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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A Sip, A Walk – Meng Song Pu’erh

There is a wind, but it seems to just blast more hot air from the west. Ahead, the ridge I walk upon seems to disappear into a green leafy bastion that engulfs the horizon. My guide Pai has disappeared; or rather I disappeared from him, as I lost patience waiting for him while he visited a friend in a nearby tea town along the path. The sand beneath me is reddish and dry, but this earth is precisely one of the reasons why this little hidden sanctuary is home to some of the regions great-underrated teas…so say the locals, and so said my own palate hours earlier. It is the locals that I most often listen to on the subject of ‘teas that should be tried’.

Meng Song Pu'erh Tea

Meng Song Pu'erh Tea

The little-known area of Meng Song lies close to Menghai, and is one of the highest points in all of Menghai county, with one of its sub-tropical ‘mountains’ hitting the 2,400 meter mark. Just off this peak is where I now stand and tea surrounds me. One of the great joys of being down here is that one can sip a stunner and in mere hours be where the tea rises out of the earth.

Two days earlier, I hadn’t considered the place worthy of a visit because of a vague sense that I had to travel ‘out’ of the regions I normally forage through. The hitch, or change in plans, came as it often does with me, with a cup of tea.

Sitting perched in a tea shop of a friend, my host starts rummaging through one of his chaotic and thoroughly unorganized ‘tea drawers’, before making a noise as he finds what he is looking for. I sit puzzled; how can he even know what he has found, as he has piles of tea cakes stacked in near-identical wraps, with only one or two mandarin characters on each tea covering.

Meng Song Tea Shop

Meng Song Tea Shop

I am used to this performance of his, and regardless of his abilities to appear ‘lost’ in his own tea shop, Mr Lu is brilliant at finding good teas. He also knows that I enjoy having my palate rocked by a new tea. He is very aware that I’ve never had a Meng Song tea with him. The word ‘Meng’, which appears often in southern Yunnan, is a kind of prefix, found in front of another word, to denote a place, or even for some, a country (albeit a small version of a country, that is a throwback to the days when a valley would be one’s home for a lifetime).

Mr. Lu pulls out two tea cakes. One appears as though it has been gnawed at rats. A little more than half a cake remains. Mr. Lu hands it across and tells me that this will be for “dessert”. It is slightly darker than an average ‘green’ newly harvested Puer tea cake and this is due, I find out, to the fact that it is 7 years old and well on its way to ‘fermenting’ heaven. The other tea cake is brand new and oozing fresh green – a fresh Spring 2012 harvest that seems almost explosive in potency.

Minutes later, and four cups emptied out of the newly harvested young Meng Song tea, (picked from tea bushes that are 60 years old, known in Mandarin as ‘sen tai’), I am well on my way to changing my already flexible tea schedule. When the aged Meng Song is prepared and presented to my gorge, I am ready to not only buy, but to leave and see this ‘new’ place on my tea-region-radar. The seven-year-old tea verges on being an elixir – smooth, soft, but finishing with an oomph … and it continues to tempt well into successive infusions. This tea is from the ancient tea trees; Meng Song has both the newbies and the aged masterpieces. With this in mind, I now begin the task of finding four wheels.

Meng Song Pu’erh Tea Leaves

Meng Song Pu’erh Tea Leaves

Finding a vehicle that is heading into the regions of green gold is never difficult, as half of the vehicles in Menghai are either going to tea towns, hauling tea into town, or cruising with samples on board, to their buyers. This neurotic habit of mine– this need to see a place where a tea (that has teased my tongue) comes from, is instructive and essential. By getting to the source, seeing the soil and the villages, and feeling the place, I can fill in vital blanks and feel better (and on occasion worse) about liking the tea.

Pai drives with a kind of languid incompetence, shifting into fourth gear while still only doing 40 kph. The engine shutters and I shutter along with it. He drives with a phone pressed into his ear … the hand that holds the phone also happens to be his steering hand. It is a marvel we don’t get pulverized and get sent spinning into oblivion, as he has the rather ominous habit of driving straight down the middle of the road.

Meng Song is yet another Hani stronghold of ancient tea history. Many of the Hani people in the area are related to those on the not-so-distant Nannuo Mountain, but Meng Song, both in name and in ‘tea-name’, lies slightly hidden to the outside world. It boasts neither stunningly expensive teas nor magical syllables.  It is simply Meng Song.

Pai is long behind me, and I wander still further into the heat and gloom. Here the sun comes not in clear rays but in muted and muffled strokes.

Tea trees are everywhere and many have huge bamboo husks leaning upon their bows; ladders of the tea world, where harvesters can climb up to the peak branches which lie so high above.

Ancient tea tree

Ancient tea tree

The forests of tea are closed, clean and sloped. They are, in my frame of reference, perfect tea spaces. At one point, I shimmy down a sandy dune that has been covered in bamboo leaves. This is a deliberate attempt to keep the soil and earth healthy in the rampant heat. Down I slide, into a little sanctuary of a pond, and a surrounding amphitheater of tea bushes that curl around the little body of water. Standing there, I feel a very tangible glow of contentment. As long as little places like this exist, all is well with the world around me.

The sound of dry cracks sail through the air, as wind forces the bamboo trees back and forth and forces them to give. The tea bushes and trees sit squat and unmoved. In my walk, which took almost three hours, there were almost no signs of man – none of the giveaway signs of plastic wrappers or cigarette butts.

Finally deciding it was time to find Pai, I descend into a town to try and call him on the phone. A woman in a bright orange kerchief stands watching with her dark-eyed child in her arms. I asked if she knew a “Pai” (though it may seem odd, villagers – and particularly tea villagers – all know each other, or know who would know). She points and smiles.

Less than 30 minutes later Pai sits in front of me, where he has been sitting for the past hours. I sip local tea on a wooden floor and finally ask him what he’s been up to. He points out at his battered pickup, where I can make out enormous bags that bulge out of the hold: tea.

I nod my head. It could really only be tea that distracts him within a tea region. While I was slipping and sliding through the tea forests in a bit of tea paradise, Pai had been negotiating the purchase of a supply of the local tea.

We leave in the dark, ripped on tea, and I don’t care how he drives.

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The Great White Bud, Power of White Tea

In the great plethora of tea terms, color designations, and nomenclature, there is a risk of losing the fundamentals of tea. With the terms and hype, the basics often struggle for acknowledgement or even an understanding amid a tea growing base of drinkers. White tea, with its antioxidant-laden white ‘end buds’, isn’t the only tea where one can take in the power of the white.

Sitting in one of the many tea houses of Kunming recently, I was to witness something very un-Chinese, something very ‘un-tea-ish’, but something very necessary and refreshing: a full-on explosion of indignation from a drinker and prospective tea buyer. It had to do with the ‘white buds’ in a tea … or rather the lack thereof.

