This is a follow-up entry of the 2011 Tea Tour. The previous entry describes the time spent in Dong Ting with Bi Luo Chun green tea.
On April 18, the instant we all stepped out of the plane and felt the heat and moisture in the air, it was obvious that the next few days would be spent in a much different climate from the region we had just left. Xishuangbanna is one of the sixteen prefecture-level divisions of Yunnan and home to many minorities, such as Dai, Hani, and Wa. We met up with three people who would be with us during our time spent in Yunnan: a driver, who would drive us everywhere we needed to go; a man who was in the tea business; and a woman who owned a farm where she grew many different crops, including tea. Tao told us that he could not understand our guides when they spoke in their native dialect (which sounded similar to vietnamese to my ear). We all enjoyed the sights of urban Xishuangbanna during the drive to a small tea plantation in a rural area of the city.
Before reaching the tea farm, we stopped at the local elephant shed to see some wild elephants that were being cared for.
When we arrived at the tea plantation, we were surprised to see such short tea bushes after hearing about the "old puer tea trees in Yunnan". However, when we learned that these tea plants were regularly trimmed and that their age could be assumed by examining the stems, things made more sense. Upon closer inspection, the stems were seen to be virtually covered in lichen and moss, which must have taken many years to grow. The next part to observe were the leaves, which were huge in comparison to those of the tea plants we'd recently seen. Only the tea plants in Yunnan have such large leaves. Rubber trees could be seen growing with the tea plants, but on separate rows, to provide shade for the tea and rubber to sell.
Back in urban Xishuangbanna, we had a very tasty dinner full of locally grown vegetables paired with some decent sheng puer tea. We then explored an area comprised mostly of tea shops and chose one in which to sample some puer tea. Finally, we visited the very popular night market before turning in for the night.
In the morning, our driver brought us to the first mountain we would be visiting: Jingmai. The drive up the mountain was very long, winding, and bumpy, but entirely worth it. After having a big breakfast, we were lead through the village where we saw the simple town full of hardworking locals.
Then began the education, starting with the oldest tea farm in Jingmai mountain. At the farm, we could not call the plants before us "tea bushes"; these were tea trees. The tea trees in the farm are natural, meaning they are untrimmed and generally uncared for. However, they were planted by villagers many years ago so they are not quite wild. In comparison to all of the tea farms we had seen up until this point, the tea plants in this farm were much more thinly dispersed. Among the many tea trees, near the edge of a dirt road, was the king tea tree of Jingmai Mountain. It was chosen due to its towering height and is said to be over 500 years old. Our guides taught us that the general leaf harvesting standard for puer tea in Jingmai Mountain is one bud, three leaves. This means that harvesters would harvest anything from a single bud to a bud attached to three leaves. Again, when we looked closely at the stems and branches of the tea trees, copious amounts of lichen and moss could be seen. On some stems, there was something else growing that resembled a tiny prickly pear cactus without the spines. We learned that the common name for this growth is "Crab Legs" and that it is used as tea or consumed other ways, and is normally expensive.
After a short drive to a different part of the mountain, Tao introduced us to a woman who owned a small tea factory. At the factory, we saw familiar equipment used to process tea, although the entire processing procedure of puer tea is unique (as with the other types of tea). The instruments included: a heated rotating drum for kill-green, new and old rolling machines, large woks for processing by hand, and a large bamboo mat on which to dry the leaves.
Naturally, after visiting the tea farm and viewing the tea factory, we were awarded with tasting three different sheng puer teas manufactured and steeped by the factory owner. They all tasted exquisite, with the Moon White puer being the lightest in both colour and flavour. It may be difficult for some to imagine that a single factory can produce many varying kinds of puer tea. However, by altering elements of the tea's processing procedure, such as performing kill-green or rolling by hand contrary to by machine, being more selective of the leaf standard, or drying the leaves indoors versus under the sun (resulting in "Moon White" puer versus regular puer), the resulting product can differ greatly in taste, volume, and value. Furthermore, after the processed leaves are dried (at this point, the leaves are referred to as "maocha"), they can undergo further processing to become sheng puer cakes or shu puer cakes. Further still, sheng puer cakes are commonly aged to become smoother in taste and more valuable. With all of this information in mind, three different puer teas from a single factory doesn't seem like so many.
Next stop: Banzhang Mountain. Due to a recent increase in the popularity of its tea, Banzhang Village is now very wealthy. The reason for this is not due to marketing or any changes in the tea, but rather the collective voice and opinion of tea drinkers all over China. The houses in this village looked more modern and luxurious than those we saw in Jingmai. Upon arriving in the village, we met with a tea factory owner who taught us about the puer tea making process and then steeped us some of his own factory's tea. Relative to tea from other mountains in Yunnan, the puer tea from Banzhang Mountain is quite strong with a pleasant aftertaste.
The puer tea process begins with harvesting the leaves of tea plants in Yunnan. According to the many people we spoke with in Yunnan, any tea plant in the province can be used to make puer tea but some specific farms are more often used to make black tea or green tea. The facts that the leaves come from tea plants in Yunnan and are processed in a specific way are collectively what define the puer tea category. The first step to processing the leaves is withering, which can either be done by spreading the leaves out on a mat left under the sun (or indoors with a cool temperature) or by lightly heating the leaves in a wok and tossing them like a salad. We were lucky enough to witness the latter method being done by a skilled worker. During withering, the leaves are intermittently checked for dryness by being bent between the fingers. If the leaves bend but don't break, they are prepared to endure more agressive processing and thus the withering step is complete. The next step is kill-green, which can either be done using a rolling drum machine or by hand in a highly heated wok. This step's goal is to slow the oxidation of the leaves to a near halt. Once kill-green is deemed complete, usually due to a specified time limit, rolling can begin. If a machine is used for kill-green, the rolling step would be done with a rolling machine, otherwise the wok containing the leaves would have its temperature lowered to moderate heat and the worker would roll the leaves by hand. Finally, the leaves are spread out on a bamboo mat to be left outside to dry under the sun. Alternatively, the leaves may be left to dry indoors if "Moon White" puer is the intended product.
After a short visit to the oldest tea farm of Banzhang Mountain, where we saw the enormous king tea tree and the smaller (but still large) old tea trees, the factory owner steeped us tea from New Banzhang Village and Old Banzhang Village so that we could taste the difference (which was quite apparent!).
What I remember most about this part of the tour are the amazing views of the landscape that were constantly in perspective. Continue reading the 2011 Tea Tour Recollections with the next part: Part Four: Puer Old and New (coming soon).