Puerh – A Sheng Takes the Palates

Snow has that wonderful natural ability to paint big swaths white, and slow everything down to a trickle. “Cooperate or perish” say many Himalayan inhabitants of the natural elements and their forces. Snow and Puerh seem an ideal way to begin!

The little tea that did from one of our favourite mountains, Bulang Mountain Sheng Puerh.

And so, things slowed in Toronto for this most edition of the Toronto Tea Festival, amidst snow that came in delicious diagonal chunks from above.

No better way to offer up sustenance at a tea fest than to do it with leaves that carry clean, powerful vegetal stimulants into the blood system. Tea was roaring into the cups and bloodstreams throughout the two day festival…exactly the way it should be. For us of course we had our line up of Puerh on offer.

The Jalamteas’ team. From left: Aurelien, Allen, and myself before the doors open….Photo courtesy of Debra Tan.

During the Puerh tea tasting competition our very own Jalamteas’ Bulang Mountain Autumnal harvest ‘raw’ (Sheng) gently took first place while another Bulang Mountain offering from us, a Lao Ma E Shou took third place.

Raw Puerhs have been our mainstay and our ‘push’ for all of the years we’ve been sourcing and it is pleasing that this tea, which for years was considered a rough hewn caravan tea full of chicken feathers and dust, has come to be regarded and appreciated for some of its power and vegetal bite.

Puerh Pouring

Celebrating nothing in particular with leaves and friends. It needs little else. The leaves on offer included an old bush white, some cracking Oolongs, and a ripping Naka Puerh.

Another aspect that pleases as well is that it isn’t just the hype and deliberate mystification of the so called ‘aged’ Puerhs that is getting attention. The Bulang winner wasn’t even a Spring harvest but rather a late autumn. It was an entry level Puerh from younger bushes, made by hands with exceptional care and carrying with them very specific flavours of the soil that won. It was, like many teas, one that has been curated to remain simple and reflect that hands and terroir. No flashy names, wraps, titles, ages, purported qualities….nada!! Taste will always be subjective but when a tea is sampled shorn of its titles and wrappers and name, it does come down to something quite visceral and simple.

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Travelling Puerh and the ‘Nonsense’ Tea

Sometimes there are simple choices rendered simple. Long travel hours and days with bags, different rooms, and tents where the senses are happily blasted this way and that…different wake up views and different water supplies all contribute to making tea selections for journeys, relatively ‘simple’ affairs. Simple only because for whatever reasons, the teas I pack are inevitably honed down the same 3….out of a choice of dozens. There are enough variables without making the crucial ritual of the day complicated. Travel (should) condense things down to needs, with an occasional bit of nonsense. This nonsense is usually a tea that is on the fringe of being really special and it is usually a Puerh tea. It is the risky one of the bunch. The teas that I pack have long been calculated for their impact, comfort, and strength. Perhaps uninterestingly though, the teas that are fused to me during journeys is almost exclusively Puerh. Robust, rippingly fresh, deep, rough, and accidently (and occasionally deliberately) brilliant, they have long been the leaves of need.

The three travelling Puerh cakes

Puerh teas from left to right: Nannuo Sheng (the Nonsense Tea), Ban Pen Sheng, and the He Kai Sheng. 

There is a tattered little clothes bag that has been my tea ‘bag’ for a long time and the leaves that find themselves in that bag do vary, but there is a consistency in the three particular teas (barring of course the “nonsense tea”). Being ‘home’ there is that wonderful elixir of time and choice, but travel for me brings the distinct need of dependable vegetal punch, or comforting tonal hits. The ‘nonsense tea’ is the tea of whimsy and odd notes. It is the tea that I don’t reach for first but one that adds some of what tea is all about – variations. It is also something in the tea world that is common but not often acknowledged: the accidental tea. Not necessarily well made or a classic, it becomes something special in its maturation. Its flaws for whatever reason evolve into interesting tonalities and points of interest on the palate.

A little contraption that aids…a portable, foldable kettle that compresses down into a size to shove anywhere. Along side it is the delectable Ban Pen.