The ‘action’ stemmed from a subtle slight of hand that is occurring more and more often in the mainland, with regard to the amount of light-colored buds (often referred to as the ‘white’) within a tea. High amounts of these precious, flavor and antioxidant-rich end ‘flags’ or young leaves usually indicates a very decent tea, whether it is a green, oolong, or Pu’er. For many buyers, the presence of these light colored buds is one of the vital ‘musts’ before any purchase is made. The slippery, underhanded elements within the business of tea, however, are now able to essentially ‘coat’ a tea cake, nest, or brick of tea, so that the outside layer appears to be laden with these white buds, convincing a buyer that the entire cake is thus ‘gifted’. Where the outward signs are promising, within the formed tea shape, it is a different story all together. Rip off a chunk of tea and underneath one finds a completely different tea…devoid of the buds. In this way the cosmetics of the external cake differ greatly from the substance within. It is this less than honest approach which  reared itself on a mild afternoon in Kunming. I have drifted into the tea market area that I frequent when ‘thirsty’, down a small side-street where the tea trade takes place much as it has for an eternity.

White Tea Cake

Within the tea house, I sat sipping a Pu’er from the region of Lincang in western Yunnan. I’ve long maintained a kind of gentle skepticism of any tea house that I don’t know intimately, but they do offer a repose of free tea, some quiet from the city, and occasionally a kernel of wonderful information or a discovery of a classic tea. The tea in question, from Lincang, was being touted and served by a lean man with a thick thatch of hair and thin lips. He was speaking about the tea’s great quality and of its “tangs”, of its incredible lineage in the region…and he spoke at length of the amount of light colored buds that are visible on the cake’s surface. Three men sip with me and it is clear that they are experienced buyers and fervent tea drinkers. While the tea nourishes, it isn’t special in my frame of reference.

When one of the three asks if he can see the cake, our host momentarily hesitates, muttering something, but finally hands over the tea cake after being pushed. The three drinkers, who sport short square-top hair-cuts and immaculate shirts, are interested in potentially buying 70 kg’s of the tea, which will amount to several thousand dollars. This desire to see and inspect the tea isn’t at all unusual, which is why the hesitation is a bit strange.

One buyer tears off a chunk of the tea cake without warning to ‘look inside’. He holds the tea cake under light and lets out a noise, passing it to his two comrades, who in their turn glare and start simultaneously berating the host, who has retreated slightly. Then, one of the three hands me the cake – as if to confide – pointing to the insides of the tea cake, pointing out with vicious jabs of his finger, the lack of white buds that appear so densely on the outside. It is true…the tea inside and out seems to be two different teas altogether. A premium is paid for a tea with a higher levels of buds and no buyer will complain, if, and only if, this is consistent within the cake as well as the external coating.

Tea shop owners, sellers, traders and even growers, will often point out the high concentration of light or ‘white’ buds within a given cake or loose leaf offering. In such a way, a tea’s quality (or at least one of the markers of a good tea) is on show.

Meanwhile, around me the hostilities continue, with the tea shop’s owner’s “brother” coming in on the act and soon there is a full-on yelling match going on. This is serious business. Tea for many (including myself), is something that transcends simply being a business. It is a luxury, a ritual, and an addiction of sorts, in one small package of green. It is likely that this firework display will go on, and there is even a point where the threats extend to violent reprisals for this current tea crisis.

The tea shop owner and his brother are on the defensive, claiming they know nothing of this ‘slight’, but in fact they must know they have no possible chance of escaping this discovery. One irony of the tea cake swindling that is going on is that to produce a fake is almost more time-consuming than producing a legitimate tea cake; the difference being there are far fewer of the precious white buds. It is for such a reason that many Pu’er tea purchasers prefer buying loose leaf, as in the loose form it is more difficult to ‘hide’ a tea’s illegitimate qualities. The drawback for some buyers is that in loose leaf form a Pu’er’s natural fermentation process is to some degree stymied, leaving some buyers feeling it is less authentic.

Threats of bringing the equivalent of the “department of business” in on the act, have the argument spiraling into a frenzy of attacks and useless counter-attacks. I decide the time has come to slip out. It is unfortunately not the first time I’ve seen this bit of ‘tea-deception’ and it is something that isn’t limited to Asia – these ‘false teas’ appear in one form or another in Europe and North America as well, though the tea buying population knows less of this swindling (nor what to look for) than in the Asian markets.

White tea, light colored buds, and the smallest supplest leaves on a tea tree or bush have become a rage world-wide because of their purported (and in many cases substantiated) health claims. With higher levels of antioxidants, and containing the crucial, delicate fragrances and flavonoids, the end-buds have the power to increase the worth of a tea but they are more rare than traditional teas. With worth brings the unfortunate aspect of attempts to ‘fake’ or manipulate a tea.

White Tea Leaf

Genuine white teas like Yin Zhen (Silver needle) – which is highly prized and rare – and Fu Ding (a very good but more reasonable white tea) are fully ‘white teas’ with downy hairs coating the leaves. The tea plants are intended to produce a white tea, and are often located in the ideal location in a plantation because of their delicate needs. A Yin Zhen might be as much as $10.00 per ounce, and the total harvested amount might be as little as a couple of kilos annually, from a reputable plantation. The light colored buds in a tea like Pu’er, green, or even an oolong, are similar to a ‘white tea’ in that they are very young buds that contain more of the vital antioxidants and subtle flavors, thus adding to the value. The difference is that they are part of the greater whole, so to speak, rather than the entirety. In China’s rich tea history, white tea was once the beverage of choice for Emperors and men and women of means, given its rarity. In the days of yore, faking a tea was sometimes enough to warrant a death sentence.

A white tea, and its essential buds, may come from the identical tea plants that produce both green and black teas. One main difference to distinguish them is that a ‘white’ tea is treated only to a light drying and very gentle processing, whereas the more sturdy camellia assamica (Pu’er) and some hybrid varietals’ leaves are all treated to a withering, frying and drying.

White Tea Leaves

I attempt to slip out of the heated argument, which seems only to increase in intensity, when I am held up by one of the three potential buyers, who gesticulates madly and tells me that “this is what is destroying one of our national past-times…liars and cheats”. At this word “liar” (pien ren in Mandarin) the tea host seems to lose the plot entirely, looking as though he will try and strike out with a hand or wild swing. Though this sort of aggression isn’t the norm, I’ve seen these reactions before in Asia regarding tea and its ‘falsification’.

It doesn’t come to violence before I leave, but upon reflection later, after I did make a retreat out onto the side street, I try to imagine such a remonstration in the west about a simple leaf, such vehemence and hostility about a beverage. Perhaps a bottle of expensive wine that turned out to be plonk might inspire a bit of the same ire. The time is coming though– as people consume more of these ‘special’ teas, the knowledge base will swell and, thankfully, so will the expectation of a great tea.  At that point, who knows what the result of tea treachery could bring.

