Tea’ – or simply ‘Snow Tea’ – that does grow even higher in the mountains, above 4,000 meters. It is a particular tea that has long provided healing properties to those that dared to pass through the realms of the mountains, and as expected it has never been cheap, nor plentiful. Old tea caravans heading to the market towns would barter tea for the highland medicines to take with them upon their journeys as a part of a traveling medicine pack, and of course to turn a coin and resell.

This tea, rare though it might be, can be seen and purchased in any number of ‘mountain medicine’ shops in our Old Town. Though I’ve had it in blends before I’ve never actually prepared it nor have I ever really paid it much attention. No flavors have ever embedded themselves upon my tongue from the tea, so in many ways I still have no firm impression of this ‘Snow Tea’.

White Snow Tea

White Snow Tea

Called ‘snow tea’, the white worm-like strands are in fact a kind of high mountain lichen that grow and wind their way through the floor of high mountain’s lands. For obvious reasons trying to sell the health-giving properties of a lichen commercially would not work, so tea it is. Also known as ‘ground tea’ the tea resembles silvery gray sprouts and in the local shops bits of earth still cling to the ‘tea’, giving it an authentic appearance.

Local Tibetans, who first used and discovered the lichen, refer to it as ‘gong ja’, (snow tea) or simply as ‘shar’wa’. My walk through the cobbled streets along a portion of what was the Tea Horse Road doesn’t take long to yield an upright rectangular container full of the little specimens. It sits inside shop selling high mountain medicines and declares itself as just such with three languages emblazoned upon sign outdoors. The shop I decide to purchase from is nothing less than a complete and utter repository for cures of maladies that run the spectrum (and some yet undiscovered maladies no doubt). Shops dealing in medicines in China often refer to “Himalaya sourced”, “high mountain”, “from Tibet”, and labels will often depict the grandeur of snow swept mountain peaks shimmering above a picture of the advertised ‘cure all’. It is clear that the heights and what comes from them are viewed with a kind of idolatry and awe.

Many buyers of medicines will travel up to these places so that they will not be – in their own minds at least – conned into buying ‘fake’ medicines. Alongside the ‘White Snow Tea’ supply lies various fungus, dried mushrooms, and powders that declare bluntly of their potent abilities to solve all manner of problems. Everything from aiding circulation to clearing lungs up of phlegm is promised. Easing joint pain, and strained eyes are also promised in quick order.

I’d recently consulted a man I simply refer to as Doctor Mountain, a friend’s uncle who in his time has cured people, created medicines from herbs, and expounded eloquently about the powers of natural medicines. In my little quest to learn more of the natural abilities of the lichen, there were no better reference points than Doctor Mountain. When I have doubts or questions that need allying about ills, cures, or just general interest, I head to the good Doctor. A night previously, we sat around a humming wood stove while he spoke of medicines in general and in particular, the snow tea. No discussion would be complete without a meal and a drink of the alcoholic variety – homemade and fortified by either he or his wife. This alcohol, he frequently told me, was also a kind of medicine.

Doctor Mountain

Doctor Mountain

In his words, the ‘gong ja’ is in fact legitimate and helps with heart issues, blood pressure and aids in cooling the body down in times of fever. “Any coolant, helps with the three key organs: kidneys, liver, and gall bladder.”

It is also, he tells me over a shot of whisky, something to help induce sleep when people are suffering from nervous disorders.

Herders who take their yak high into the mountains often collect the Snow Tea and other medicinal delicacies to help supplement to their income. When they return with their mules and billowing bags of mountain products, they can sell the goods for huge profits.

In the case of ‘gong ja’ or Snow Tea, he explains that it grows best on ground that at least for part of the year, is encased in snow which preserves its healing properties. Both this fact and the altitudes of 4,000 meters and higher are the reasons behind it being known to those that know it, as Snow Tea.

When another shot of alcohol is proffered to me – and accepted – by the doctor he speaks of the old trails that striate through the mountains being used by caravans. These mountain ‘highways’ would usher fungus, resin-heavy pine, and various funguses, mosses and the white Snow Tea from the heights. He also confides that the tea was used to counter alcohol’s potent properties when taken in too intense amounts. In my own days wandering through the high corridors I’d marveled at the bags of goods I’d often seen coming down with the mountain’s residents. I’d long assumed these little items – wood, mosses, weeds and plants – were simply for kindling or spiritual use.

Having finally left the doctor’s home, I was at least armed with a sense that this ‘Snow Tea’ had some legitimacy.