For the past months of being on the road three leafy delights have been prepared over and over again. Days are brought in with them, afternoons are jolted back by them and evenings can drift off with them. My last months in southern Europe have brought different flavours and textures into the mouth. Marinates, fire-smoked meats, and simple oil-vinegar dressings bring with them their own memories as well as creating new ones. The teas have changed too in their character and abilities mixing with rich wines, and delectable soft goat cheeses. But still they bring pleasure and visceral grip…and that is why they – and not others – are with me.

Puerh and cheese collaborate

Some of the new collaborations. A host of Tomme cheeses and the local Pelardon, a soft and exquisite goat cheese sitting atop the Puerh.

Geographies and impressions may alter and swerve but something glorious is reached in those unfamiliar spaces and feelings when a shot of predictable vegetal astringency is introduced. It is a remarkable comfort and sense of belonging in an unfamiliar space.

The teas with me for the past months on the road sit in their original curled up and pungent paper wrappers within that little clothing bag in malformed hunks which have been whittled down. Stems are juxtaposed and the wonderful beginnings of dark age stains upon the lighter leaves of the Puerh hunks have appeared. All the teas are raw Sheng Puerhs and all have had at least three years to mellow, age, or just morph.

Nannuo Puerh

The Nannuo cake sits in its glory with a heavy bud content. 

Locals of Yunnan often explain a kind of ideal ‘age’ of Puerh as being somewhere between 18-36 months old and my own preferences lean this way largely because of time spent with locals at Puerh ground zero, and partly because of that delicious combination of an intact edge to the tea and the hints of developmental softness. Old teas don’t really interest but teas that are in that youthful development stage very much do peak the interest.

Tangs of the coveted vegetal astringency remain in the leaves and stems, while age has ever-so-slightly notched down those bitter bursts. Morning tea sessions are a given but the type of tea to be taken isn’t decided until I’m standing beside the tea hunks peeking at their humble shapes. There is a badly made 2010 Nannuo (Bang Po Old Village) which I purchased from a Hani family years’ ago that for whatever reason (and such is the joy and unpredictability of aged teas) has become something quite wonderful and rough in its ‘age’. Soft, but carrying its long ago, not-so-competently-withered notes, which reveal themselves as slight sour tones from either too long a wither or too thick a layer of leaves during withering. Since I purchased it, this Nannuo Mountain tea had seen a consistently dry storage with clean air and no outside odours to detract from its flaws and character.

The He Kai Puerh cake, aka, the ‘tea that must be taken everywhere’. 

Age had calmed it, soothed it but it had retained much of its roughness and it was a tea that even after 8 years hit the molars and etched itself into the enamel and palate. It remained – as I imagined it would for some time to come – a kind of rough and random tea with some flawed brilliance. It was the ‘nonsense tea’ amongst my traveler teas.

Ban Pen Puerh hunk

The withered hunk of what is left of the Ban Pen cake.

Another tea (a beautifully compressed cake of raw He Kai) has long been an astringent treat on every single journey of mine because of its sheer power. A Spring 2014 harvest from trees that were over 100 years old, it was the ‘youngest’ of the Puerhs and the one that carried unapologetic stimulant force from its heavily clayed soils atop Bulang Mountain. Still bristling with green power it had been superbly managed at every stage by an old friend of the Dai minority, Ai Ying. I had purchased leaves in the Spring of their harvest and had them compressed. Still now, the cake looks utterly beautiful having been compressed by hand using carved stones in a little tea production factory in Menghai. Tight, but not so much so that the leaves don’t have channels of air that are able to flow through them. Whittling off morsels isn’t quite the dedicated task that wrenching leaves from the Nannuo cake is, which had been compressed so tight that it was a full workout whittling away even a few leaves off.

The third tea that has been like an elegant antique is a 2012 Ban Pen (also on Bulang Mountain). Rich nutty tones and a high concentration of white buds that have begun to stain dark with age, this tea remains the tea most consistently coveted and yet most ‘protected’ by my need. With only a few of these 357 gram cakes in my collection, I try (and very often fail) to keep it as a kind of treat, preparing a dose of it every few days. Harvested from ancient trees, I do not remember it having been so utterly satisfying in its earlier years as I nibbled away at it. Through time (in its case, around 3.5 years, at the end of 2015) something did transform and it began to hit a sumptuous level of full bodied thick malt flavours. Aged identically to the rest, something in its chemistry (a beautiful accident of nature) had moved it into another realm…at least in my own realm of preferences.

