Bada: Yunnan’s Unsung Puer

Bada Mountain exists as part geographical divider and part ultimate tea sanctuary – a rolling space of green that is lush, benefits from the monsoon’s wet visits, and has quietly been producing teas for as long as anyone can remember. These mountains within mountains above the Burma border in southern Yunnan, have long hosted cultivated gardens and wild tea forests – forests that create catechin-laden teas famed for bitterness and vegetal potency. Wild tea forests are the equivalent of lighting the fuse of lust in the mind of a true tea drinker and this region (and Bada in particular) boasts many of these tea forests.

It is this region, “one can find the largest quantities of affordable and good quality teas”, as one tea buyer from southern Yunnan’s Jinghong city put it.

Spring season is the inaugural tea season and I have quite deliberately found myself here. The coveted Spring teas are being harvested, an expectant market waits to see the quality and quantity of the yield, and I am quietly expectant, waiting to sate my own rampant thirst. Bada’s reliability in producing both high yields and consistent (and almost predictable) teas season after season have kept it one of the “better known of the lesser known” tea mountains producing Puers.

Cool wet skies have poured damp on the land this spring and the normally temperate hills and sweat inducing vapors have given way to blue gray winds from the north. Bada Mountain itself is encased in cold mists and its prime 1500 meter forests lie almost hidden from view. Harvests are coming in slightly later due to the cold, but as a local Hani woman Mei, tells me, “late harvests often mean better teas”.

Cold blue rains have scoured the entire forest clean, and the gleam of huge serrated tea leaves sparkle everywhere. My walk into these mountains has led me to a path where I literally have to part the fogs, and as I pass through those same fogs, quickly re-envelope the route that I pass along. The forests are alive with the faint ghostly figures of the harvesters. It is important to see the source of all the green goodness that I will later imbibe in a town with no name.

A day later, I arrive at the in-between, not-quite-a-town, with no name. I have come to sip, drink and taste. The town is one of those tea-gathering points of southern Yunnan that doesn’t even have a name. Instead it is simply known as ‘Bada’. Towns in the area often do this in a kind of desperation to have their name associated with the mountain that is the base for such goodness, rather than a village name that no one will ever remember.

When a load of 300 kg’s of Bada green goodness comes on the back of a hybrid tractor encased in dirty beige bags, I join a horde of local tea buyers whose eyes have lit with an abnormal intensity as they snort, chortle and pick through the bags. Vehicles like this, laden with leaves, are all along the Bada range, and are headed toward the bigger tea market towns, such as Mengla or Menghai.

The yields this year are very good, though the harvests are late. For the tea locals and the people who consume liters of tea a day the tea is studied with something close to a somber obsession – razor sharp eyes, fingers handling, a prodding nose inhaling and then repeating the entire process. A Bada Puer in unfermented form should be bitter but not overwhelming; it should be vegetal and absolutely green tasting, and the coveted wild tree teas produce without a doubt the best teas of every season.

Tea’s from any region carry the hints and tangs of their geographic homes. High ph levels, south facing mountains, degree of drainage, and the production methods all contribute in some way to the sip that is finally taken. All great teas are identifiable rather than ambiguous – they carry a mark, a signature of sorts, something which sets them apart from other teas.

Bada Mountain can claim one of the oldest tea trees on the planet with some putting one ancient tea tree at almost 2,000 years, though it no longer is producing tea. It has become a tourist drawing point more than anything. Regardless of age, the notion that Bada has produced teas for a small eternity continues to do it no harm in tea circles. Local indigenous peoples have attributed many health-giving properties to tea as long as it has been around and many, like the Hani people, believe that the very bitterness that most westerners find so assaulting (and insulting) to the palate is a sign of quality and potent life giving properties.

Among tea’s heralded uses for the indigenous peoples, the most common references are balancing the body’s core temperature, benefiting headaches and drowsiness, expelling excess heat from the body, aiding with kidney or gallstones, and acting as a general tonic to the liver and pancreas. In fact, tea in this region can easily be called the great ‘healer’, so numerous are its alleged benefits, many of which are now proving to be correct.

Sitting in a tea shop in the town of Menghun, I am graced with the presence of resident live-wire and fervent advocate of Bada’s understated qualities, Wei. Wei is somewhere in her 40’s but refuses to say anything about her age other than to claim that her tea consumption has kept her “feeling and looking as though she is in her twenties” – it is a claim that I do not pursue nor comment on for fear of encouraging her significant amounts of energy to turn on me. Another tea maven turned me on to her years ago and I am now just meeting her for the first time. She is a devotee of Bada teas, claiming a dozen times in an animated hour that it is the tea that is an “ignored classic”. Her point, which is made with a succession of violent sweeping gestures, is that simply because Bada Mountain’s teas are available in significant amounts (and by extension reasonably priced),they aren’t often desired with such raging obsession as say a Laubanzhang, Jingmai or Hu Kai. As a little aside later in the conversation, she points to a large potted plant in the corner, and as I look I see that used tea leaves line the soil in the pot. “Even used tea leaves have a use as fertilizer…it is Bada Tea”.