My decision to buy some of the white tea from this shop of high mountain medicines is to both keep some on hand, and of course to sample it. I’ve been told (and have a vague memory of) that the tea is mild with a slight bitterness. The seller in the shop will not budge on the price, which is 15 Rmb ($2.35 US) per gram until I casually mention that I’ve seen bigger ‘lichens’ at another shop. This ‘tactic’ of mine was suggested to me by the Doctor, when he told me that “size doesn’t matter and any good seller will not fall for this”. The seller does not which secures my mind that she probably has a legitimate product. She tells me straight that the size of the lichen means nothing whatsoever to the quality or potency of the ‘tea’ and I immediately purchase 5 grams which fills up a surprisingly large clear plastic bag. Like all good ‘real teas’ the size of a leaf means little, and in fact the smaller leaves (also the case of the lichens) the smaller the form, the younger; and the younger species often come laden with the most nutrients.

Home in my loft, the gentle preparations begin to finally prepare some of this ‘tea’, study it, drink it, and try to feel its effects – if there are any. Caffeine and the usual suspects of stimulants in a good green tea will be absent so there will be a little faith necessary on my part. No pungent kicks or wonderful rushes can be expected. My Kamjove kettle by the window is filled and water rumbles to its boil. Though called ‘white tea’, the ‘tea’ is neither white, nor a tea but rather silver, rubbery strands with the odd little bits of vegetation or green moss hanging off of them.

I’ve been told that the infusion water needs to boil to break up and release the essential elements of the lichen into the infusion, and that the infusion time should be at least three minutes. Outside my window, beyond a temple, dark skies shoot from the west, reminding momentarily where this precious white substance is from.

After a long soak, the infusion – which is unlike tea leaves in that the strands of lichen simply stay float atop the water – is ready and then sipped down with little more flavor than a slight metallic tang and that is it. Five infusions later, and still there is little more than that ever-so-slight tinge of iron taste and green before it is gone. Unlike so many of the ‘real’ teas that nicely pulverize my taste buds and gratify almost instantly, this tea requires more of a ‘have faith and it will help’ kind of attitude.

If the doctor says it is so, and it comes from the heights, it must have something special. Words from the doc and being sourced from the mountains cannot be denied. Immediately following the little sips of the ‘Snow Tea’ I prepare a potently bitter cup of a favorite green Pu’erh which has long comforted. I do this just to activate the cells and taste buds…after all; a little balance is always necessary.

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Oolong’s Misty Middle Ground

The engine of my little scooter is unrelenting as it screams ever-higher, only to coast and reach yet another ascent into damp air. Bodies of mist are thrown over the wet strip of curling road ahead. Precious mists are everywhere here, coating all in soft gray.

high mountain Oolongs Taiwan

the famed mists of Taiwan that provide a kind of cover for the tea bushes, diffusing both rain and direct sunlight

While the rain smacks my visor with fresh scents, my rain cape has pasted me with the tang of wet plastic. The sky moves from left to right above me and on all sides is lush, wet, greenery…and beyond that, fields of shimmering tea. Within a fold of the island’s central mountain range, I know that my scooter and I will be moving still further up in altitude beyond two thousand meters, and into what is famously referred to as “high mountain tea country”. One of Taiwan’s famed and legitimate claims is its precious high mountain Oolongs, and on this island which has dozens of peaks above 3,000 meters, there are ample places for Oolong to flourish. The 190 km Central Cross-Island Highway was completely obliterated 13 years ago in an earthquake that remains in the psyche of Taiwanese to this day, and as I coast along it, there are brown cascading falls of mud that spread across the asphalt. It remains though, one of the only routes into the world of High Mountain Oolongs.

Oolongs’ detailed journeys to become semi-fermented masterpieces are in many ways journeys that contradict my own long-standing philosophy that the best teas are simply made. Teas that take a straight line from the time they are picked to the much-awaited point of consumption have always felt more legitimate to my mouth. In their simplicity, they remain teas whose true essence cannot be hidden. High Mountain Oolongs, however, and their often ornate and customized production, lay waste to my long held belief.

My destination is Lishan, in the Central Mountain range, which runs north-south. It is an area known for fruit, drenched vistas, and the one overriding reason for my travel aboard a scooter, tea. Known to its Atayal indigenous population as Shalamao, its rain-covered slopes, volcanic soil, and voracious mists assist in making it a sanctuary for tea.

Within Taiwan’s potently green and deep slopes that hint at its volcanic past, there are vestiges of what locals will call ‘the old ways’ that still hum along unchanged. These ‘ways’ are the vaunted methods of creating spectacular teas. Much of the challenge of getting here, and much of what makes the landscape so tea-friendly is this very inaccessibility. These ‘old ways’ are time-honored methods that have long created teas that are mini works of art.

Oolong Tea in Taiwan

Mists are one of the great 'musts' for certain species of tea bushes. Taiwan with its narrow strip of land, surrounded by ocean, and pierced by high mountains is ideal for high mountain Oolong.