 Puerh cake

Stimulants and the actual caffeine/theine levels of tea diminish with time but many levels are linked not simply to the ‘type’ or ‘colour’ or even age of a tea, but rather the season in which it was harvested. In all of the three there are plenty of stimulant elements enough to set the blood and brain alight, though the fresher He Kai introduces something forceful in the qi (energy) department. The almost nougat-toned Ban Pen was something more soft finished.

Teas, like moments and sensory points of engagement, are perhaps at their peaking best when they are something visceral and appreciated for what they are in that moment. Raw materials, quality of storage and the attention that hands pay to the leaves aside, it is still about an ability to enjoy a slight alchemic touch of things and time coming together…and of course that irrepressible but very necessary “nonsense tea” that is along for the journey.

Puerh and cheese

Thought I’d finish off with a tribute to a cheese that left just as indelible impression as the teas did. This aged Tomme was a pungent equal to the leaves.

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The Tea Explorer – Screening at Toronto Tea Festival

The Toronto Tea Festival will be hosting director Andrew Gregg and I for a special screening of our ‘Tea Explorer’ film at the upcoming Toronto Tea Festival on Friday February 2nd.

One of the makers of an extraordinary tea in the Himalayas…at a small truck stop in Himachal Pradesh. One cannot have tea, without the people.

Tea, Mountains, and some gabbing about life and the people along the one of the most magnificent and underrated Himalayan trails. The Tea Explorer is a journey into this old route which served as more than simply a trade route. Immigration route and highway through the sky, it was a dominant contributor to how the Himalayas were built. The world of snow, economics, and the world of spiritual influences all came into play upon this pathway, that many Tibetans called, ‘The Eternal Road’.

The leaves will be present for our screening.

We’ll commence the evening at 6:30pm for questions, tea talks, and some tea serving which will lead us to the film screening which will be showing from 7:20pm until 8:40pm. The Tea Explorer evening will be a chance to look at Puerh tea, the Ancient Tea Horse Road as well as the basics of shooting the film. Andrew is a provocative treat in full tea mode, so be warned.

Though I won’t be creating any teas at our evening, I will be serving!!

Tickets are available now for pre-booking here.

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Tea, Mountains and The Close of a Year. Tributes and Moments

‘The Rice Eater’. A particularly strategic rice coveting monkey in Kathmandu who provided a spectacle lasting for 20 minutes.

A new year comes and some looking back at moments and a summoning back of experiences and people seems required to pay homage to time having passed. This contemplation isn’t something noble but rather something of appreciation, and it very much more than Tea and Mountains…though they will always tinker with time and moments. Even the darker moments can be savored in hindsight as they too need thoughts and some time.

Sacred Nilgiri in mottled light and cloud in Mustang, Nepal, counted as one of the most impactful mountain moments.

My own year has been another on the road more often than not, but a year that has benefited from being around those who are very much entrenched and intact in their space and time. As I move, I learn that there is much to be concerned with and even more to be moved and inspired by.

A sampling during a tea sourcing trip to Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. Few things can bring such joy as a line up of well made teas all a’waiting a sample. These Bulang village teas were in order from left to right: stunning, ok, and ok…

Those moments have provided something tangible and the people have been very much things intact and though they might not see their own spaces or relationships with them as anything exotic, they teach so that I have more appreciation for each space and moment.

Elegant and quietly efficient, our driver Surinder, drove like languid dervish from Pokhara to Jomsom after our team missed a plane because of winds. Surinder also knew tea spots along the entire route to sate thirsts.

A friend once said to me that if one stayed in the present tense there wouldn’t be regrets, nostalgia, or ideals; there would only be the moment right now. I cannot imagine getting this right…there needs, in my mind, to be some recollection of moments past and summoning back from the memory and sensory palaces.

Growing in arching green shapes, this Edible Hibiscus in Hawaii became one of the green discoveries of the palate.

Even when illusory, memories provide some settings and pivot points to ease back into, even if briefly. Bad teas were sipped and stunners were heaved.

That rare commodity grace is alive and well in isolated pockets, and integrity lies out there in simple and non-descript shapes.

