He Kai Ancient Tree Puerh – A Long Walk

Nothing quite ‘scars’ the palate like a magnificent hit of a powerful tea. From that moment forward something has changed and it might as well be an actual mark or scar because it is memorable and it changes everything for all time. Whatever it is that has grabbed the molars, wafted into the cavities of the mouth and nasal cavity, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that from that moment on a portion of the brain has decided that something stunning just occurred, and it is a critical moment that will move decision-making irrevocably when selecting leaves. Something has been activated and there is no real return to anything remotely blasé. Important too is to revisit these monsters of the palate to be part of their evolution. It is one of the eternally delicious aspects of Puerh…that it does evolve and grow with time.

One of the beloved ancients that rest in the sub-tropic forests of Bulang Mountain

One of the beloved ancients that rest in the sub-tropic forests. They are the providers of something utterly sacrosanct when produced properly.

Beyond fabled names, reputations, and beyond too some of the outrageous hype around teas, a tea (however humble the source and the hands that create it are) can grab a palate as surely as a moment of enlightenment can. The experience of a good tea can happily obliterate all memories of every average/flavoured tea that has ever made it into the cup and mouth and serve to clarify.

He Kai was one of those teas the first time I tried it and there was something slightly revolutionary about it. It lingered in the mouth and mind after having been vigorously advocated by a friend in southern Yunnan. It was a tea that powered onto the molars and cells within the mouth and didn’t relent. It lasted and lasted and never seemed to finish badly. In the words of a good tea drinking mate, it was “haunting”. That it was. In subsequent samples it remained just as striking over months and then a year it evolved in small ways but it retained its enamel challenging strength while never straying into the ‘too-bitter’ or the dreaded ‘sour’. It was a tea that carried deep throngs into the mouth and finished clean. Of course, there was too the fact that a particular family had produced it by hand from pluck to wringing out the last bits of moisture.

Getting to He Kai by way of huge swaths and fields

Getting to He Kai by way of huge swaths and fields

Bordering the fringes of the famed Puerh Ban Zhang region in southwestern Yunnan, these gentle areas (and its teas) of the Lahu, Dai, and Hani minorities frequently gets missed. Missed things are often very good things because they must continually develop rather than presume anything. Koreans have long found value in the teas of He Kai and been fans of its qi (energy or force) whereas locals are fans of the ancient trees in particular and its long flavor notes. Ancient trees (older than 100 years) offer up flavor notes that can either be maintained – and even enhanced – or hands that produce them can desecrate them. No tea is guaranteed status unless the hands and knowledge are equal to the raw materials. My He Kai experiences had run the gamut from Dai people’s offerings to Lahu and back to Dai. It was their leaves and their procedures that rang all of the salivary glands for me.

The place of He Kai is a wonderful kind of crucible of indigenous cultures and epic tea growing regions. Known for gorgeous parasitic orchids (rumored to enhance some of the ancient tea trees as they fuse onto the trunks and branches), mountains, and clay-heavy soils, it remains a tea coveted by drinkers year after year. It hasn’t always been a place of consistency but its teas have improved to a point where one can start to depend on independent families to provide a little bit of predictable pleasure. It is a danger to depend but, for a drinker, it is a sacrosanct pleasure.

Dai colours rest on a line in a tea village

Dai colours rest on a line in a tea village

Years had passed since I’d first wandered into the region with a friend covered in dust and craving a sit down with tea. Southwest out of the tea collection point of Menghai in southern Yunnan, we turned off into the watermelon fields shielded with plastic at the village of Meng Hun and towards the Bulang Mountains. The spine of the Bulangs was a kind of elevated holding line for the valley. Arriving to a Dai homestead we were confronted with tea’s ever-present wafts, shapes, and necessary tools. Tea ran the entire place and harvest seasons were a time when every mortal being was involved somehow in some stage of tea’s collection, production, or sale. Upon our own arrival, tea was barely mentioned in the first 24-hours. Firstly, one had to eat, meet, sip some of the tea before meeting more and sipping some of the potent local firewater. I was happily dragged through homes and nearby villages as the local Dai New Year’s celebrations were in full swing.

Nothing goes forward without epic amounts of food, alcohol, and friends.

Nothing goes forward without epic amounts of food, alcohol, and friends. 

Villages and sources of tea are precious things as it is here in moments, meals, discussions and wanderings that the leaves that are consumed become physically linked to the land and its people. A visual and very tangible line from source to sip is made visible. Untidy to some, many of the villages (that appear as forlorn little pods amidst the sub-tropical forests) will produce teas of such divine maturity and strength that it is scarcely believable. In such regions there is too, the predictable other side of that coin: the pilferers, pretenders and charlatans. Pristine, ultra-clean and smiley places can create veritable messes of a particular tea.