I have come to visit a man named Mr. Lu, who creates masterpieces of Oolong, in small quantities, from the 2,300-meter slopes of Dayuling. I have come to meet him, and take as much tea with me as I can, after sipping as much as I can hold.

Oolong, often referred to as ‘qing’ (a light tone or color of blue) in Mandarin, bridges the gap between fully fermented black and red teas, and the lighter greens, yellows, and whites. It is a tea of the ‘middle’ ground, but at the same time is a tea that needs a dexterous hand and romantic spirit to create. It is a tea that needs an obsessive creator. Perhaps more than any other ‘type’ of tea, Oolong can go wrong…or it can go extremely ‘right’.

On the island’s tea bastions of Ali Shan, Lishan, Wushe, Pinglin, and beyond, tea makers will often say that it is precisely in the careful manipulation and process of creating these nuanced Oolongs, that an ‘author’ or maker can create a masterpiece. Fermentation of tea is – in other, perhaps more accurate words – a measurement of how much freshly harvested tea leaves are allowed to oxidize.  Oxidization is halted by either a frying process, or in some cases, a steaming process. The combination of this aging, along with the decisive heating of the tea, fixes the taste, and by extension, fixes how the tea will be regarded. Fake ‘Taiwan Oolongs’ rage in distribution centers, as the leaves themselves will be produced in China, Thailand, or elsewhere, to arrive in Taiwan for a brief ‘finishing up’ before being exported.

For now, only my immediate, and almost invisible, surroundings concern me.  I’ve often seen photos of the Lishan area, with bolt blue skies, terraced angles of green and deep valleys. What I’m now immersed in is a sideways-moving storm of gusts, bursts of wet, and gray. After many such escapades of ‘seeking tea masters’, I admire those that choose to be near their beloved green hills rather than basking in their own fame in the cities.  These mists, which roam well above a thousand meters, diffuse the sun’s rays and create an airborne tonic of humidity that bathes the tea bushes. This soft gray home of caressing humidity helps maintain the amino acids, stimulants, and flavonoids in tea. It is the mists that are heralded and needed for Oolongs.

Lin is apparently in his late sixties, and is known to make only enough tea for himself and a few who pass by and know of his special teas. His fame originates from an adherence to an old and rare process of roasting already sumptuous Oolongs with low heat fires, burning wood from various types of trees. These varying woods infuse hints – mere hints – of themselves into the tea, creating marvelous one-offs.

Along the side of the meandering roadway are orchards of pear and apple trees in unorganized rows, hunched against the wet onslaught. Pulley systems on small tracks,  used to haul up fruit to waiting trucks, lie still and covered in slick.

The town of Lishan passes by and soon there is only tea around me. Dayuling’s Oolongs are prized for their pristine, far-off altitudes, and for the fact that with altitude comes cool, and with cool heights come fewer natural enemies to the tea bushes. Pesticides are rarely used in true tea gardens up here, and if they are, locals spread the news like word of a plague. Reputations must be kept and nasty sprays are one step to losing a pedigree immediately.

Studying a ragged piece of paper with hand-drawn instructions, I see below me a little paved entry to a valley.  The odd truck comes into view, with headlights in the gloom. Not much stirs at all, as the world here is engulfed in precipitation. Turning down the little road, a home of many parts sits on the left, while orchids sway under a black cloth overhanging the drive. A pitiful little waft of smoke issues out of a thin chimney, and further down the road, sits a similar home, with a similar bit of smoke. This is it; a home that hopefully contains Lin and some of his heralded tea. Selfishly, I hope this is the right place and that there is plenty of tea ready for my greedy mouth.

It is from these experiences and journeys into tea’s more remote worlds that true knowledge is imparted. It is the second day of driving from Taipei, in the north, aboard this 125cc machine. There are no numbers on the house that I can see. My instructions are in the style of “after the gas station, second right turn, past a hydro line, a left and the first house…” It was in many ways a miracle that I had made it this far.

A door hurriedly opens, as though someone is expecting me, and a broad woman runs out with an umbrella. I am ushered into the front door as she apologizes for the rain. Dispatching my rain cape on a hanger and providing a towel for my sandaled feet, my hostess is everywhere at once…she shows all the signs of a perfect hostess, who happens to be ripped on tea. That gleam in her eye is something very familiar to the tea obsessed.

One room, with only dull light making it through, is off to the left, and my elbow is steered into the scantily lit, square room. An old medicine cabinet, with dozens of drawers, lines one entire wall, with tea poking out of a good number of them.