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A Classic Revisited and ‘re-sipped’ Yiwu

One of tea’s very favourite days: a day beset by damp fogs, where ancient cobbled stones meander through the tiered town and everything has the cold sheen of age and wet. A rain is coming in cold drifting sheets hitting the stone homes with repeated wet slaps. In backyards gourds hang swaying in the wind and it is the wind that is creating the movement. No one is stirring and the whole place has a feeling of one that has tucked itself in from weather that it knows all too well. Beyond the tiny tea town, tea bushes and further on – unseen to the eye – tea trees must be enjoying the humidity, basking in its life giving properties. For the senses, the town is all that can be aesthetically asked of a legendary tea region. Yiwu has one of those reputations that nothing but time and tea can give, but reputations amongst the tea obsessed can be taken away as well.

The ancient tea hub of Yiwu

A loose knit cluster of irregular stone homes sits in an almost defensive position being pummeled by the wet from above. Rain, one of tea’s great providers lashes down. The lack of any human activity creates a feeling that the town rests in a kind of serene bubble been kept in a bubble of sorts. The old town is a series of walkways and alleys falling away into a valley. Walking along the slick cobbled stones I imagine the town remaining as a quiet nook for centuries to come. Happily there are no engines humming and only the odd crushed cigarette butt hints that there might be more than just structures here.

Yiwu the area exists more accurately than Yiwu ‘the mountain’, though in tea lore it makes up one of the six famous tea mountains of Yunnan – though its teas are not necessarily any better than any other ‘lesser’ tea mountains – in Southern Yunnan. There was a time when Yiwu tea was hurriedly transported north to Emperors, south into ancient kingdoms and along the daunting Tea Horse Road’s vast length up onto the Tibetan Plateau. While it remains a bastion of Puerh cultivation and quality, for many in the purist sect of tea taking, the area now struggles to retain (or reclaim) its ancient reputation.

I’ve come again to revisit Yiwu, not because of any lasting impression made on a previous visit but exactly because there was no lasting impression…because I’ve been subjected to a few very different experiences with teas from Yiwu – a couple startlingly ambiguous, and only one mouth watering. One experience involved rushing to a tea tasting of Yiwu teas at the last moment. I sat down and had four teas rifled into me that had absolutely no impact on the tongue, the mind or any other part of the senses. To make matters worse there was a chain smoking ‘tea expert’ (who was more salesperson than tea sage) who was talking non-stop for over two hours, seemingly without allowing a single intake of breath to interrupt his sermon. It was in my mind at least an entirely ‘untea’ experience. It ate at my very soul and came close to annihilating any desire to even hear the word Yiwu again. Then, another tea sitting near the Bada Mountains in southern Yunnan a Korean tea buyer shared a little packet of his Yiwu ‘sheng’ (unfermented) Puerh that was staggering in its virtues – a limited harvest from a “specific grower outside of Yiwu town”. These were his words. Whenever I hear these words it goes into the internal translation box and is converted into “I have my own private supplier and it is unlikely you will find them”. With tea is there is often a sharing aspect, but there is also the very human ability to keep good things hidden and it is understood. I have long craved (and been served) teas from areas that remain to a large degree off the tea radar. Affordable, made in small batches and genuine, these teas (and their servers) are what tea is about.

A tea drinker comrade of mine once offered up a bit of ‘democratic tea brilliance’ by saying that “good tea should be easy to find, easy to drink and easy on the wallet”. I heartily subscribe to the view and in my selfish years of taking and tracking tea, I have always been able to sip something of quality in any town, village or kiosk for free or next to nothing.

Yiwu tea

On a previous trip Yiwu was – as it is now – engulfed in rain and mists. Having had these divergent experiences it has brought me here again to revisit and try and create a better impression of a Yiwu tea – and uncover an accessible tea that isn’t an aged pricey wonder or limited edition.

This time I am here to ensure I do taste something that at least interests the mouth and is available to all. There are (and hopefully will continue to be) always ‘vintage’ teas from a region that are decades old, or from the prized ‘ancient tea trees’ that stun the mouth with their undeniable quality, but these are teas to find through tea channels, through the tea suppliers with an eye (and tongue) for something special; teas where the billfold will be lightened of some significant money. In the odd ecstatic moment these ‘greats’ are discovered by chance. A local once wisely counseled that if a ‘good’ tea is difficult to find in a so-called ‘tea town’ then market forces have taken the town over – which for many tea-inclined people is a sign of death.

Walking along the sagging cobblestones with a friend’s friend – who is himself one of these valued tea connections – there is little to see of anything other than rain. The stones below us were part of a greater tale as they linked up with tea caravan routes (tea horse roads) used to transport tea over the centuries. Caravans of mule and horse carried tea from this wet little corridor into the empires and mountains in brick and cake form. In the late 19th Century new and formal routes were created and expanded through the dense foliage to the town of Puerh itself to quicken the times to get tea to the great market towns. Entire maps were drawn to delineate the tea regions and their access routes. It was also around this time that the native indigenous peoples and their harvesting ways dealt with an influx of Chinese tea merchants whose methods were refined to create more tea faster. Yiwu has long had a name that carried the weight of its tea reputation and tea merchants knew that setting up links – and better yet homes and communities – would ensure a non-stop supply. Today the area of that produces ‘Yiwu’ tea measures about a thousand hectares and produces over 600 tons annually, most of it coming from 700 – 2000 meters.

Harvesting Yiwu Tea

In the past, ruling classes (and the rulers of the ruling class) would demand – and receive – tributes of tea from Yiwu. From there the masses would eventually hear of it, cementing its value and name.

Looking around me, it seems hard to conjure up a town that has carried its fame forward. My soaked tea colleague beside me tells how fame often destroys the very quality it was founded upon and how in his opinion the lesser-known town of nearby Yibang has retained more quality generally in their teas.

“When a tea town gets a name for itself, demand goes up and when demand goes up quality often becomes of secondary importance”. As he speaks he simply nods amid the driving wet from above as if acknowledging this truth to himself. I like these words as they cut through some of the hype – good teas need good soil, competent growers and good production methods. The cosmetics and at-times bizarre descriptives don’t matter if the mouth isn’t happy. Names, vintages and verbose monologues cannot hide a bad tea and shouldn’t.

This tea colleague has joined me to show me, to direct me to a place here in Yiwu where a tradition of doing teas is alive and well, albeit in limited amounts. A family has kept the tradition of creating their own small batches of tea in the “right way” (his words). He shares my soft skepticism of Yiwu’s general harvests and goes a step further by offering up a reason why.

