Tracking or tracing a tea is often more difficult that simply finding a great tea. There are teas though that must be sampled to be enjoyed and more to the point must be ‘discovered’ in their original home. Hu Kai is one such tea.
Little known outside Asia’s rabid tea consumers, Hu Kai has made an indelible mark with a taste and quality that are unique even amongst vaunted tea circles. Consumed and purchased in massive quantities by Koreans and Singaporean tea addicts, the tea itself is a perfect example of tea’s little irony – beginning life in a green humid paradise and ending up as a discussion point being served in a distant land in a thimble-sized cup.
As with many teas, Hu Kai is named for a place rather than a quality, and the place is a sprawling, rolling landscape of soft shimmering winds and villages that are little more than blips. It’s name in time though has come to mean quality and that ever-crucial descriptive for the collectors, “special”. Deep into the belly of Yunnan’s southern Pulang Mountain regions Hu Kai the place, is inhabited by Hani, Wa, Pulang and Lahu peoples – peoples with tea, quite literally, in the blood. Though the modern world refers to the teas harvested in this area as Puer/Pu’erh, the locals simply refer to it as large leaf green tea.
Large leafed, sun and shade dried, it is sold and consumed only in its naturally ‘green’ or unfermented form. What makes Hu Kai special is a taste; some say a mere hint of orchid – not an applied synthetic essence, but a genuine waft of the plant, which itself grows rampant in the area. For some ‘takers of the green’ it is the finest tasting tea there is and must be purchased at the point of origin to ensure that one is in fact getting a legitimate Hu Kai and not some ‘pretender’. Southern Yunnan, and by unhappy extension much of China, is rife with copies, efforts, and blasphemes of genuine teas.
Arriving at a roadside tea market with tea simply bulging off of collapsible tables and bursting out of clear shopping bags one can feel a kind of legitimacy – teas that are carefully wrapped, gaudily promoted and spoken of in hushed reverence in the big cities are here simply pointed at and nodded at and ‘known’. The tea market seems to have simply been dropped out of the sky onto a bend along a dirt track road. How anyone is supposed to know about the existence of these is a point of mystery but here the beauty of this muted world of mists and musty earth is that the word of mouth is alive and well.
Hu Kai the area, is a roughly drawn out region of almost exclusively Lahu people whose highlight product can be summed up with one particular item, their tea.
A mixture of old growth trees and sturdy young bushes sit and explode upon the hills in a kind of random disorder but the real Hu Kai tea must be sought out.
Prodding my nose and fingers into bamboo encased tea, grasping through loose leaves and fiddling with tea cakes and bricks my question about where the Hu Kai is met with pursed lips and head swing off to the left. The ‘good stuff’ isn’t up for sale here. Behind her there are 5 women sitting in a circle around a woven bamboo tray sorting through leaves. For me it a timeless site and one that made tea in this form something utterly magic. Slow, methodical with the odd woman breaking into chatter or a song tea’s link with people was inextricably eternal.
A minute later I am standing beside these women under a sun that blankets the shoulders with its heavy heat. Nothing rushes here. One elderly woman explains what makes a great tea, like Hu Kai, great isn’t just a case of picking tea leaves but rather the mixing of old and young leaves, of different leaves from different trees to give a full rounded tea, the ping zhong. As she speaks in struggling Mandarin her voice dips and rises deliciously with the emphasis of her Lahu language emphasizing certain points with high-pitched ‘yeeps’.
My following question of why Hu Kai teas were known for their hints of lan hua (Orchid) was met with a collective smile. The elderly woman stood up with a long grunt urging me to follow. Tea here is never something as simple as simply sipping a cup – one must see, touch, and smell the source. Here tea is a great tangible.
Winding up a baked brown path we stop under the huge awning of a tea tree and on the underside of the branch I can make out the beautiful chaos of orchids that have literally fused onto their hosts. After generations of these entwining stems have encased their generous hosts, (according to locals) the orchids have left behind some gifts: the gift of a taste. The hugging vines and leaves are part of the tree attached as though they fully belong there.
The taste buds as always, do hold the final say as to whether this vaunted combination would be something special or more of a gimmick. My answer seemed of very little importance some minutes later as a young man prepared a cup of Hu Kai for me…his indifference suggested he already knew for himself the value of the tea he was offering up. What it might mean to a ‘whitie’ wasn’t necessarily of consequence. When the first slurp impacted in my mouth, there were a few moments where I tried not to expect anything. Then slowly there was a light fragrance, which blended with the slight bitter tang before disappearing. Cup after cup revealed more of this and the result was the tea’s slight bitter effect being gently subdued by this gorgeous floral hint again and again.
One of a true tea’s great abilities is to endure faithfully up to a dozen or more infusions of water and still providing enough varying character.
With 11 successive rounds in me, I was convinced enough to purchase a kilo of the tea with my young host finally revealing to me that I in fact did have a ‘reasonably’ good palate.
In the impossibly accurate words of a local tea merchant: “some teas sate the heart, some teas sate the brain, while Hu Kai stirs the soul”.