Oolong varieties were the first teas to make it out of Asia and into the west, and yet they remain in many ways the least known. Numbering in the thousands, with different processes and handling, Oolongs are stronger and more durable than their green brethren. These semi-fermented teas are varied, and depending on how the fermentation is done, and the type of tea desired, there is a very general rule that they will be fermented between 10 and 65 percent. Oolongs’ picking, withering, fermenting, blocking of fermentation, frying, shaping….all of these stages are determined by the master, his intention, and the type or vintage of the plant.

Oolong Tea Leaves

A leaf not yet harvested near Dayuling, Lishan that will be picked and used for one of Lin's brilliant but hard to find concoctions.

A man, slightly bent, is coming toward me, with the heavy eyelids of the insomniac. This is Lin. My female guide has disappeared momentarily, returning with an urn-like container of water. Lin points to it and rasps that this is spring water from a nearby source, “One of the essentials for any tea is good water”. This is as much of an introduction to him as I will receive.

Lin knows why I have come and he gets right to it. My body is uncoiling out of its damp tension in tiny stages. Lin’s voice comes out in bullet points with no flowery language or soothing smiles. His small body is perched at the edge of a small chair behind a table, upon which is a huge carved tea table, with a small plastic conduit tube hanging below into a pail.

As Lin explains that in Taiwan true teas should not be harvested before they are five years old, my broad-shouldered, female hostess arrives with a steaming plastic bowl full of hot water for my feet. Lin takes no notice, preferring instead to peek through the half dozen bags of dried tea leaves.

He selects one, and looks quickly over the table at me and asks if my feet are comfortable.  “I’m going to serve you a roasted Oolong tea. A tea that has been roasted with cherry wood. It is a tea you will not find in many places and I’m not even sure I like it, but it is very special.”

Out of nowhere, he tells me “you will sleep here”, without looking up. His abruptness keeps me focused on him and I begin to suspect that this is exactly his intention.

Lin, I have been told, is originally from Fujian province, where Taiwan has taken much of its functional tea culture and much of its language. Known to be direct – often misinterpreted as rude- in their attempts to get to the point of a discussion – they are undisputed masters of Oolong in all of its incarnations and serving styles. As a friend once told me, “Fujian knows best where tea ceremony meets tea functionality.”

Lin is back explaining something as he readies one of an arsenal of stained clay pots. He tells me that he isn’t going to explain the special Yixing clay pot to me. “Yes, it is important, but nothing is as important as the ‘integrity’ of the leaf.” Heavy words.
The pot is rinsed from the outside first, so as not to crack it. Then the insides are rinsed with the searing, just boiled, nearby water.

Dark rolled leaves, almost black, are thrown into the clay pot, shaken with the lid on and handed to me to take in a first waft. First comes a waft of ‘roasting wood’ and then after that a hint of burnt corn.

A new batch of freshly boiled water drenches the leaves in the pot and the hermetically sealed lid is replaced. Ten seconds later, and after some humming of a tune by Lin, the first infusion drenches our awaiting cups.

Suddenly Lin is staring out of the bleak window at the rains beyond. Another nugget of tea is released from his mouth, “You know that these teas (all teas really) need mists. Those mists out there are like a blanket to protect the tea bushes.”

Moments later I have the fluid in my mouth. Two days of driving through rain disappear abruptly as I – with feet still soaking – take in Lin’s roasted Oolong.
Lin’s eyes stray to a point up and behind me before he shoots back the cup of tea and it is only after four more infusions – which have me jabbering with delight – that Lin grunts something. Again he isn’t sure; in this case he isn’t sure that this is the best of this particular tea. “Each year I take two or three kg’s to experiment with. This roasting is never the same twice. These teas are small little worlds.”

Some sips later, he finally seems to settle. He speaks of roasting in his short clipped way.

“Roasting is an art. You can hide a bad tea by roasting it, or you can use the roasting process to bring out a tea’s qualities. It can make an already good tea something special.” Roasting for many master-makers encourages yet more of a tea’s character to emerge, but he emphasizes, “Every stage of tea production is crucial and the roasting helps to wring something extra out of a tea. Some quality that needs the added roasting to release it.”

The roasting that he speaks of is done only after a tea is ‘fixed’ into its final form. It can be done immediately after, or, as in the case of Lin’s teas, months after. Some tea makers will even double roast a tea to ‘age’ and preserve it, just as smoking meats in the past extended the life of foodstuffs.

When I ask later if we might go into the fields, I get a slightly incredulous look and then a shake of the head. “We have a lot more tea to drink and I don’t like the rain. I like the mists though,” and he again stares out of the little window, before preparing another one of his roasted blends.

A comment Lin makes stays with me, and marks him in my tea-mind at least as an unrelenting perfectionist. When I ask him which tea he defers to most often, he thinks a moment, before telling me that the perfect tea rests only in his mind, and that “I haven’t tasted a tea yet that I find perfect.”