“In many areas there are quotas where families or growers must produce a minimum monthly or yearly yield – quality isn’t the priority – to continue to be allowed to produce tea”. During the ‘Puerh-tea crisis’ of 2007-2009 there was a run on Puerh teas with prices seemingly incapable of dropping. People mortgaged houses and borrowed heavily to invest in Puerh tea. During that time harvests were upped to the extent that the tea crops themselves never had time to recover as they were being overharvested to supply the tea bubble. Another aspect that has affected the region is the introduction of the smaller Camellia sinensis sinensis with the end game being to produce greater amounts of tea that can claim the ‘Yiwu’ moniker.

We come to a little end home, which has a wooden railing in front, where mules and horses were once tied to wait for their tea and merchants. It bends under its own old weight sighing in the rain – as lonely looking as the town itself. The home is narrow and the entire building is on a slight slant as if burdened or pushed by a lifetime of billowing rains. A wooden door as forlorn and wet as everything else in town is closed and even the knock seems sullen.

A young man already bent by long hours of toil pulls the door open. The room has a single light bulb that hangs wavering off to a side spraying out a dismal yellow light. A small TV is on and in the corner an old woman sits with a blanket around he waist. She nods her head and nothing more. We are led through to the tea ‘station’ where tea is being prepared. Leaves are being fried, having the last bits of humidity and moisture eliminated. The young man – our host – races furtively off with eyes on the frying tea to retrieve cups of hot water. He arrives with a thermos and two glasses, which dance with steam trails. His hands, which are stained dark with the potent tannins of his work, find three little sandwich-sized bags that are proffered up to us. He isn’t a natural host and no sweet words ooze out of him; he is a tea maker and it warms the heart to be near someone who’s life work and play is tea. Some words are spoken and only one bag is kept, perhaps only 40 grams of the desiccated beauty. In this form, here and now with tea in its simplest most unadulterated form is something both prehistoric and potent.

We are sitting on tiny stools (that seem everywhere within the world of tea) in a tight clearing a meter from the ‘tea stove’ – a basic but solid flute of brick that creates a single intense shoot of flame that heats a great tea pan. Within the pan which is almost a meter in diameter green leaves brim over the edge. Above us a simple roof keeps the rain at bay. The silvery wet light around us peers in and in the small yard five or six wide tea pans lie upside down in the rain like metal turtles. Two young women take care of the process, churning the tea leaves wearing tea-stained cotton gloves. The leaves are not allowed to rest for more than a second, being stirred in a non-stop ritual that hypnotizes. There is almost a feeling that we have intruded…but I would rather be a nuisance here and watch something real than a feted teahouse being served murky teas.
Our young host pours out two cups of water and tells us simply, almost apologetically, that the tea that we are being served is a big hit with middlemen who sell to Korean and Singaporeans.

He races off to the left of us to spread out the ‘withered’ tea leaves which steam in their reduced state, appearing much like spinach when it loses its bulk. Tea’s labor intensity is on full display.

Without any fuss my compatriot drops two pinches of tea into my awaiting cup. “At least it is spring water”, he says simply. The leaves are rinsed once and then more water is added. The first slurps seem potent and then it gets smooth and stays smooth with the mouth keeping some residual taste. Here in these cheap whitish cups there isn’t the benefit (or distraction) of small cups and tools – it is about the tea, the water and the mouth.

When I ask where it is from, my sipping partner gives me the answer that comes with many of the classic teas “gao shan” – high mountain. The leaves are not the giant leaves but rather they unravel as middle-sized full leaves with full stems intact. Some of the leaves are imperfect in shape but this only means that this particular batch won’t be ‘dressed up’ for the market-place which demands so much that is aesthetic.
Our second full cup has now tapered down and the vegetal blasts never come, nor does any astringency but the taste is vital and strong and still that calming smoothness. After multiple cups there doesn’t seem to be any discernable change or decrease in strength and the color remains clean and true.

One of the girls tending the successive tea piles being fried up, looks over to us at one point and asks what the verdict on the tea is. In answer, I ask how much I can horde away with, and she simply nods and tells us that it is a “very good tea” and nothing more. Later we are told that the price is far from expensive but that the quantities of that particular tea are only around 80 kg’s per year…it isn’t one of their big sellers. When I ask what is their big seller, there is a moment of endearing hesitation as the young man tells us “the teas that we can sell most of, which isn’t always a ‘great’ tea”.

Walking out I want to stay and sit and of course take in more tea. My tea partner tells me that it is time to go and that our kind hosts must work…yes, the work of tea.

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Sichuan – Chengdu Tea House Teahouse Chatter

A ‘city’ view or interpretation of things – all things – often strips a thing of its informality and its earthiness…assuming it has any earthiness at all.

Tea has long held a formidable relationship with the earth as it begins in the earth, draws from the earth and retains the taste of what it has taken from the earth. It has also held strong bonds with cities that are leagues (or mere kilometres) away as some of its greatest fans need some of its astringency to ‘take them away’.

It is December and a gloomy wet sheen hangs over Chengdu and nothing is entirely dry. It is a city infamous for its perpetual grey shrouds. Within the tea nation of China, perhaps no other first tier city can claim as much attachment to tea as can Chengdu. It is a metropolis that pays its respects in quantities consumed. Situated in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, Chengdu has long and happily confounded me. It is all things: liberal and forward thinking, yet it also determinedly holds on to traditions. The tradition that brings me is the city’s long and mighty relationship with tea, the sacred leaf.

ss of tea in Chengdu

The idea and tradition of a teahouse can hardly find a better and more committed version than that of the sort that has been functioning in Chengdu for an eternity. It is in Chengdu that tea’s ancient traditions come together with a practical economy.

Chengdu Tea House

Here, you sit alone or with friends, and tea isn’t so much prepared for you by a nimble fingered master as it is simply planted in front of you, to consume in your own time, your own way. Teas, their properties and correct water temperatures, are not part of the Chengdu teahouse in many cases, though more ‘formal’ houses are easy to locate within the city’s huge spaces. The previous day, by contrast, I sat for four hours while a tea hostess served two others and myself an entire gamut of the green leaf in as many shapes and strengths as one can imagine. Flared cups, a four hundred kilo tea table, tongs, smelling cups…all the instruments of a tea fanatic’s paradise were on display. Today though, it was tea simplicity laid bare.

Chengdu Tea Master

During the Song Dynasty, Sichuan’s teas were funneling into and up onto the Tibetan Plateau, along the Sichuan-Tibet version of the Tea Horse Road. It was also acclaimed teas from Sichuan that made their way to the Emperors – picked in miniscule batches and presented in pure silver canisters. Tea has long grown within the province’s lush and rolling lands and has a history of export, but it has legions of devotees within closer realms, taking in its perfumed astringency in far more humble surroundings.

My own selfish thirst can easily be sated by hundreds of tea shops that sit tucked away in nooks and little grey alleyways. There is no shortage of tea denizens by which to quench a thirst. Even amidst the ever growing number of coffee shops, it is still a landscape of tea. One of Chengdu’s informal tea mantras is ‘a tea house is a place of all things, all words and all thoughts’. It is and always has been a lively soul-filled place where one can let loose, sip some fluid and let loose some more. Tea, friends and ideas all blend into a wonderful mix where voices explode as the tea stimulants take hold.