Part of our Nature Camp earlier in the year, where inspiration was gained from the soil’s little secrets.

Many more moments, people, and breaths, occurred in this past year than can be mentioned here, but they too have contributed. Many more teas than can be commented upon were taken, and many milliseconds of mountain views and sumptuous mountain breaths were imbibed.

Our almost entirely Hawaiian crew in a moment of post-trek bliss with our immaculate Sherpa team. That notion of bonding occurs very tangibly in the mountains.

There are too, teas and moments that need some critique in a time where it seems the fashion to either viciously attack an idea or an individual, or (perhaps equally negative) to languish praise upon each and every leaf or person hoping that in doing so, that nothing negative will ever be directed back.

Moments – and the ability to immerse in them – remain the perfect foil for so much that is chaotic and locked into vortexes of ‘business’ and rush.

Hong Kong Time

As always the mountains, their people, and tea, have given much this year. Julie and I welcomed an incredible assembly of young Hawaiian women to an outdoor immersion camp on Big Island. The mountains and tea and their instruction were part of this immersive week into all things soil, air, and traditions, and the notion of interconnectedness once again rose strong. Collaborations as well were things of great force this year and it seems destined to continue in this way.

A view on Big Island that became part of many memories

This was a year, where a project to highlight the mountains and their people’s plight with that most fragile of resources, water, was pushed a little bit further ahead in Hong Kong.

Our film, The Tea Explorer, came out. A tribute to time, to tea and mountains and perhaps most of all, to the traders and travellers who dealt in tea…and to memories of a time when commodities passed across the great mountains.

4 of the pots that will continue to pour for years to come. 4 of my favourite pots come together for a little session with their respective leaves.

I had the good fortune to revisit an old tea trader in northern Mustang, Kunga, with an offering of tea that I had promised two years’ previous. Seeing him and bringing with me my wife Julie and friends was one of the great moments in recent times. We spoke of how neither of us had forgotten the promise, though he wondered why I would cart friends from leagues away into the mountains to meet an old man with little else than memories and paraphernalia of the days of trade…and I marvelled at how he could possibly think this.

Moments with Konga in Mustang in his home…with tea.

Reviewing all of this now in Southern Europe where I can shut down a little with my stash of tea leaves and some great local cheeses.

A Great New Year to all – One full of impact, friction, good teas, and moments.

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International Tea Day – Lao Banzhang Mentor

Thought I’d be remiss if I didn’t bow the head to a quiet mentor of mine in the tea world during this International Tea Day. Master pan-fryer, mentor and creator of teas that are sold a year in advance of their production, Mr. Gao from Lao Banzhang uses his gentle genius to fry…and he alone can fry his coveted harvests.

One of the coveted harvests with the master.

A vital stage that should be coaxed and handled by magic hands, the panning of leaves remains one of the key stages in establishing the flavour of a tea. In his quiet way he educated in the vital nature of the pan fry, and urged an understanding of the lesser known aspects of tea production. “The leaves always need the hands close”, he said.

Great raw materials won’t be anything if they are not fried delicately with consistent heat, churning, and a low temperature.

At work with bamboo tongs ensuring that the leaves never rest too long upon the pan’s hot surface. Lao Banzhang is but one village in the Bulang Mountains where the frying season is worshipped.

Mr. Gao quietly sweats his way through the busy harvest seasons and isn’t caught up with the ‘hype’ and terminology that accompanies the increasingly busy tea world. He, his hands, and his ancestors have long known tea from the roots to the shoots and he creates masterpieces.

The symphony of hands and green creating a Lao Banzhang Spring offering

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Puerh’s Ancient Cylinder – 竹面 – Zhú tǒng

A local with a freshly unveiled ‘tong’ coming out of its bamboo home. 

The round cylinder of compressed Puerh, known in southern Yunnan to many as “Zhu tong” pays tribute to an ancient and often forgotten form of Puerh tea. While cakes, balls, discs, bricks and ornately shaped tribute teas – including the melon shaped tribute teas – all circulate and are still largely available but there is another, ancient compressed mold that has largely disappeared from view.