After the first infusion - Puerh

Over the course of years, multiple returns for meals, purchases of tea, episodes of incorrectly frying leaves, and repeated conversations, I’d come to feel deep gratitude to be able to return again and again to a slightly off-the-grid village that consistently produced tremendously powerful teas. Teas that please are all the more pleasing when there is a tangible reference point beyond simply a name. This is when land and geography – along with the imprints of smell and feel – are associated with a particular tea and experience. In such regions, such tea zones weren’t so much tea fields as they were chaotic orchards and forests that spread and ran entire mountain sides and plateaus.

My own palate was recently reminded of He Kai’s graces and fervent power when some of the leaves from a wonderful 2014 harvest were revisited for a slow sit and sip session with the leaves, some water and time. Two phrases were mentioned in relation to this tea long ago and I carry them around in my head whenever I think of this tea. One phrase was “smooth force” and the second was it “lingers for hours in mouth”. In this most recent bit of sampling, it did these two things beautifully. Though it has smoothed slightly in the two years since it was harvested and created, it still carried its distinguished power everywhere it settled in the mouth. Bold and deep, this He Kai adheres to its original line and it is here perhaps that a tea reveals itself in its truest form: with time. Tea needs time; time to sip, time for the tea to develop and it needs time and care to produce it. After two years the tea was still fixed in its strengths with only soft touches of change enhancing it even more. With the first sips my own palate could feel those first times of sipping and conjure up images and smells when I first shared some of the leaves.

 Tea Cake

Upon re-sampling the 2014 Spring version, the leaves still carry their tang of pungency and urgency and it is in this magical ‘urgency’ that this particular tea shines in a green glow. That little sampling takes place one morning before any food passes into the mouth, and before the synthetic chemistry of toothpaste touches any enamel. It is the first infusion consumed (no rinsing) and first substance that passes into the lips for hours. Every few months I had inverted and shifted the loose leaves so that air could touch and run through even the most tucked away clumps. Dry circulated air is the lifeblood of Puerh teas, unlike so many other teas which require absolute vacuum sealed, air tight containers. Its’ powerful long leggy flavors refuse to release their grip on the molars, even long after the essences have passed smoothly past into the gorge. The volatile elements that contribute to a tea’s flavor are potent but rarely harsh in older tree’s leaves and with competent withering and frying in clean zones some magic happens…and it remains happening.

Puerh, Pu er, Pu erh Tea Cake

Some wonderful vegetal astringency – and that vital urgency – still lasts and that is largely to do with polyphenol family which includes flavonoids, which imbue the end buds and leaves on a tea tree. Though the leaves alter with time and procedure, they ring true with my memories of He Kai’s strengths. I have little notes scribbled onto a little piece of paper from long ago sipping’s. That paper remains tucked in amidst the leaves consistent to the first detailed notes about the tea: “persistent”, “powerful”, “long impressions. The notes get an update with the words “like a long walk through the mountains”. It is the long walks that remain nicely hiding the little strolls.

 Puerh - A first cup

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Puerh – The ‘Sort’

Tea ends up in nuggets and in twisted desiccated things of tangy beauty. Cakes and compressed forms line shelves and delicate curled buds are unveiled out of boutique bags and wrapping. It ends up with names and tales scarcely believable at times.

Lifting the leaves so that they untangle and separate, post-frying.

Lifting the leaves so that they untangle and separate, post-frying.

There is a stage almost never mentioned in the processing of teas, and particularly in Puerh production. It is a simple stage that needs hands, a bit of time, and it absolutely requires a bent body over a steaming heap of newly fried limp tea leaves.

I call it “the sort” but it is much more. Freshly fried leaves, expunged of their humidity come in balls and clumps from their wok’s or frying pans and are dumped onto rattan woven racks. They are then kneaded like dough, of any last moisture which is purged onto these racks. Then comes this wonderful “sort”.

Separating leaves into smaller bundles, the sort becomes a thing of soft touches that need the hands. No machine can sort like the hands.

Separating leaves into smaller bundles, the sort becomes a thing of soft touches that need the hands. No machine can sort like the hands.

Palms up, the ‘sorter’ will lift and separate the leaves to allow oxygen through the still moist leaves. This will continue until all the leaves have been completely plied apart. The leaves are then ready to dry in the sun and shade. Puerh needs this stage, and with so much within the tea world, it is the hands that supply the magic rather than any clever machines.

A simple stage that affects little but affects everything. Without the separation humidity will continue to work on the leaves…with the ‘sort’ comes a reliance on the old ways – the good ways.

Separating leaves close up post frying...essential and yet something almost forgotten.