One of my destinations is an informal tea house that is (in my mind at least) a perfect example of what makes a tea house in Chengdu so necessary to visit – simple, unpretentious and made entirely for humans and the human spirit. Sitting wedged into an ugly corner of the Song Xian Qiao Antique Market, it is in many ways a perfect example of an average (neither famous nor particularly touristy) bustling teahouse. Teahouses without people are sad paradoxes.

Trudging through the year-round antique market, one can eye vignettes of China’s past, with everything from ancient posters that reek of must, to Tibetan charms and stones. Of interest to me though, is how many of the shop keepers have tea vessels in their hands, nearby or being desperately sought. Informality rules here – as it should, where tea is concerned. Thermoses, jars, coffee cups, and the odd ornate tea set up, all pay tribute to that which ‘must’ be consumed: tea.

The air is cold, dank and windless, and a chill weaves through layers into the bone. Teahouses here have long provided a corner of reprieve, from a city known for stifling hot summers and grim sunless winter days.

Vendors are up to their chins in wool and stand in small pods clutching their glass cups, mugs and jars of tea. Getting the hot tea into their bodies is more important than pushing goods at this point of mid-day. Peering into the bottom of some of these jars I can make out the floating bodies of delicate green tea leaves. Ceremonies here are for show – tea is for consuming.

A great joy for me is getting lost, for it is only then that the body and mind float and discover places, people and ultimately, when the body does arrive at a destination, there is that sense of discovery. There is tea waiting somewhere.

After muddling along a damp narrow alley, I ask a Tibetan woman who is selling turquoise where the nearest teahouse is. She points and tells me that there is only one around this end of the market, and in a moment of intimacy, lets me know that the teahouse in question also serves the famed (and violently sweet) milk teas that Tibetans from Lhasa crave. Many of the stalls directly around the teahouse are occupied by long robed Tibetans, with ornaments and thangka paintings, and the teahouse’s most frequent and loyal customers are stall owners and shopkeepers.

The Song Xian Xiang Ming Cha Lo teahouse is both tacky and wondrous. Traditional teas are served (as are specific foods) – a brilliant way of keeping tea-fed bodies happy with the necessary balance of carbohydrates – and the place buzzes on one end with discussions, and on another, bodies recline with books and newspapers. It has long been this way with many of the teahouses – food, entertainment, repose and the ubiquitous mahjong playing are all available to keep the customers content from morning to night. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, teahouses were viewed with suspicion as being places that sowed and encouraged the seeds of rebellion, though now the teahouses (and thankfully their teas) flow once again.

I park myself with friends near a window and sink into a horrible wicker couch that has long lost any of its support or charm. Up comes a minute little waitress, hustling along with a tray of food, and throws down the menus with a smile, barely pausing as she moves on to deliver noodles to an adjoining table. There are no rules of when, what or how to consume tea. It is a fluid consumed before, with, and after meals.

The tea menu is simple, with the usual assortment of ubiquitous greens – Long Jing, Bi Lo Chun, Nu’er Wan – some Oolongs, and a vast list of flower teas. The flower teas don’t warrant a glance from me, but a local green from near Meng Shan further west in Sichuan gets the nod. Lightly roasted it is – from my memory at least – a gentle green whose roasting allows it more potent temperatures of water.

Around us, food is slurped noisily in, business meetings between antique dealers and clients bark along, cigarette smoke cruises in grey patches, and all through the large room there is a buzz of life. It is this one aspect perhaps more than any other that marks out the idea of a teahouse in this city.

When tea arrives, it is not sublime pottery with intricate utensils and sumptuous leaves, but rather four tall water glasses with our leaves already portioned out in substantial heaps – I measure out 9-10 in my glass – and a bright pink 4 liter thermos of hot water to refill. This thermos will be replaced whenever our group of four has managed to drain it. You are charged for the tea leaves and the ‘rent’ of the chair and table you occupy – which can in some cases extend to an entire day. Some tables are permanently reserved for nearby business people who are capable of showing up four times a day at all hours.

The idea isn’t to breath in a hint of something fragrant from the tea, it isn’t even to necessarily appreciate (in the purist’s sense) the tea. Here, the steps are simple: to order the favorite tea and have it along with whatever discussion of the day is on. It is to partake in a bit of nonsense, or business, or friendship, with a muscular portion of tea by the side for as long as one wants. To add to the ease with which one can pass a day here, there is, on permanent standby, a shoe-shine gentlemen who will take your shoes (encase your feet in paper slippers during the interim) and return your shined shoes to you within the hour – all the while one hasn’t moved from the side of tea. The teahouse is not a silent retreat in Chengdu, it is rather a shifting of gears into another world of energy.

Digging into my tea, I know that this tea ‘style’ isn’t perhaps the one that the west would  like to imagine, but it does retain something essential of the spirit of tea: it is about bringing people together, and the very presence of tea leaves in a vessel seems to do something to nullify just a bit of the surrounding chaos.

Here there isn’t anyone staring hard into my eyes in wait for my nod of approval at a carefully prepared vintage tea…there is only a gentle chaos, which never quite fades.


A Bit of Bitter – Meng Ko and Mr. Yang

“Mazes of terms, descriptions…words, but so many do not understand the first thing about tea…and people don’t understand ‘bitter’”. There is far more to the irate monologue so I’m recording the little outburst on an mp3 player. This way I can take down every gorgeous detail of his firestorm in my own time.

Mr. Yang has worked himself into a red fury. This wasn’t the first or the last genuine tea person that would get stoked into a mild state of lunacy by the tea world’s ‘modern’ march forward and seeming disinterest in the traditions of the green leaf. An entire vocabulary of terms and descriptions now exist where once there were only unambiguous words to describe processes, tastes and of course teas. This isn’t entirely true, for in China there has long been a tradition of lush adjectives to describe teas, tea vessels, a tea’s character, and even the kind of individuals who make teas…but the general point remains, and for Mr. Yang of Xiaguan it is a point he never tires of making.

Southeast of Xiaguan, in western Yunnan province – where I seem to spend much of my life – I am looking at muscular tea bushes, in the full light of the sun, with longtime tea producer Mr. Yang, who is contrasting his diatribe with gentle strokes of the bushes’ magnificent leaves. I’ve been privy to his scorching commentaries before and he feels safe blasting away in front of me.

Meng Ko tea bushes

The full and almost plump Meng Ko tea bushes spaced out amidst pine forests and other conifers. Ideal for almost any climate because of their tough nature, they do thrive in western Yunnan.

The next thing that is said is one of those things that set the foundation for a “truth” in the ever-murky world of tea.