“This one is pretty good though,” he says, as he readies another pot with another dose of water.

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A Classic and the Mix Lao Banzhang

Though debates rage, fingers wag, and heads shake in disagreement of whether a classic tea is really a classic tea, a great part of drinkers’ judgments are based on price (and the ensuing expectations), qualities and the environment a tea is consumed in. Expectations can destroy as easily as bad product and it is a kind of ‘travel to truth’ when one can visit and access a tea’s very earthen home.

It is a luxury (and perhaps a necessity) when one can access in person the source of a legendary tea. Add to that to take sips with those who live ‘with’ and harvest it, and treat the tea with camaraderie that befits an old and treasured friend, and this translates into some entirely tangible and spoiling. There is though, a tradition of the tea world that is rarely acknowledged, beyond simply the leaves themselves; something vital in creating a classic tea and that is the ‘mixing’ of a tea. To see this, one must absolutely visit the source.

Lao (old) Banzhang suffers at times in the tea world for the expectations that it comes with but it is in every sense (when genuine and produced by those that know) a classic. Many drinkers and collectors within Asia’s outrageously pernickety tea mob will claim that Lao Banzhang is the standard by which all other raw green Pu’erhs should be (and inevitably are) compared. Often regarded as a kind of do-it-all panacea for the ails of the tea world, a legitimate and properly-produced Banzhang has all of the delicious requirements to make it something magnificent. All of these plaudits come of course with a vital necessary given: proper production.

A Banzhang, whether it be from Lao Banzhang village, Hsin Banzhang (new Banzhang village) or from any number of nearby villages, will be at the mercy of good production methods, proper care and of course the stunning raw materials themselves: ancient tea forests.

It is early March and the bulk of harvesting is done in Lao Banzhang. Heat is beginning to stain everything in southern Yunnan and its sheen rests upon every surface. Altitudes above 1500 meters ensure that heat doesn’t entirely take over. The town hums…it is March and harvested tea leaves are being hauled in from the tea forests around. The entire community is in action shooting into the surrounding forests early in the day to begin each day as they began the last. Afternoon breaks; food taken on the floors with family and then off again into the deep green silences for a second round of picking. This area – a portion of the greater Pulang Mountains in southern Yunnan – is one of tea’s original ancient homes and it remains a place of relative silence and it certainly remains a place of unending tea.

I am lodged in a headquarters of movement – one of the village headmen’s homes -watching enormous bags of tea come in with scribbles of black marker on their sides. Different harvesting clans bring in their teas for sampling and mixing to the headman’s home. Relationships play huge roles in whose tea is sold and distributed by whom.

‘Little Goat’, the headman’s son is languidly ensuring marked bags go into the correct room of the sprawling ‘tea home’. He will be the heir to this tea center-point and already organizes much of the harvest in his carefree but attentive way. All of the tea is from the surrounding forests that encircle Lao Banzhang town and each ‘bringer’ of tea has produced their offerings: harvested, withered, fried, and dried the tea leaves. Each harvester has a history with the family of Little Goat and their teas are predictable, regardless of quantities.

‘Mr. B’, a mustached man from Guangdong province flits about grimacing and double-checking the bags. Occasionally he jams his head into a bag and takes heaves as if to satisfy an almost violent urge. Every harvest season he comes to this remote tea town and organizes and manages quality. His surliness is perhaps part loneliness, as he is a man with a quick smile and wit but far from home in this remote mountain.

His job is to ensure that tea that his company has already pre-purchased is up to standards for the most discriminating of buyers. The current mutually beneficial set-up is part of a relationship that stems back years and one that is based on trust and market demand for one of the great Pu’erhs of the world. Mr. B, himself a competent tea man at all of tea’s crucial stages is a kind of hired gun, a man brought into manage the collection of close to 15% of the entire town’s premium old tree Spring harvest. Rarely smiling and seemingly in a perpetually bad mood it is part of his ‘act’, as it is his task to ensure that quality is controlled at each stage. Each of the 20 kg bags of tea have come from designated families who are aware of – and follow – stringent production rule’s set by the Guangdong man and his company. These rules aren’t to ensure only profits; they are to ensure that a classic tea gets its due and remains from start to finish something extraordinary. These rules, in many ways are designed to ensure a sustainable future, and they ensure everything from the careful frying of tea leaves to the length of time and thickness of a ‘blanket’ of drying tea leaves. Bags of tea will be collected, samples tasted, and then one of the tea world’s great and very understated rituals takes place: mixing.

For one of the mixing sessions I will be present and yet another Guangdong man will arrive for three days only to oversee this vital step. His prime task will be to oversee the mixing of teas after sampling and deciding on which teas should marry which other teas. Mixing is one of the old and now fading arts of creating classic teas.