Separating leaves close up post frying…essential and yet something almost forgotten.

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Puerh – Age and Other Words

Worlds of tea exist in twisted semi-fermented forms, flat green shapes and black beetle bits. Formats, ferments, withering, fries and dries and even the all-too-often mentioned colour designation at times drag some of the thought around tea into a place of too-much.  

A Hani harvester balances within the arms of an ancient tea tree in southern Yunnan.

A Hani harvester balances within the arms of an ancient tea tree in southern Yunnan.

The spelling, phonetics, and even the often disagreed upon geographic designations bring into focus how tea has lost some of the simplistic aspects as it broadens its liquid reach. Even the spelling of Puerh (Pu’erh, Pu’er, Puer) gets some blood ripping through the veins of purists and sippers.

This little missive of words’ focuses only on Puerh sources and the ‘age of leaves’ question. Regardless of whether a Puerh is a raw (sheng) in cake or loose form, or a cooked (shou) version in pressed or loose form, there is the question of what the age of the provider of leaves is. This question differs from ‘how old the cake is’ or ‘how old the tea itself is’. 

The horizon is a green series of rows of 'tai di' or young bushes near Nannuo Mountain, Xishuangbanna.

The horizon is a green series of rows of ‘tai di’ or young bushes near Nannuo Mountain, Xishuangbanna.

Age of trees or bushes is one of the questions particularly vital to any discussion or selection of Puerh (regardless of how you spell it). A ten-year old tea doesn’t tell the drinker anything about the age of the leaves when picked, and for many of us this is a more intriguing and more delicious question than it sometimes gets credit for.

Harvests ideally fall into 5 categories…and here I use the simple structure and language of the villagers and locals I’ve long sourced from. Their language is simple, their feel for tea immaculate, and their views rarely overly complex or pretentious. They too disagree at times, and as happens frequently, the terminology that exists is that which has been injected and sometimes imposed upon from the world outside the tea regions. It is this world which needs terms for marketing, marking up, and mystifying (in many cases overly-so).

Bushes are often pruned to keep them relatively neat and easy to harvest from. Communities that are fortunate enough to have ancient trees want to retain them in their natural forms and refrain from over-harvesting. The value of such teas consistently rises with each new year.

Bushes are often pruned to keep them relatively neat and easy to harvest from. Communities that are fortunate enough to have ancient trees want to retain them in their natural forms and refrain from over-harvesting or over-pruning. The value of such teas consistently rises with each new year.

Each category of ‘age of provider’ has its own breadth of possibilities in terms of flavor profile, aftertaste, qi and effect on the digestive and intestinal systems. There are some general characteristics that locals will refer to again and again when speaking about the ‘age of the source of leaves’. Ancient trees and old trees generally provide smoother teas with less astringency (if produced well). Wild tea trees can carry a load of astringency that can be like a digestive cleanser and scrubbing brush all in one. Medium and younger bushes provide a little more blast and bitterness (not necessarily a negative for many palates). Older trees are also generally fine on empty stomachs, whereas harvests from younger bushes and trees can cause (what a good friend of mine, Rob) once called “true distress on the innards”.

There are five categories that are used by Southern Yunnan locals (and one extra little designation) with a ‘rough’ guideline for age of source. These age numbers – like so very much in the tea world – aren’t always agreed upon standards but they can steer a drinker in a direction. I’ve heard some refer to a 60 year old growth of green as being ancient, and there was a tale that a grower near Lao Ma E(r) in the Bulang Mountains trying to sell an ‘ancient tree tea’ that was likely from 30 year old large leaf bushes.

 

  1. Tai Di – Young bushes (Under 15-20 years)
  2. Sen Tai – Medium Aged bushes (20-80 years)
  3. Lao Shu – Old tree (80 years +)
  4. Gu Shu – Ancient Tree (100 years +)
  5. Yī kē shù – Single Tree (1 tree’s tea leaves. Rare but out there – the leaves are entirely of one single tree. Expensive and something of a treat for those looking for a true single origin tea)
  6. Yě shù – Wild Tree (Usually old or ancient and somewhat of a wild cat, these teas can be blockbuster brutes but are also capable of being something of a one off stunner).
Taking the term 'single origin' to another level, there are examples in the Puerh world where there is a limited edition tea that is sourced and harvested from one single tree or bush. Expensive, often fake, but entirely divine if one can find an authentic offering.

Taking the term ‘single origin’ to another level, there are examples in the Puerh world where there is a limited edition tea that is sourced and harvested from one single tree or bush. Expensive, often fake, but entirely divine if one can find an authentic offering.