“Everyone knows what tea’s final product looks like, but how many know the process of how it became like that…from where it came”? He looks at me as though I might be one of these offenders, before moving on to caress yet more of the green leaves that surround us.

Within tea’s mighty but underrated sphere, rarely do leaves – or an understanding of them – warrant much investigation or interest. Location, process, and the post picking process, get much credit (fairly enough) but the ‘species’ of leaf rarely causes any curiosity…which is exactly what enrages puritans like Mr. Yang. For him, as for many, every single step, every morsel of the process is important in the final product and absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.

Meng Ko tea leaves

Serrated edges and big full formed leaves are what the Meng Ko is known and fame for. Here a leaf and seed rest together for the winter months.

In western central Yunnan – long a hot-bed of tea culture and wild tea growth –it is the broad-leaf variety (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) that has and continues to rule.  As in Xishuangbanna in the south, this big beast of a leaf rules on high.

Here though, there is a specific species of the broad leaf that has long produced leaves that stand up to climactic change, pests and even production changes. They are the leaves that Mr. Yang and I are looking at on this cool morning, the ‘Meng Ko Da Ye’ – Men Co Big Leaf. Used to create both Puerhs and simple Green teas for mass market, this species has long provided a stout raw product for the production facilities that enhance and manipulate it. The name Meng Ko itself originates from Lincang Prefecture – another tea hotbed in Yunnan – and refers to a place of the same name. It is understated in both its origins and in its role in providing a solid and consistent base by which to create some tea magic.

Preceding this walk through the ‘Meng Ko’ plantation, we had consumed some of a simple green tea made from the Meng Ko leaves. We sipped it hot and tangy in the cool morning air – the kind that siphons through the nostrils making everything taste as it is – eating and drinking out of doors always clarifies and edits taste in my little sphere. When we do sip, the bite of the tea is what I notice.   It is more astringent than the normal hints of bitterness expected in these parts from teas that are not over-processed. Mentioning this to Mr. Yang, he gleams just slightly.

Morning Tea

Understated leaves, understated serving…this is what Mr. Yang serves up in the early morning forgoing entirely the ceremonial aspect in favour of simplicity to get the most out of a great tea.

“It is the polyphenols you taste and the Meng Ko species is loaded with them”. This sudden leap into science throws our entire tea-drinking scene sideways, somehow taking away from the calm idealism and serenity of the surroundings. Polyphenols, naturally bitter in taste, are one of the most potent of that special “a” word which now garners so much attention in the world of health: antioxidants. Polyphenols rule.

Polyphenols are present in all plant foods and they supplant vitamins in fruit and vegetables in what they contribute to antioxidants. Bitter to the taste, tannin is the most ‘known’ of the polyphenols. Now being credited with preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, polyphenols are part of the new set of ‘crucial compounds’ within the world of health foods.

For local tea drinkers, this new focal point matters not, as this bitter taste has long been associated with health giving properties. Intuition and centuries of studying tea has made the knowledge something fluid and almost taken for granted. Bitterness has always been a complementary partner of healthy foods in much of Asia and it has never met with the hostility that it has conjured up in western palates. Now science catches up. While most tea consumed in the world is still ‘black’, the process of oxidization, which ‘creates’ a black tea from green, changes the taste but obliterates green tea polyphenols. High temperatures (when frying or baking tea) oxygen, and over-processing can all neutralize polyphenols. Polyphenols need, by necessity, a simple and pure processing regime to keep them alive and kicking.

Meng Ko tea leaves growing

The beauty of morning light…and more – the beauty of Meng Ko leaves left to grow and live undisturbed by sprays or manipulation.

While sipping our simple morning ‘Meng Ko’ green tea, Mr. Yang takes long, noisy slurps from the cup, all the while grunting in a barely understood grumble, “tea should be bitter”.
He explains with wide gestures (his tea hand is obviously used), without spilling a drop, that what makes the Meng Ko species such a champion is that it is hearty enough to survive pests and high altitude cold, while also being able to contribute a host of qualities, aromas and tastes to a tea. I am wondering at this point if somehow he is referring to himself as he repeatedly uses the term “underappreciated”.

“What is most important to a tea quality is the geography that it grows in – organic, high altitude, good drainage and cool climates. These are the musts. Then it is down to the producer to create a good tea”.

Back amongst the Meng Ko tea bushes and the here and now Mr. Yang almost screams, “When a tea is bitter you know it hasn’t been through too much processing. People must learn to love bitter”. The last sentence falls off and is almost whispered. Again I have the sneaking suspicion that he is referring to himself as much as the broad green serrated leaves before us.

He wanders up to a patch of broad leaves, checking their branches, their pliancy and even their bases. “Like friends – nothing much to look at but always honest”.

And so, one of the underrated backbones of Yunnan’s many vintage tea species is revealed by one of its underappreciated fans.

traditional bundles of Meng Ko tea

Dried Meng Ko leaves tied in traditional bundles known as the “broom” lie much the same as they once appeared as fresh leaves. In this form they are ready for immediate consumption.

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The Legendary Gang Tong Tea

Legends of the tea world became (and the odd one still does become) legends in a time when quality workmanship and a transparency of the product were present. Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and Dien Hong find their origins in a time when rigid adherence to traditional methods was exalted and when drinkers were actually able to distinguish what they were drinking. Though legends still exist in the world of tea, they are often obfuscated by reputation, while lacking the attention to absolute detail. Legitimate and traditional production methods are often ditched in favor of cost saving, clever recipes. Legends, however, remain – both in name and more importantly, in desiccated green substance.

It is late in the year – I traipse behind ‘Ma’, a Hui (Muslim) tea maker on an east-facing mountain, west of Dali, in western Yunnan province. We are hunting a small plot of land,  a small production facility and a tea with a thousand years of fabled history in this part of China – a classic that still rates as a ‘legend’ of the tea world, though in diminishing quantities.

Though late in the season and dry, there is always some time to find (or search for) a legend. Gang Tong tea commenced its life as a tea made almost exclusively by Buddhist monks and it has maintained an aura of a tea that is/was/and hopefully will continue to be a classic. The term ‘Gang Tong’ is explained to me, by my man Ma, amidst the surrounding forests, as a Buddhist term roughly meaning “smooth feeling road”. Part of that smooth feeling comes no doubt from the fact that Gang Tong tea goes through a unique process which includes a final intense ‘baking’ period. First though, we have to find the field that provides the leaves.

Ma, myself and another tea friend, walk along a dirt track, which follows the ridge of the mountain. We are almost 2500 meters high – optimal for any tea – with a rippling pine covered mountain off to our western flank, which powers up to nearly four thousand meters. The tea fields which reside here do so in part because of the easing effects of the mountains.  Monsoon rains (we are close to the Burma border) and the intense sun are softened by the mountains to our west.  We seek no less than a perfect little tea environment hidden in the woods.