In the world of teas, most of the mixing that goes on is of the negative variety: ‘cutting’ inferior or foreign tea leaves in with sacred old tree tea leaves, which amounts to lying about the tea in question.

In the case of this load of Lao Banzhang, the mixing to be done is to enhance already top grade leaves to create something magic, and like most things ‘magic’, this requires an absolute knowledge of the product.

The ‘morning of the mixing’ arrives and it begins like every other day in the last week. A cool morning air rests in the valley around us with no breeze. Morning mists hold onto the forests. Scooters with two three and even four people buzz off along roads; groups of harvesters make their way up into the forests and I start the day with some blisteringly strong tea slurps with ‘Little Goat’. One of the the beautiful perks of time spent in a tea sanctuary is the amount of uncomplicated and raw tea that is served up at all times of day and night in quantities that literally flood. Bags of glorious ‘throw-away’ tea sit in casual disarray close to a tea table. This ‘throw-away’ is glorious tea, but lacks the esthetic requirements to be sold to picky sellers, so it is left to be sipped when the mood strikes and in the case of my greedy taste buds, this mood is often. Leaves that are torn, unsightly stems, and the odd bit of refuse don’t detract from taste, but they detract from the ‘look’.

When Little Goat picks a tea for a quick fix, he picks from one of the countless bags of ‘prime tea’ at his disposal, knowing each tea intimately: fresh potent teas whose bitterness hits at the beginning and end of the tongue, only finishing sweetly at the very last bend of the throat; teas that are four years old and mellowing ever-so-slightly into a vintage; and teas that are not the best of the bunch but still take the mouth and tongue on a happy bender of a journey.

When our famed mixer arrives, there is an almost dramatic hush after the welcomes and inevitable – and much needed – cups of tea. Built squat, our mixer ‘Mr. Wen’ is casual, quirky, and understated. Outfitted in flip-flops, and loose fitting clothes that barely restrain his bulk, ‘Mr. Wen’ has a short-stepped shuffle when he moves.

On the semi-covered outdoor porch an enormous tea table has been set up with an assortment of newly harvested teas for the proceedings. As an aside at one point while we all sit down, he mentions to me something he considers funny…though he doesn’t smile at this bit of information. He speaks of how locals sometimes don’t completely understand how precious their product is to people who buy from him and that their still-simple methods of production are one of the very reasons of why their teas are coveted.

When Mr. Wen sits, he appears almost bored by all of this but through years of knowing him I know that nothing; not one single element is missed or ignored by this muscular lover and seller of teas.

First, various teas’ raw tea leaves are studied by sight, with small bunches from each of the bags set out on tiny plates. Each plate has a small piece of paper with a number assigned to it. Around the table a small group of villagers sits softly talking amongst themselves, with one pointing out to the others his tea sample which sits in front of Mr. Wen.

Next, hot water from a nearby burbling kettle is poured over the ten samples in their respective bowls. Mr. Wen’s right hand casually swirls the leaves with a spoon and water mixture together allowing the water to open up the leaves. The spoon is dipped into the potent tealeaf mixture and brought up to the nose of Mr. Wen and gently turned back and forth under the nostrils. Nothing is revealed, no sounds emanate from him; nothing at all creases his face. The village men beside me sit with leathery hands folded or resting on legs as they gently preen forward on their stools, eyes attentive to every sound and movement of the performance.

Finally a nod comes from Mr. Wen’s wide head, the first sign of any kind of acknowledgement regarding the teas in front of him. At one point Mr. B and his significant moustache join us and he takes his place next to Mr. Wen with paper and pen handy. Even he, in his manager role defers to Mr. Wen’s unquestioned skills with the leaf.

The third ‘test’ that happens is a small amount of tea liquid is swirled into the spoon and slurped back noisily into Mr. Wen’s mouth. This is repeated with each of the ten teas, often broken up by sips of warm water. Some more sips of particular teas and then, as though all has been made clear, lightening instructions are issued to Mr. B, and he calls out the number of various teas clarifying which will be mixed with which. The whole point is that some teas lack a “bite” but lack something longer lasting, while others have “bite” while missing a “base”. Other teas have great balance but little staying power, and still others are simply “not good”. Tea #2 and tea #7 will be blended to bring together their complementary strengths…and so on. These qualities and characteristics are in part due to what direction the tea forests face, the kind of storage and drying that takes place and even the ratio of young and old leaves in a given tea. It is this ‘mixing’ that can fix or enhance an already great tea into something divine, and it is here that Mr. Wen is a master.

When the numbers are finally taken down and the teas blended (at least on paper) we all slump and get into some necessary tasting of our own.