Another aspect of tea is mixing and it is here that some of the dark forces come into play. Many so-called ‘Gu Shu’ (ancient tree) offerings are mixed or blended ‘down’ with additional young bush leaves. Well-practiced eyes (and palates) can identify this if one breaks and peers into a cake (this practice is less simple with loose leaf offerings where leaves can be studied in wonderful obsessive detail). By ‘cutting’ the ancient tree leaves with younger leaves, the overall quality is also cut. But who can tell? It is the sometimes only the truly obsessed and knowledgeable that can sniff out a tea that has been cut. For those that care it is one of the great ills of the modern Puerh world, for it is a deliberate attempt to manipulate an end product and ultimately lie to drinker’s palates.

Puerh

An old tree or perhaps ancient. In any case the tree is around 100 years old according to the locals close to Meng Song, Xishuangbanna.

All of the above ‘ages of sources’ can create great infusions if produced and served carefully, just as a Single Tree Origin’s from an ancient tree can be a mess of awful results if there is incompetence, apathy or simply intentional skullduggery.

A very young cutting starting its life out near its ancient tree DNA bloodlines in the background in He Kai.

A very young cutting starting its life out near its ancient tree DNA bloodlines in the background in He Kai.

With all things tea there is that informal ‘law of the leaf’: Know your source, and you will know your tea.

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World Explorers Summit – Cardiff Wales, Exploration and its vital people and tales

World Explorers Summit in Cardiff Wales

Will be speaking at the World Explorers Summit in September…with tea at the ready. Great line up of speakers and passionate engagers of this world and its tales.

Cardiff, Wales – September 3/4, 2016

The all important 'us' on a the Glacier's Breath Expedition...the all important porters who carry the burden and still smile.

The all important ‘us’ on a the Glacier’s Breath Expedition…the all important porters who carry the burden and still smile.

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Tea Journey Begins

Tea Journey Magazine is now up and running on Kickstarter for the next 60 days. A great initiative for one of the fastest growing consumer industries on the planet and one that dearly needs a more intimate and authentic telling of its tales. I’m happily contributing to both tastings and tasting notes on teas from Yunnan…and casting eyes sideways to sample fellow contributors’ selections. Ultimately it is about opening up the world of tea and providing simple platforms by which to enjoy teas, without hype or hyperbole.

Mountain brother Kamal enjoys a sip of 'whatever' tea. Matters not what vintage...just that it is tea.

Mountain brother Kamal enjoys a sip of ‘whatever’ tea. Matters not what vintage…just that it is tea.

Rehashed tales and information needs to be greatly diluted with a bit of authenticity and some grit. It is also in need of those who care for the leaf, produce it and not simply profit from its wonderful resurrection.

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Tea’s Last Guardians – The Himalayan Muleteers and the Tea Horse Road

Joining the storied Royal Geographical Society here in London as they host my upcoming talks: Tea’s Last Guardians – The Himalayan Muleteers, this upcoming Monday and Tuesday. A magnificent venue to rant on about two great fuels: tea and mountains…and their epic custodians whose grand work rarely gets a worthwhile bit of mention.

Tea Horse Road - Muleteers and Guardians

Monday, March 21st at the RGS headquarters and a follow up presentation put on by the RGS for the City Lecture Series on Tuesday March 22nd, will allow for some rants on the landscapes and personalities upon the Tibetan Plateau. The Gya-lam (Tea Horse Road), the Ancient Road of Salt (Tsa-lam), and the Pashmina Route (Hor-lam) will also be introduced.

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Pu erh Tea and its Precious Pickers

There is much made of a tea’s geographic designation, its altitude, its harvest season, and its growers…and there should be! The earth, the temperate surroundings and the handlers and coaxers of the leaves are to be thanked and acknowledged.

Within the Bulang Mountain's ancient tree forests in southwestern Yunnan.

Within the Bulang Mountain’s ancient tree forests in southwestern Yunnan.

Every effort and breath within the mountains and forests, every little build up to harvest time matters. Harvesting for the purists is a time not simply when leaves are clipped. It is the moments/days/months before, watching how bushes and trees form, grow, develop or wither. It is also vital to study the leaves and plants post-harvest to see how the leaves have faired.

Pu erh - Harvest

A sip can bring this all to mind, or simply bring into focus the flavonoids and chemistry that moves the senses. Pu erh tea particularly is one that deserves some understanding from start to finish because it is such a simple and sometimes inconsistent process.

Pu erh - Harvest

Pickers, and particularly those who are part of old clans that have been ‘at the leaf’ for generations are bound to this end-result-first sip moment. Their piston-like picking may not appeal as art but their abilities to instantly recognize what to pick (if at all), when to pick and then slice it off with a quick slit of a fingernail do bear acknowledgement and some praise.