In this cylindrical shape, Puerh was stuffed and bound into bamboo husks and became part of journeys to cultures and landscapes leagues away. While the cylinder form stretches back centuries as one of the prime forms of ‘caravan tea’, it first made its way into my life during time in southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna province while looking for old forgotten teas in a Hani household on Bulang Mountain. I was seeking teas that often had been forgotten in old rooms and tucked away in crawl-spaces of elders. I was also there to dig up any stories/memories of teas of the Tea Horse Road. Both stories and rare teas were plentiful on that particular journey and during one conversation with an elderly Hani woman, I spotted a long cylindrical shape peaking out of a rattan basket along with a host of other tea shapes. It was tea compacted into a stunningly simple tube about 15 centimeters long and it, like many of the teas in this home, looked clean and well produced. In this shape, there is an homage payed to the old ways of plant aiding plant; the husk protecting, shaping, and even mildly flavouring its occupants for journeys by foot. There was a time of tea export when such cylinders were common in all sorts of configurations and diameters.

A closer look at my own ageing Zhu tong. The white streaks on the surface are from the inside of the bamboo husk.

The Hani woman made mention that this was the form in which tea traveled by caravans ages ago. In time I would read something from Martha Avery on her notes in her nugget of good reading, ‘The Tea Road’ about the ancient methods of the indigenous Dai people of compressing tea into bamboo husks. More and more the cylinder form appeared and even the odd producer would use the old ways, though the ones that interested inevitably were a little older.

Bamboo, banana leaf, mulberry parchment, and even birch bark all have old associations with tea and its journeys upon the caravans.

I purchased the cylinder along with some other random compressed teas that I dug up at various homes to try. A few cakes wrapped in torn and stained wrap, a brick that was covered in dust, and a small ball that had oxidized on its own into a dark mud colour were all part of my newly collected teas on that journey. Purchasing at the source or direct it likely ensured that it was a ‘pure’ Puerh in terms of its origins. Rather like in the world of Scotch, blends and single origin harvests both have their proponents, but here it was likely that I was getting a tea that reflected a specific geographic zone, soil, and set of conditions. It would reflect a place and time. This whole question of pure vs blended is yet another point of debate in the Puerh world, and in the tea world at large, but the closer to the source one can acquire a tea the more likely the tea is what it is purported to be.

While dedicates of the leaf would be quick to point out that the shape has nothing at all to do with the quality of the tea, the story of facilitating teas’ compression for caravan travel is one that has long had its hooks in me. Anything Puerh and trade related would draw me in and as always, terminology and marketing ploys were put to the side when investigating or peering into tea’s appeal to those who really knew it. Teas that travelled needed compression to protect from becoming dust and bits of desiccated leaves and so seeing the various shapes that tea travelled in was like a little history journey in itself.

Villages like this one near the Shar Gong La Pass in eastern Tibet, lie along the Tea Horse Road and were often the recipients of tea in cylinder form from Yunnan. Later on when more tea began coming from Sichuan, loose bricks became more common than the cylinders, which were and still are, distinctly Yunnan in style 

Dried loose ‘mao cha’ leaves get blasted with steam to soften them and make them malleable and it was at this stage that the leaves were ready for whatever manipulative stage their shaper decided. Wrapped in a kind of cheese-cloth after steaming the leaves would shaped by a hand press or stone (though now most is done by machine press) which would conform the leaves to a durable and portable item. It is a piece of simple alchemy whereby many leaves contribute to a single mass body of them. It was the tea that travelled. Cakes or discs, common as they are now, are one of the more recently designed shapes. In days of the great tea caravans, tea was hewn into rough balls, bricks…and the wonderful cylinder.

A more modern version of the ‘bamboo wrap’. 

In the tea world, which has become synonymous with fraudsters, hype, clever re-wrapping of generally crap tea and horrendous storage, Puerh still retains a particular association with compressed teas in people’s minds, though any tea can be compressed and ‘worked’ into a mold. Puerhs age better in tight friction-friendly shapes that are compacted just tightly enough to cause a kind of ripple effect of oxidization. The whole ‘age’ of a Puerh (and whether age contributes to a ‘better’ tea) is another question all-together but what is generally accepted is that most collectors prefer to age a tea in a compressed shape, unless the tea is slotted for a relatively quick consumption. Many locals only buy loose tea and view it as “best consumed within 36 month, preferring it fresh with a bit of astringent force. ‘Aged’ tea is still arguably something as much about marketing and resale as it is about an improvement, though this remains a topic which gets many lathered up into a froth. Flavours will (thankfully) always be something relatively subjective and as much as teas’ raw materials and competence of production are vital, so too is the storage situation.