When we come around a slight bend – which is layered in shade – a small patch of tea bushes appears and there is the slightest of noises from Ma. Somehow, this tiny tract of land seems less dramatic than one would expect from a plantation that grows a tea that would become exulted in the tea world. This is, in many ways, the essence of the tea world – dramatic scenes rarely make for great teas. Nothing stirs and the only item of notice is how little is of notice. It is beautiful and clean in an understated way because of its very isolation. Forgotten places have that wonderful ability of retaining that which makes them special.

Gang Tong tea plantation

A portion of the tea plantation that creates Gang Tong tea.

In China, the ‘mu’, a measurement of land, is used, with one ‘mu’ equaling 660 square meters. This little chunk of green before us is no more than 2 mu, entirely covered by tea bushes in various shapes, sizes and ages. Ma and another friend lead me through, pointing out the tea flowers and enormous walnut-sized tea seeds on the bushes. November’s low temperatures bring the quiet regenerative period for tea plants and trees. Seeds are often crushed and used for oils that are in turn used for cooking and skin oil. Tea’s magnificence knows no bounds.

Ma’s rough callused hands gently hold up the enormous leaves, whose serrated edges are like green teeth. These leaves will be plucked three times a year, fried to eliminate moisture within the leaves and fix the flavor, rolled within a kind of cotton cheesecloth to remove yet more moisture, then re-fried.  Finally, in a kind of ‘coup de gras’, the leaves will be baked at a very high, controlled heat.

The three of us find three more similarly hidden and seemingly insignificant tea fields, each tucked into corners, with shade and the requisite drainage slopes present. Within such plots of land, three or even four generations of tea plants rest and stay together. Here at least, the age of the plant doesn’t matter as long as the conditions are right. Pickers carefully determine which leaves will be clipped (with Gang Tong, it matters not which particular buds or leaves are picked in what configurations as long as there is a healthy mix of older and younger leaves for balanced taste). For Gang Tong tea there are two priorities 1) the frying, rolling, frying, baking combination (done by a master) and 2) that the leaves are Yunnan big leafed varietals (Camellia Sinensis Assamica).

Gang Tong tea

Camellia Sinensis Assamica

As with all teas (and serious drinkers), there are two universal tea ‘laws’ that apply and are reinforced here with the Gang Tong Tea. Ma, like many who actually work with tea, imparts these with some passion. He reiterates that the most important elements are the environment in which the particular leaf grows, and the producer who makes a particular tea.

The three of us reach the ‘factory’; the miniature and reassuringly archaic production plant where Ma and his wife create Gang Tong teas. Old brick tiles, and an ‘L’ shaped series of buildings – small in size – and a tiny courtyard that is alive with scurrying chickens, is all that stands before us.

The location, and the simplicity of the layout, is a testament to a faith in that which has worked and needs no adulteration. It leads (in me at least) to an inherent trust in the product. It is not laziness that has blunted the senses, but rather a complete faith and understanding in the process. Before any inspection of the plant itself, Ma quietly insists upon a taste of the tea in question. Gang Tong’s claim to fame is its warming strength, in part due to the baking and double frying component, which strengthens the taste. This process, while enhancing a certain power in what the mouth feels, also has a draw-back. In the high heat of the final baking process, some of the vital amino acids within the tea itself are killed off.

Gang Tong tea host

'Ma' doing what every good tea host does, serves up some brilliance and some anecdotes, along with some heavy tea truths.

A simple thermos is used to infuse a huge amount of leaves into a 750 ml pot. The cups are tiny glass jars that have found a renewed life in becoming tea vessels. Ma explains that a large amount of leaves and an ultra short amount of infusion time makes for a perfect cup of tea (perhaps five seconds total). The strength of the infusions comes through in a dark dandelion color and the taste of roasted tea comes through immediately. With an inhalation of air one can ‘taste’ the baked taste, which has the effect of gently rounding out the bitterness. Where a ‘roasted’ Gunpowder has that smoked taste (often chemically), and has the effect of almost brutalizing the palate, this is a softer, more natural version, where the attention to detail seems palpable on the tongue.

Carrying a ‘traveler’ cup of tea to keep the mouth senses sated, we make our way into the tea-making sanctum, the small factory portion that only produces one tea, Gang Tong.

Immaculate and slightly forlorn, three ancient rolling machines sit facing the windows’ blasts of sunlight, waiting in perfect silence. To the right of us, an ancient stone tomb – the fryer – within which tea leaves will roll (twice) with fire-driven heat. Encased in gray clay – which insulates the heat – the fryer too waits for its green leafed friends…and the spring season. Bundles of wood lie neatly tied together leaning against the concrete wall.

ancient tea leaf rollers

Three ancient rollers which will press and roll the leaves after a first frying. The long casket shaped fryer (top right) is the first stage for the freshly cut leaves.

We make our way further back into a single room with a single metal hulk standing front and center – the ‘baker’. A massive door on one end where the wood gets piled in and a well-used chimney complete the little factory. This room is where the final stage takes place and the master Ma, and him alone, knows precisely the heat, the time and the little touches that all masters inevitably impart.

In this little confined area of pine, palms and tea plots, Gang Tong is produced in the traditional manner for as long as Gang Tong has been a tea, though Ma broods that fakes appear everywhere and people now “like to drink a classic, while not knowing what makes it a classic”. He laments further that “no one takes time”. Such masters the world over speak of this syndrome.

Less than three thousand kg’s of Gang Tong is produced annually and much of that is purchased by ‘people in the know’, who return annually to sip (and purchase) a legend. Leaving with a few more cups shooting down into me, I do what I’ve often done…negotiate for a couple of bags of the tea. They will serve not only to sate a thirst but also to remind us of a tradition and legend.

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Ban Pun Puerh – A Hidden Classic

Gems within the world of tea often lie within the realms of classics, happily obscured except for those who truly ‘search’ out teas. Sitting within the green fertile hills, Ban Pun is the ‘victim’ of their more famed neighbor’s reputations, eliciting little interest because they simply aren’t known or searched for. These teas become something rare and special as their names aren’t splashed around. They remain upon the lips and tongues of those locals who don’t buy into the hype…they remain hidden classics that are produced in small quantities for those who ‘know’.

Southwest of Menghai, amidst the imposing empires of some of Puerh’s formidable teas, Lau Banzhang, Hsin Banzhang and Hou Kai, a tea of potent abilities has silently grown for long centuries keeping itself to itself, if only because of its ostentatious and almost flawless Puerh neighbor…the exulted Lau Banzhang. Banzhang teas have long commanded huge sums of money and respect among Asian Puerh tea buyers.