At this point, I know I am in the capable though jittery hands of a true tea maniac…and there is some comfort in that.

I have long thought that a good Bada tea was a ‘sleeper’; a tea that gently slipped under the radar screen of Puer tea ‘aficionados’ . Whether a question of snobbery, ignorance or simple taste, I knew not, but what was clear was that there would never ‘not’ be enough delicious (and affordable) Bada in a given year and for that alone it deserved respect.

My hostess Wei – after a considerable amount of time spent simultaneously commiserating with me, berating fake ‘old teas’ and their proprietors alike, lambasting clients’ general ignorance of tea, and waxing eloquent about Bada – is finally ready to serve some of the tea in question.

In my experiences in teahouses in this part of the world, I know that one must be patient and allow the tea masters some theatrical performances before actually consuming anything. It is afterall a free tasting and in my mind this gives the procurer and server some drama. Some people come to cha guan (tea houses) for tea, many more for the social aspects….I have come for tea but been swept up in Wei’s dynamic personality. My paranoia though is on high alert as I know that regardless of the extroverted and delightful ramblings of Wei, my day will be decided upon whether or not the tea itself sings to me or not.

Wei at last gets down to the preparation of a first and very needed serving of green unoxidized Bada Puer. Pausing for effect and to reemphasize the point, she points to the loose leaves next to her “This is Bada Old tree tea”. This reference to a tea’s age gets muddled in the tea world.

When people speak of an “old tea”, they refer to the number of years a particular tea has been in its dried and processed form – whether it be in loose, brick, log, nest or cake form. This differs from an “old tree tea” which can be freshly picked, but is harvested from a centuries old tree.

Most tea drinkers in southern Yunnan care far less about the age of a particular tea than they do about how old the source tea tree or bush is. The sacred old tea trees are almost never sprayed or overharvested and are loaded with all the compounds and catechins that make it such a bittersweet joy.

So, when Wei tells me of this “old tea tree” tea I do feel a ripple of excitement. Gingerly taking a handful of some of those giant and oddly shaped leaves, she nestles them into the rinsed flared ceramic serving cup (gai wan) and covers them with the lid. After shaking the leaves within the heated gai wan, she offers me the opportunity to smell the dried leaves, releasing hints of what is to come.
“Sweet, sun-dried-hay” is the first thought, which then moves into a slightly more green waft as I take in more breaths.

Wei, thankfully, has become near silent, issuing only some chirps and grunts as she prepares the first rinse. Pouring fully boiled water over the roughly 10 grams of tea (she has loaded the serving cup with leaves that almost spill out. Locals prepare pungent and strong tea preferring more leaves and less infusion times rather than economizing on leaves and increasing infusion times). They can afford this as their access to vast quantities of great teas is enviable.

Filling the serving cup almost recklessly until waters spills over. A light froth forms on the surface, which Wei efficiently wipes off with the cover before resting the lid on the tea for 15 seconds. This bitter froth, a combination of unwanted bitterness and any impurities, forms with the first rinse, never to appear again.

That first unwanted rinse is used to clean and heat our minute cups before us. A second rapid infusion is poured into the tea leaves. Another fifteen seconds and I am inhaling sharp and brilliantly hot slurps in rapid succession of our Bada unfermented Puer.

The heat cannot diminish the bitter green that hits the teeth and underside of the tongue. Florals swirl in the mouth at the same time as an astringent strain swims around. Add to all of this a faint trace of vegetal and then down the hatch it finishes sweet.

Wei has been transformed into an almost sage-like ‘giver of tea’, and I am grateful not to have to comment on the tea yet, as she is already preparing the second ‘drinkable’ infusion which will tell us much more.

The second and third infusions course through the mouth and finish much as the first infusion, but somehow smoother. Bada tea’s ability to have consistent flavor wrung out of it time and time again is its great strength. Wei’s energy ramps up again, excited as she is over the endless shots of tea that have already been consumed, and the shots of tea yet to come.

Four hours, a meal, and several visitors later, Bada’s great strengths are summed up by Wei, “It is not a beauty at first sight, but its qualities catch up with you”…..”like me”….she adds. It is time to depart…but not without a 2 kg bag of Bada under my arm.

2 Responses to Bada: Yunnan’s Unsung Puer

  1. Peter says:

    Great to learn more about another little known aspect of the tea world. It is fascinating to see how unpretentious and straightforward these tea drinkers are when it comes to tea.

    Many thanks for sharing this with us, Jeff.

    Best wishes,

  2. sam dill says:

    greetings jeff loved your book and enjoy your blog and videos wish the videos were longer when you are in vancouver, bc you must visit daniel lui and his wife at their wonderful shop in chinatown the chinese tea shop, 101 e. pender street and columbia st. vancouver, bc v6a 1t6 604 633- 1322 as soon as you you walk in they sit you down for a gong- fu cha session daniel is a young tea master who is about your age and whose passion matches your own his web site is excellent