Always (and finally) there comes a time when a tea reminds its handler that its time has come to properly sip and bring the kettle to a boil. The time for the great fusion of leaves and water must inevitably come. Recently I unwrapped the chunk and sat down with water, a cup, and a serving vessel.

A closer look at the striations of bamboo left upon the cylinder surface.

That ‘time’ for the fusion had come as I sat at my father’s home watching snow-flakes saunter down in a diagonal wall in Canada recently. Unwrapping the tea, I drift back, as I often do, to the origins of this pile of leaves and to its own little journey to arrive here.

The cylinder in question is a 2007 Spring harvest from He Kai on Bulang Mountain, which has long been one of my preferred zones to hoard from. Relatively isolated from humans’ – and the chaos that comes with them – the soils, humidity and hands of the region are of the highest quality, though back in 2007 teas were frequently produced ‘casually’ with chicken feathers, dust and debris often finding their way into a production run. The home I sourced the tea from was one of a tea producing family (I only found this out in subsequent visits and years) that consistently put out superb harvests.

From bushes about 50 years old the cylinder was (and remains) a wonderful hodge-podge of leaves (young and old), buds, and stems which all come out . In Some would have blanched at the sight of stems but I cared not. Stems diffuse but they still carried the nutrients that make it to the buds and leaves. The cylinder tea was rough caravan tea and stems and their broken angles belong. Tightly compressed and tidy it needs careful whittling from any entry point one can wedge a tea pick.

Along the exterior of the cylinder, seemingly etched into the surface is the cambium (the inside ‘skin’ layer of the inside of the bamboo husk) which remains as though a testament to the fact that this tea isn’t the ‘neat and tidy’ variety. Each tea in my various tea storage locations has a small little ledger of where and when the tea was purchased, and then a series of ‘sipping dates’ along with simple descriptors of time and place and random information scrapped together. The scrap of stained paper beside this particularly Bada cylinder has notations:

“November 15, 2007 – Hong Kong – smooth, long, bite, vegetal and kicks for hours. Wandering around with thermos of stuff in baking heat”.

The word “vegetal” is underlined as if it was the most important profiling note or at least the most visceral feeling of the tea.

Another squiggled note below has expanded with a little more context:

“May 3, 2008 – Montreal – huge kick, stimulant green and moss???, – needing a stimulant fury to hit…and it does. Sunrise ripped on tea near Old Port”.

The most recent bit of wordy notes on the Bada was a 2013 addition:

“Bad meal cleaned up with some pungent blasts made ripper strong…hard to over-brew the He Kai but malt notes coming through on the enamel. Not tiring of this bundle which continues to give”.

Nomads would take tea in the simplest and most accessible formats, not caring about names and flavour notes, though they did like teas with strength. Yunnan teas for those who remembered them, were preferred.

Descriptions of perceived flavours, gaudy wrappers, and words aside, one of the true tests of a tea is simply the visceral feel of it in the moment that it is taken, and the written notes I have can make an interesting little anthology of a tea and its ‘times’. Words of a tea mentor of mine, Mr. Wang, come back at times like these, “There is a time to stop talking and simplify your tea experience. Just enjoy it and forget the name of the tea”.

Though the above nugget of philosophy is vital, it is worth bearing in mind that this cylinder of joy before me cost was also noted.

80 Rmb, which currently translates into about $15.53 Canadian, 10.22 Euros, or $12.10 US…a deal considering the sips throughout the years; not once ever being the same. The piece initially was close to 1kg, though now it remains perhaps a half of that initial weight.

Gently whittling the tea off, I brew a first infusion and don’t bother to rinse. I prefer instead to enjoy that first rough offering. In this first unwashed infusion is often the heart of tea. The malt tones have only become stronger and longer, though the tea itself has become softer and smoother over time and it has darkened greatly since that last sip in 2013.