No airport dots Menghai’s increasingly busy lines; if one comes, one comes by four wheeled machine. My bus does as it always does in these areas: it winds and bends and chugs its way for the fifty or so minutes from Jinghong to Menghai. Lush fruit growing valleys of banana and sumptuous pineapple thin out to give way to forests and the masses of rubber tree plantations, which in turn give way to tea, as the altitudes rise to near a thousand meters. It is when my eyes come upon the increasing number of tea plants that a certain settled calm hits the body, as if the tastes are already on the palate.

As always with my tea adventures in Asia, it is the people aspect which make things happen and opens up previously unknown (but dreamt about) voids, where tea and its magic touch reside. ‘A friend who knows a friend who’s cousin lives in a village’ or sometimes ‘my cousin’s husband’s sister’s dog might know someone’. It matters not to me, as long as the source is trustworthy and the end result is a quality tea in the mouth. These wonderfully informal ways are all about what Asia hasn’t forgotten – the human element. In this case, I will be met at the Menghai bus station and hustled into the Pulang Mountains, still further southwest. A friend’s friend will pick me up…this is all of the information I have, which isn’t at all atypical. Things down here in the south are often this way – casual to the extreme, but with the often surprising bonus that things do progress, somehow.

My contact is waiting at the bus station with a 4×4 that has weathered a few brutal lives. Known simply as ‘La’, my contact, driver and tea guide is a small, thickset woman with hunched, powerful shoulders and a kind of haunted look to her. She is of the Hani people, is chestnut colored and has hands that look quite capable of bashing holes into steel. Our two hour drive is one of continuous bouncing, where my hostess reveals an ability to shift gears, talk on the phone in rapid bursts, and face me while talking – all simultaneously. She is a small, multitasking woman who can do it all.

The village of Ban Pun and its little green leaves of glory lie tucked into the Pulang Mountains southwest of Menghai and has remained slightly anonymous due to one single fact: that it resides within a few short kilometers of Lau Banzhang – one of the most famed Puerh growing regions on the planet. There is nothing else around, besides a few other key tea growing villages.  Ban Pun village has both Hani and Lahu people and its 1700 meter altitude puts it in the realm of a ‘perfect’ conflux of elements for tea growth – forest coverage, humidity and temperatures. Ancient tea forests – precious and ageless – surround the town, which like many other tea towns within the Pulang Mountains, sits in a slight bowl surrounded by red earth and rolling hills of rich green. All about the town are makeshift plastic covered ‘drying’ shelters for tea leaves. It is a town that lives and breathes tea. It is a town that already sings to me.

I am quickly introduced to a relative of a friend of La’s, a young and silent girl who, without any fuss whatsoever, beckons me to follow her up a path. The day’s heat is upon us, but the light in autumn begins to fade quickly and there is much to see…I hope.

The moment we enter the forest we are wrapped in the sounds and smells of rich sub-tropical delight. Cicadas drone on in ebbs and flows and the green envelope that is the tea forest takes in all of the senses. Young tea plants – younger tea plants – line the pathways, like the polite yet -to-form acolytes that they are. Pushing further in and up into the green fortress the tea plants give way to sporadic green giants – tea trees that defy everything around them. Bamboo, tea’s old companion, shoots up in groves, providing coverage, and working in a kind of complicit cooperation with the tea trees. Taking up different minerals from the red caked earth and sending its shallow roots in a splayed pattern, bamboo, one of nature’s fastest growers, never competes with tea’s deep and direct root lines.

Moving ever higher through the green, a massive tea tree is suddenly before us…I am in a mumbling kind of awe while my sure-footed hostess merely shrugs and smiles, continuing on her way. The very ancient of the ancient trees here range back to seven or eight hundred years and the one I stare at seems to just shoot beyond, up through the canopy, like a natural totem.

At one point, though we haven’t crossed any pickers, we come across a delicate homage to a picker’s life: a food sack, bottle of water and a neatly arranged pile of freshly picked leaves that lie in a shaded area. Even though summer harvests recently took place, not one of the tea trees looks to have been over-harvested. That is one of the golden rules of these areas, to never over-harvest for the sake of a few extra kilos of tea. Balance, so difficult to achieve upon much of the glutted globe, here finds itself simply because it has been left to its own reasonable devices.

The light breeze that shoots through the forests comes from the northwest, where Burma’s line of mountains funnels weather systems down. Here in these active green forests, little moves that isn’t natural and tea would be hard pressed to find a better home…and I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t be content withering my days away, taking in teas and the scented winds in this sanctuary for the senses.

Hours later, I am stuffed into a favorite tea house, back in Menghai, along with some of the tea that needs tasting, Ban Pun. With all of my senses now activated (barring the one crucial sense of taste) I must sip some of the goodness I saw in the village and its forests. Gathered, as always, in the tea shop, is a collection of friends, family, and neighbors. Chatter is going strong and there are many ‘requests’ of what teas to serve, but the tea of the hour will be Ban Pun. The dried leaves look discreet, understated, and entirely anemic, but with the addition of boiling water they will explode into their full shape and release their scented water.

The tea hostesses (there is a rotating policy…whenever the seat is empty for more than two minutes another body occupies the vital pouring role) go on about how Ban Pun is as good as many of the classics at a fraction of the price. My excitement is internal and I keep it there for the time being. There are few calamities in my own life worse than the expectation of a great tea hitting the taste buds, only for it to fade away or simply limply die in the mouth.

A first look at the leaves as they are inundated with water shows a clear copper color and the smell fires up the nasal passages to impart a sharp tang. It is a newly picked tea (within three months) so the mouth – regardless of anything else – will be hit with a vegetal blast that new teas inevitably carry. The first cup confirms that the tea is bitter in that ‘new’ tea way. Its fresh, pungent elements are all there for the mouth to take in. There is no hiding the teas’ force, but this is where the maker of the tea and a great producer come into play. By preparing similar amounts of tea, and using an identical temperature and method, a tea master or server can judge a tea’s aroma and taste consistently. Besides the maker or server, a producer’s value cannot be overstated either, as it is the producer who controls the ‘preparation’ of tea that is the final stage before tea is consumed. It is here, at this dividing or production point, that a good tea can descend into becoming a bad tea, or inversely (and hopefully) can become a great tea.

Whatever the bitter blast that is conjured by the first sip of tea, the Ban Pun finishes with a lingering trail of sweetness in the throat and it continues this way for the next 7 infusions. Debates inevitably start about the tea’s qualities, with two of our tea group claiming, that while a great tea, they have never heard of it so it must not be ‘that good’. This is one of the x-factors with tea: that one doesn’t have to have heard of it at all for it to be a great tea. In fact, it kind of adds a mysterious gloss to the leaves in question. The Ban Pun is for my buds a classic that will age beautifully, with tannins smoothing out the vegetal blasts; even now, with the tea at its astringent pinnacle, it is a tea that grips the mouth and then gently lets it go. Its’ clean strength warrants a longer investigation…which in my own way of thinking equates to buying a couple of kilograms to sip in my own time in as ridiculously large quantities as I choose.