Pu erh - Harvest

Usually women – though not always – make their way through the soft round loamy hills, and feeling the textures and soil. They know what days and times might not be ideal for the removal of a leaf from its stem. It is often they, who will understand why leaves may wither or wilt, or indeed why they might thrive. Bun from the Wa people once remarked, “Of course I know the leaves. They are children and there are very few days that I am not beside them”. This brings the difference of machine vs hand picked harvests into close focus as well. Machines simply don’t do well in terms of discernment or exact location to cut the leaves from stems. They don’t do well with the feel of a leaf. Hands, and particularly those in the indigenous forests of southern Yunnan province have never had machines to pluck or cut and they view such instruments as brutal instruments of trauma.

Pu erh - Harvester

A focused and learned picker can tell when a tree or bush’s roots are not draining well just from looking at the leaves and stems. It is one of the great and deadly plights of a tea plant when moisture gathers at the roots without an exit point and so there must be a kind of immediate interpretation and that interpretation is done by one who knows the soils intuitively. As many of Yunnan’s old gardens and forests become the target of larger tea companies wanting to put a brand name upon a particular mountain, or region, minimum harvest targets and increasing yields means that some of the forests’ inherent sustainable model are disappearing. Pickers are more than simply removal agents of the green stimulant gems; they are the witnesses and monitors of the lands and forests.

Harvesting is knowing about not only the correct time, but which bushes and trees to pick from and about the intensity of the picking itself.

Harvesting is knowing about not only the correct time, but which bushes and trees to pick from and about the intensity of the picking itself.

The much used word “sustainability” can also be credited to the pickers and indigenous, for it is they who can and often do decide not to pluck from certain trees or bushes, deciding instead that the bush is stressed and should rest. “Ama” a Hani matron who I’ve spent time with in the tea mountains of southern Yunnan also reminds that it isn’t simply a case of picking all leaves in sight. Plucking is an ongoing observation period and study of something that is obsessed over. All of this takes place in tandem with the singing and rampant conversations that seem to accompany all harvests. Work with song within the leaves.

Pu erh - Harvest

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Nomad’s Fine Food – Air-Dried Yak

Tibetan styled air drying. Slabs of yak meat hang in a nomad’s tent letting 4500-metre air and wind dry one of the vital protein sources for families in the Himalayas. Yak have long been one of the essentials for the very highest of high-residents, providing sustenance, cloth, mobile transport and tools. In the words of Omu (pictured), “We wouldn’t be able to be nomads without our yak”.

Nomads - Air Drying Yak meat

The nomad ways are a combination of ultimate pragmatism with a touch of the otherworldly, and a worship of all natural elements.

A binding and timeless cooperation that hopefully will remain. Many Tibetans will not/can not kill their own beasts, instead depending on outsiders to do the slaughtering. With many of the nomad clans, however, practical needs outweigh all. With a blessing and a well placed long knife, the yak is despatched and given tribute for its offering.

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Pu erh’s Needed Basics

“Discussions about a specific tea should be left until during and after the sipping and too many words simply lead one to question the speaker”.

– Ms. Lu, Tea Master – Kunming

Puerh in its ripe or 'Shou' version. Artificially aged with bacteria and humidity. Shaped teas were and still are common in the Puerh world, though not all Puerh is formed or moulded.

Pu erh in its ripe or ‘Shou’ version. Artificially aged with bacteria and humidity. Shaped teas were and still are common in the Pu erh world, though not all Pu erh is formed or moulded.

There is always time for a little ‘destruction’ when too much mystification takes hold. This applies to everything from education to the world – and leaves – of tea, and far beyond. Mystification can be a great enemy when it comes to trying to establish basic truths. With Pu erh’s ever-shifting place and growing popularity upon the palates of drinkers – and its rise from a simple caravan tea into something approaching a boutique commodity – it becomes necessary to add some simple thoughts to all of the rehashed, hashed, and otherwise bits of information on the big leaves of Pu erh. Mystification in Pu erh’s world comes from some of its legitimate claims, but it also comes from regurgitated misinformation, marketing, and the intensely pretentious. Mystification, though, can also serve to hide or manipulate knowledge and create hype, and it is at this, that this little bit of writing is directed. What makes deliberate or simply ignorant information so damaging is that for many who are unable (but willing) to seek out genuine knowledge the task becomes more like wandering through a haze of faintly visible shapes: close but never really there. As always too, as interest increases in any item there are those who take all information as either doctrine or suspect. Tea is a thing of the earth from where it comes, the hands that produce and nurture it, and then with a bit of added heat it waits for its first infusion. Those facts should not be muddled by words, otherworldly terminology nor flattery.