Sheets of soft wind now make little passes through our space and the day has moved on while our focus has been the green leaf. Heavy sun gives everything the tang of warmth.

Mr. Wen asks for the bag of “Tea #4” and where it is from. Taking the bag, he looks carefully through the leaves as if confirming some suspicion and asks whose leaves they belong to. A slight man to my left raises his hand with a bit of hesitation and is asked immediately how much he has left of the particular tea. The ensuing answer is, “30 kg’s”. No one is sure where this line of questioning is leading but we all have our answer when Mr. Wen – making no secret of his intentions – tells the man, “I’ll buy it all”. He later explains that he has no intention of selling the tea but rather, that the tea in question will be part of his personal collection, so good is it.

Later in the day in another little but well-versed tradition I am presented with a bag of local tea for my own ample and obsessed-over collection. Unmixed, the tea is a simple but powerful ‘average’ tea grown locally and this token gift is one that is coveted not only for its contents, but for the sharing aspect which runs rife through tea communities.

Two days follow of this ‘mixing’ and then it is time to part until next harvest season. The only positive of leaving this place of classic teas is that my bags swell with newly acquired leaves…

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The Leaf and the Wood -Tea and Bamboo: A Tale of Two Friends

“You see how it smokes”? Several small plumes drift upwards. One thick bamboo husk is wedged into the ashes of a low heat fire and wafts smoke upward into the heavy air. What smokes is the base of the green bamboo, which slowly chars in the embers. This one end rests in the ashes while the other open end is angled upwards. In the round bamboo (one of the other eternal green species of this sub-tropical area) container, raw tea leaves and water boil and become infused with the smoky, roasted, blasts given off by the direct contact to fire-heat.

Tea leaves and Bamboo

Water and tea boil in a Pulang home, preparing the leaves for their eventual immersion into a husk, afterwhich the husk will be buried. No additives are included. It is simply water and tea leaf combined for eventual burial.

“This burning of the bamboo is what will give the tea its smoked taste”, Mr. Shen tells me. He remarks, almost to himself, that “Sometimes people do this for tourists, but very few know what they are doing.”

Beside the fire, four still-green bamboo husks sit waiting their turn by the fireside. About a meter long and three or four inches in diameter, they are neat and utterly simple, but represent one part of one of tea’s more ancient preparation techniques. Something that, in my own mind at least, transcends time.

Mr. Shen, who’s Hani name is ‘Nga’,  sits back, eyes glittering in pride and expectation. This is tea culture laid bare, simplified to a tradition that is older than the ‘pick, dry, fry, dry again, and then consume’ teas that the world-of-now knows. Giant tea leaves of the big leaf Yunnan variety (Pu’erh) are squeezed together by wooden tongs and lie leaning against the heat, waiting to become soft.

When Nga decides it is time for our roasted brew be consumed, a simple bamboo cup is filled with hay colored liquid. Without tea going through the stages normally associated with tea production – which softens and modulates the taste -the raw tea leaf ‘extract’ imparts bitterness in the extreme; an essence that transcends manipulation. This is tea in the raw, with the roasting only barely softening the absolute ‘green’ of the taste.

“My parents used this tea when they had eaten too much spice or had fever. It is a traditional form of drinking and for us an old medicine”, I am told.

The air around us smells as only sub-tropics can smell: fragrant, smoky, and humid. Day’s light is fading into a stained hue on the horizon, and nearby, bougainvillea vines offer up their brilliant blooms. We are almost 1500 meters up in a tea mountain east of Menghai, and on this day, I’m being educated in some of the old tea ways that involve tea’s eternal mate, bamboo.

Our roasted tea hits the mouth with a force that is pleasantly shocking. It is as though I’ve been reintroduced to tea. The raw leaves, after boiling for fifteen minutes in the water within the bamboo host, have had much of their potency expelled into the water and it is an uncompromising introduction into tea’s strength. Nga warns against drinking this – or any fully green tea – on an empty stomach, as the intensity and astringency can affect the digestive track. His hands circulate his stomach area to emphasize the potential disastrous effects. What he doesn’t explain is the stimulant factor, which hits my entire being with a wonderful crashing force.

My Pulang hostess gets the boiled tea leaves out of the water and into a bamboo casket, within which it will rest for months or even years.

Even with my tendency to take in more tea stimulants than necessary, I’m not quite prepared for this little experience that has me jittery in minutes. Three cups into our drinking session, with eyes twitching and tongue nicely pulverized, it is time for my next bamboo related tea lesson. We move two meters away to another hearth and another fire, where another of tea’s ancient ‘ways’ will be played out.