Outside, snow continues to fall and the second and third infusions keep true but start to open up and reveal subtleties and more of a burnt sugar that mixes with the still powerful vegetal hits. The colour is clean and clear as the tea continues to darken with time. An afternoon spent with a bit of snow wandering down and the He Kai acting as provider.

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Our Tea Explorer at Hawaii’s International Film Festival

Tea-Fuelled fun on the tea stained carpets

And so our Tea Explorer documentary of mountains, memories and leaves opened at the Hawaiian International Film Festival. With salty air and warm sun above, a sold out audience joined us on a journey through the beloved Himalayas. Hawaii with its Asian links tea-love seems a perfect place to screen, lying as it does smack in the middle of so many cultures that relate not only to tea, but to the earth, the stories and the plant world. Here too the tradition of oral narratives is strong and not at all something foreign. Elders are as esteemed as they are in the world of the Tea Horse Road, and stories abound during meals, drinks and walks.

My badge and I prepare

Some tea is served before the screening with friends, and off we go…

Serving is part of the fun. I met Scott years ago in Shangri-la, my old home, and years later my fellow Canadian and I share the leaf.

During a question and answer period after the film screening, there was much discussion about the concept of “time and tea” and how very vital rituals were to simply slow it all down and recalibrate. The Tea Explorer doc at its heart explores not only a trade route that pre-dates the Silk Road, it explores the origins of tea and the relationships that it fostered (and maintained) over its 1300 years of buzzing tea-fuelled history.

Audience members wait in line. That little gent with his back to the camera in yellow was full of questions and curiosity during Q&A. He intuitively ‘got’ why stories – and their telling – are important

One question dealt with the importance of listening (an often-understated skill). Tea time is about that concept of taking time to take time. The leaves need time to be made and served. Nothing is hurried and this in turn tones down time and its fleeting moments.

Post-film, Pre-Tea…and Pre-Sake!

Some closing thoughts and thanks. The film will show on Hawai’i’s Big Island on the evening of November 18th.

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The Tea Explorer Film to Screen at Hawaii International Film Festival

On November 6th, our documentary, The Tea Explorer, will show at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Tea’s origins and that wonderful Puerh version of the leaf along with the Tea Horse Road will be the focus as we continue to open this great route to more light and attention.

The Tea Explorer Sips

I’ll be there in full tea swoon to introduce the film, after having a tea tasting, and will be doing a Q&A afterwards. Delighted that our tea-fuelled documentary is sharing the screen with so many films and so many new and upcoming Asian filmmakers.

The Tea Explorer Memories

Memories, Leaves, and the mountains of the ‘Eternal Route’, the Ancient Tea Horse Road. This space saw salt and tea pass through its vast spaces.

An additional screening will take place on November 18th on the Big Island in Hilo. Wonderful to imagine the leaf, mountains, and memories of the route appearing in the middle of the Pacific.

Will be updating

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Sips at the 2017 International Tea Conference in Hubei

Tea covers and stretches across entire hillsides of the province of Hubei and yet I’ve never been. While I’d heard of the teas, none I had sipped had led me to come to this east central province. One of the origins of the Han people, and lodged in the mid-levels of the Yangtze River, Hubei is a place that has long been a collection point for practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Botanicals abounded in these spaces in nooks and pockets and the far west of the province was once known as the ‘land of the barbarians. Around the year 760 AD in the Tang Dynasty, the tea saint Lu Yu wrote of the regions teas glowing about its offerings. It has long been considered sacred ground in the world of tea and it now lies sprawled out in tidy rectangles along the horizon.

A ‘tea-line’ near Yichang, Hubei

Now finally, I am here wandering through a field with tea bushes carpeting the entire floor of the land around me. There is a whole squadron of us being led along a path with Tujia people dotting the fields harvesting. The lands are marked by karsts that shoot skyward and rolling hills that are cut into small parcels. The land’s sanctity is only enhanced when I learn that there are ancient tea trees not so far away.

Kevin of Camellia Sinensis and tea legend Nigel Melican (at right) at the Yichang train station…in mid flow as we race from transport to transport…and then onto fields

Friend Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis, a master sampler of teas and unrepentant seeker of great brews is ahead of me heading upwards and towards a tea station with his loping strides. Our group is part of the 2017 International Tea Forum, which is split between Enshi and Yichang and the tea regions in between. A dozen languages can be heard and it only enhances tea’s calling to so many. Historically, habitually, and those who are new to it…they are all here. There are few leaves an indeed few vegetal matters that can draw so many. A refreshing ball of energy in the form of several of the Tea Masters Cup members traipse about infusing the tea world with something it needs: fresh, unpretentious, reverence.

hands and tea leaves

Leaves get a light panning on low heat creating sweet easy drinking green teas.