Raw or 'Sheng' Puerh. Basically a green unmolested tea that will age naturally given oxygen, time and its own innate chemistry. For most locals who grow and know tea, far superior.

Raw or ‘Sheng’ Pu erh. Basically a green unmolested tea that will age naturally given oxygen, time and its own innate chemistry. For most locals who grow and know tea, far superior.

A Pu erh for locals in southwest Yunnan Province, who cultivate and harvest the leaves, and for some of the regulatory bodies that are trying to assign a specific set of guidelines for Pu erh, the truth is fairly simple as to what Pu erh actually is. A Pu erh must be a big leaf species, should be grown, cultivated and produced in Yunnan, and should be sun-shade dried. That is it really. Though there are big leaf trees and shrubs growing in Myanmar, Assam and Loas, the above three simple designates are vital to at least establish a context of what Pu erh is. In the myriad of words written and spoken about Puerh it is remarkable that fewer explain the vital role and history of the producers and hands behind the leaves. Even in a greater context it is often these characters behind the leaves that speak more clarity in minutes than some of the extravagance heard in the wider sphere of the tea world. It is a shame that they cannot be the tale-tellers of their leaves, rather than wordsmiths.

A Bulang elder amidst his sacred ancient tea trees near Lao Ma Er in the Bulang Mountains.

A Bulang elder amidst his sacred ancient tea trees near Lao Ma Er in the Bulang Mountains.

Aged teas have become one of the most irritating talking points and mystifications regarding Pu erh. An aged tea is simply a tea that has been around in cake/loose/brick form for years or decades. With some drinkers making sublimely ridiculous claims that they “will not drink a tea that is less than 25 years old”, or “40 years” – or more in age, it seems the lunatic and pretentious realms are close at hand. Entire forums of debate and discussion exist to rank aged teas without the contributors ever having sampled a simple raw Pu erh (a ‘green’ version that is simply picked, withered, fried, and dried) from a verified source. There is much of the world of trendiness moving into the world of Pu erh and with it some wonderfully idiotic terminology. This combined with claims such as the above threaten some fundamentals of a timelessly pungent and slightly rough bit of beauty. In many cases claims are made without even an understanding of some basic Pu erh knowledge or of the people behind the tea who’ve created it. In the words of one of my indigenous and astute tea mentors in Banzhang, southwestern Yunnan, “When someone says too much about tea, their palates are surely missing much”. The world of Pu erh is so very much more than simply ripened and aged decaying beauties (and not so beautiful beauties). For samples of exquisite Pu erhs one finds no better place than the source where Pu erhs are consumed in rampant fashion in its green ‘raw’ (Sheng) form, that will in time age itself slowly. An irony that in the very original bastions of Pu erh tea cultivation, the locals turn their noses at the notion that one would deliberately manipulate an astringent vegetal bit of brilliance. In the Pu erh tea cultivating regions, nothing is better than a bit of potently fresh Pu erh. Aged teas are viewed a something of a waste, though marketing has turned this ‘aged-tea phenomenon’ into something commercial beyond all other things. In the words of Mr. Gao, another mentor of Banzhang, “To know a tea, you need to know the land and the hands that made it”. There are no hard and fast rules regarding a tea’s age. If one knows or trusts the source, has a palate reference point, the rest is up to the mouth.

Legitimately old teas in cylinder form lying in a disintegrating pile in a Kunming tea market. Whether they actually have more developed or 'superior' flavours is still up to palates rather than rankings or price.

Legitimately old Pu erh teas in cylinder form lying in a disintegrating pile in a Kunming tea market. Whether they actually have more developed or ‘superior’ flavours is still up to palates rather than rankings or price.

I once joined a tea buyer of repute from Guangdong as he raided the attics of an old Hani household looking for antiquities (old tea cakes, bricks, cylinders). When I asked him why he looked in the attics, he told me that the locals would simply forget that they had the old teas, and that if they did remember they would likely not touch them. He himself was a perfect example of a mentor. Softly spoken and hailing from a farm, he had the palate of a true taster. He would often listen to people wax on about flavour ranges, and their own expertise with a half-smile upon his face. He once said “It is interesting to me that these people speak so much of what is desirable in a Pu erh, when it is clear that they don’t know the very basics of what a Pu erh is”. When asked to clarify, he said, “Everyone is interested what tea-mountain the tea comes from. The name, the age…a good tea is a good tea and sometimes that is all one need understand”.

Tea leaves from an ancient tea tree open up with a first infusion within a flared cup (gai wan).

Tea leaves from an ancient tea tree open up with a first infusion within a flared cup (gai wan).