“Dai, Pulang, Wa, and we Hani, have always used bamboo to prepare, cook, and consume tea. It is a good friend to us and to the tea”. The ‘tea’ and bamboo he speaks of line the forests around us in phalanxes of green tones and dark depths. Long together, growing as compatriots, it isn’t only here in China’s soft southwest where these two old friends have been inextricably linked. Japan’s tea culture has long kept the two close. Tea instruments carved out of bamboo, calligraphy celebrating the two, ornate bamboo tea tables, and even containers for tea leaves themselves, have long been a part of one another’s space and identity. A local specialty dish here in Menghai county serves up bamboo grubs, which grow fat on the sweet insides of bamboo. They are quickly stir-fried in oil, chilies and tea leaves in a spicy, bitter-sweet symphony of tastes … but that would need another blog post on another world of consumables.

Nga has prepared dried tea leaves in a silver bowl and is forcing them into a similar bamboo husk. “In the days before tea factories, we steamed the tea like this”. Forcing the leaves into the round husks with only a little water at the bottom, Nga then folds bamboo leaves into the top to effectively seal off the top, creating a small vacuum lid. With the water coming to a boil, the leaves steam, losing their shape and naturally compressing into the round tubular shape of the husk. With the water having been boiled off, Nga then forces the pliant leaves down with a wooden ‘plunger’. Using a giant blade, he then splits the bamboo casing lengthwise, revealing the compressed leaves in tube form, ready to dry and ferment…and ready to travel. Bamboo in this case was the ‘vessel’, the molder, and holder of the leaves. Yet another tea session of sips – this of the recently ‘formed’ tea – reveals no hint of roasted taste, but rather something soothing and only softly green.

Leaves stuffed into the opening point of a bamboo husk act as an informal seal, creating a steam environment to condense and conform the leaves into a formed tea shape.

An hour’s drive west, another pair of hands, another people, and another town, but the tea and bamboo couple are still together in another ritual of mutual complicity, aided by time and human hands.  While the woman’s hands are as powerful as Nga’s, the pace is  more plodding, and deliberate. This is a ceremony entirely about time and nothing of the modern world’s rush will change it.

The fire that burns is not outside in the dirt, but inside on a bare floor of ash, and the tea that is being prepared is not tea that will be consumed in minutes, but rather in months. A tradition that stems back to when emperors ruled kingdoms and the countries of now were nothing but dreams. ‘Sour tea’ is another throw-back to another time, but equally dependant on bamboo.

My Pulang hostess, in her methodical way, is repeating a process that will in her words, “be lost in two generations”.  A huge and battered pot, only partially filled with water, comes to a boil, and it is at this point that raw tea leaves are thrown in and stirred.

The boiled down tea leaves are finally drained and stuffed ceremoniously into a bamboo husk, where they are further pummeled into a state of broken and disheveled submission. The tea leaves are packed down until they almost fill the barrier.

Two of my hostess’ grandchildren giggle at the site, and I wonder at her prophetic words, that they may not know how, nor know the worth of what their grandmother does. The elevated hut seems half modern and half of the old times. In one of the two rooms, a communal sleeping room, lies a room where nothing is hidden.. A series of mattresses lie on the floor in happy disarray, while the kitchen is an extended space that is made up of some hanging herbs, slabs of pork, and a series of small benches that stand surrounding the fire pit. Excesses and their effects have not yet touched this corner, though there is an easy and almost enviable ease to the people’s interaction.

Finally, some brown clay is dug from the ground, softened with water, and packed onto the open end of the bamboo, to seal the container completely. When I ask whether any other kinds of wood can be used for the process, I am given the slightly deranged smile that one gives the infirm in sympathy, and my hostess shakes her head, telling me simply, “It is not the way”. Bamboo will not rot, and will infuse the tea slightly with a little of its inherent sweetness, making it an ideal partner in all things tea.

We are ready for the final step, which will literally be a return to earth for the entire casket of tea. A small grave is dug, and the bamboo cask is gently laid in a ceremony that bristles with irony. Filled in, the tea will “rest” for anywhere from two months to over a year within the bamboo, which is in turn within the earth. On its eventual recovery, (“if we can find it”, my hostess laughs), the mixture will be added to rice in a tribute to a habit made famous by Burmese kingpins of centuries ago, known as lephet. It is tea mulch that is eaten. I am later told that one of the daughters of the homestead actually makes maps to locate the various buried treasures. Upon tasting some of the pulverized and ‘sour’ tea with a bowl of rice, the only sensation is of a potent, musty, vegetal complex, that needed rice to tone it down.

In all their thousands of years living and providing side by side, the ‘wood’ and the ‘leaf’ continue a relationship, though what binds them risks disappearing. Something Nga says maybe sums up best that notion of progress. In his straightforward way, he sees it quite simply. “If tea has to change its shapes, and its wording to move on, that’s fine, but we should never ignore what it is and where it comes from”.

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