Some little notions on aged teas (as opposed to freshly harvested teas from ancient trees) that are vital and – and often vitally missing – on the subject of Pu erh. It is increasingly difficult to understand how certain aged Pu erhs selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars, and that can easily be faked, rigged, and hyperbolized can continually occupy such a width of fascination. The age of a particular tea, its creator, its nicely desecrated wrap, and even its hints of pungent mustiness that inundate every particle can be easily manipulated with very little sign of playing. In fact the older a cake is reputed to be, the more it should arise a slight bit of suspicion. Ripe blacks, deliberately manipulated with bacteria and humidity can easily serve to function (with some added finesse) as an old tea. While the nuttiness and smooth flavours of either ripened or naturally oxidized teas are, like all things, subjective, one still needs to know from where and whom it came. I come again back to the indigenous people who grow and nurture the trees and bushes. They look at tea as something inextricably bound to the earth and to themselves and the more the manipulation and adulteration of tea, the farther from a tea it becomes. Said simply, deliberate addition of bacteria to speed up ageing isn’t something desirable. Genuinely old teas that are over 20 or 30 years old are not that common, though one wouldn’t know it looking at the multitudes selling it. A tea over 30 years old runs the risk of becoming nothing but dust. Teas rarely develop anything extra in flavor beyond that age, so what are consumers hoping to find? If one has the choice between a tea from an ancient tree or an aged 30 year old cake (with no indication of age of tree or bush), I’d take the ancient tree tea every single time (and save a lot of money).

One of the most ancient of the 'formed' teas. This form of compressing tea in a bamboo husk goes back to ancient times and it was common for the Dai minority to store and transport leaves this way.

One of the most ancient of the ‘formed’ teas. This form of compressing tea in a bamboo husk goes back to ancient times and it was common for the Dai minority to store and transport leaves this way.

Pu erh tea’s brilliance comes from the fact that it is so inconsistent from season-to-season, batch-to-batch, and year-to-year. Compare it to a high-mountain Wulong where craft and timing are vital to the fermenting art; compare it to the magnificent consistency of a Japanese green Sencha, where one can be certain with the expectation that each Spring’s offering from a particular producer will feel like a well rehearsed bit of ritual. Contrast this with the world of Pu erh where consistency is prized but not assured and yet still the prices of fantastically fresh Pu erhs astound. A fresh Spring Pu erh harvest of Lao Banzhang, Bing Dao, Bang Ma, or Pa Sa, can elicit hundreds and even thousands of dollars per kilo in its fresh potently raw form. The price, though partially hype and marketeering at its most voracious, is at least a bit down to the fact that these ancient trees have never been sprayed, and that the process to produce such gems is largely unchanged. The source, the producer, and the age of the trees all adds a special bit of aura to the value. Said another way, what is unchanged and simple, contributes to the worth and desirability of the tea, rather than simply a purported ‘age’ of a tea.

Though not as well known outside of Yunnan, Puerh big leaves often appears as simply loose, uncompressed tea. Here, an example of ancient tree's leaves.

Though not as well known outside of Yunnan, Pu erh big leaves often appears as simply loose, uncompressed tea. Here, an example of ancient tree’s leaves.

Pu erh is a kind of cowboy in the tea world. An inconsistent, swarthy brute at times that can in turns be wonderfully subtle and full of grace and at others be pungent and molar grabbing. There are no rules or clever divining about which Pu erh will age well or what year will produce a stunner. In the world of tea, the plants that thrive and produce masterpieces generally have gone through stresses of drought or climactic extremes. This ‘stress-factor’ is one of the great under-stated truths of a great plant, tree, bush, or arboreal of the camellia family and particularly for the big-leaf Pu erhs. Tea bushes that undergo stress generally pass one of Mother Nature’s great informal exams and end up producing something exquisite. There should be stimulant compounds within, and it should have a slight astringency. Bitterness is not an enemy but rather simply to gradually understand in the mouth.

What creates a classic in the tea world is as varied as there are teas. The market – as it does with so much – decides a tea’s value, but so too does some of the absolutes of a classic Pu erh: astringent bite, vegetal strength with a sweet finish. What can be said about a Pu erh is that it is consistently the variations and vegetal power of a new harvest that are sought after by the palates of locals. A tea’s age (or purported age) in the lands that grow so many classic Pu erhs, will get scarce attention compared to a fresh Spring harvest zinger from one of the classic tea mountains: Bulang, Yiwu, Banzhang, Nannuo, Naka…

Back in 2004 when I first visited the famed Puerh village of Lao Banzhang. Now, the thatched homes have been replaced with mansions as the growers are now rolling in the funds that their fabulous teas' summon.

Back in 2004 when I first visited the famed Pu erh village of Lao Banzhang. Now, the thatched homes have been replaced with mansions as the growers are now rolling in the funds that their fabulous teas’ summon.

Pu erh holds the distinction of being the one tea that will age and develop over time rather than simply wither away into dust. This ageing is real and differs from the forced ‘ripening’ process brought on by additional humidity and bacteria. This kind of ageing is entirely natural, but again doesn’t necessarily mean, the tea will be any better. No re-roasting to revitalize it like some of the gorgeous Wulongs, no shading before plucking like the classic Japanese greens. An average Puerh, with a bit of alchemic vim, can become a classic ageing with only oxygen and time.

The above serves or attempts to open up the wider and more ‘real’ world of Pu erhs and was also stimulated by a deluge of very limited rehashed information on the world of Pu erh and by one particular individual’s recent (and preposterous) claim that he “wouldn’t touch a Pu erh that isn’t at least 10-years’ old”…all while never having sampled any Sheng (raw or green) Pu erh in his life. The palate, some trust in the source, and some good leaves…along with some time are the only requisites.

Here, in Jing Mai elders from the Dai minority sort stems and damaged leaves (still very drinkable) from the rest. Tea at its core in these regions is still very much something of the hands.

Here, in Jing Mai elders from the Dai minority sort stems and damaged leaves (still very drinkable) from the rest. Tea at its core in these regions is still very much something of the hands.

Random Pu erh Bits

Puerh’s have to be big-leafed camellia species

One doesn’t have to chuck the first rinse infusion. The first rinse which is often thrown away is generally used to awaken the leaves, eliminate a little of the bitterness and to simply remove errant dust and bits from the tea

Big leafed tea was used long ago in Myanmar by the royalty as a foodstuff where leaves would be stored within bamboo, which were in turn buried in the earth. After months or even years the leaves would be uncovered and eaten in this potent and pungent form at celebrations

It was the big leaf ‘Pu erh’ teas that the Mongols (once rulers of the Han empire and establishers of the Yuan Dynasty) brought back in brick and cylinder form to their distant yurts

Arguably the best Pu erhs (and certainly the oldest trees) on the globe are produced and cultivated in indigenous lands in southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, though the big leafed species can also be found in Myanmar, Assam, Laos and Thailand

Indigenous minorities including the Dai, Bulang, Wa, Hani, and Lahu all produce fabulously simple ‘Puerh’ teas

The indigenous have long used tea in concert with other plants and herbs as a medicine. Honey, orange blossom, peppercorns, chilli peppers, and even garlic have all been used

The name Pu erh is of an ancient tea market town in southern Yunnan province

Pu erhs can age naturally and develop other benefits over time, unlike other smaller leaf camellia species which simply wither and flat-line (unless re-roasted) after about 18-24 months. Pu erhs don’t really have a shelf-life as they will continue to develop

Puerhs need aeration to age. To store Pu erh cakes or loose leaves allow a space that isn’t an air tight container, and should be kept away from odors, spices, humidity

Pu erhs were called Ja Kabow (bitter tea) by the Tibetans and were known as some of the first teas to travel along the Tea Horse Road days over thirteen centuries ago

Pu erhs come in bush and arboreal form and can grown into great gargoyle-like trees that spread their bows wide

Pu erhs come in raw green form (called Sheng in Mandarin) or in ripe versions (called Shou in Mandarin). A raw Pu erh is essentially a green tea with the caveat that it will age for years altering in fragrance, flavor and appearance. A ripened version goes through an artificial speed-fermenting that attempts to mirror a naturally aged raw Pu erh

Indigenous groups of southern Yunnan have used Pu erh leaves for headaches, soothing fevers, weak circulation, pancreatic stimulation, cooling and soothing nerves and heart conditions. They have even used tea leaves as poultices on external wounds to heal scar tissue

Tea in the Chinese medicinal frame of reference is a coolant and something on the ‘bitter’ chart of flavors. Bitter foods are generally regarded as being beneficial to the heart and nervous system

Teas are in various potencies, both anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial

Pu erhs fall into different source types: young bushes, middle-aged bushes, old trees, and ancient trees. There are also wild tea trees throughout south central and southwest Yunnan. All are big leaf varieties

Prices of Pu erh depend on (in no particular order) age of bush/tree, harvest season (Spring is most valued), producer, and region

A tea harvester plucks from within the embrace of an ancient tree

A tea harvester plucks from within the embrace of an ancient tree

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Speaking About the Ancient Tea Horse Road

Great pleasure reminiscing and chatting about the Tea Horse Road on Talk Travel Asia  with Scott Coates and Trevor Ranges. Thoughts of the route and its legacy, its commodities, and the precious cultures that lie along the route. Listen to it here on iTunes or here on Soundcloud with a cupp’a.

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The Ancient Tea Horse Road

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