In these regions, there are delicate red teas and easy sipping green teas using the small leaf cultivars of Camellia Sinensis Sinensis. Almost a week in with rampant late night tea sessions in hotel rooms with new compatriots of the leaf and a few old friends, it has been an altering experience. Altering in that new Tea Masters Cup participants have injected their own feral and very young energy into the culture of the ancient herb.

Fields of tea leaves near Yichang

More of the providing fields

My own obsessive interest in the leaf has been augmented and enhanced by those seeking to mix the leaf in with other elements and medicinals…a thought I would have once considered a kind of great ill. These Tea Master Cup-pers are baristas, mixologists, samplers, and blenders rolled into a collective body who will bring the leaf forward in many ways. My own view of the leaf has grown and I’ve fed off of the energy that so many have brought with their very own views on serving it, sampling it and simply enjoying it.

Hands and Tea

The hands that judge, feel, manipulate and handle the leaves

As on every journey I’ve taken in the past 14 years, I have my own stash of tea and serving tools. A small gai-wan is wrapped in a sock (clean) and filled with rolled paper towel. As much tea as has been offer in the past few days, I still enjoy disappearing once in a while and fixing a serving or two of my own Puerh (in this case a Pa Sa old tree raw offering that is floral, rampantly fresh and grabs the enamel just barely before disappearing down the gullet). It is also a long held tradition that tea folks will gather in the later hours and share brews, tales, and opinions…all while sipping still more of the leaves. It isn’t ever a question of whether too much stimulant leaf will keep any of us up. Generally we care not.

Black Tea from Hubei

The red that took my palate from Wujia Tai

These tea lands that we’ve been cruising through offer up yet more committed communities both joyfully and economically dependent upon the leaves. It is yet another world with similarities and wide swaths of difference in preparation, and preferences. Here, pans are still used to keep the delicate flavors and though there are industrial sized components involved with tea production, the hands are still vital and so too are the relationships that locals have with the leaves. Teas here are – palate wise at least – various shades of ‘delicate’ with reds (black to the west) in warm nutty tones, and some greens that are more than vaguely styled upon the famed Long Jing’s of Hangzhou further east.

Green Tea from Hubei

A decent green based upon the Long Jing in both structure and palate ‘hit’.

Astringency or vegetal power are not welcomed in the local teas. Instead smooth and easy flavours seek to please the palate. One particular gem (enough of a stunner to have me preparing it independently on many days in my room trying to find fault with it) is a gentle red that seems to flow along like a soft carpet is from Wujia Tai. Sumptuous little leaves with slight curls and plenty of end buds unleash themselves softly to the palate and finish every single time (regardless of my deliberately over and under steeping) with something quite long and sweet like a freshly baked loaf of bread. These are teas for immediate or semi-immediate consumption with very limited life-spans.

Tea crew

Some of the late night sipping crew (left to right): Eliot of Mighty Leaf, Kevin of Camellia Sinensis, Josh of Rishi, myself and Kelly of Allegro.

Whereas my beloved Puerhs run the gamut of inconsistency and brilliance (which makes them very special in my own sphere of reference) as many of these locally sourced teas as I can get my cup into reveals consistency through and through. As much as it delights that there is a tea that hits the palate with pleasure, it is just as crucial to actually ‘feel’ that a tea has been produced well.

I get some time at the mic speaking of source and story in the tea industry. Photo courtesy of Rajiv Lochan

It reinforces that there are hands out there that still curate great teas in spaces I’ve never been. I cannot help but compare flavours that I’m more familiar with, but the object isn’t simply to find teas that I ‘like’; it is more an exercise to find teas that are well made, interesting, and hitting different palate points. Kevin will always travel with Darjeelings, Josh Kaiser of Rishi travels with a bevy of his own preferences…and so on. These teas act like panaceas and trippy comfort journeys so that we can ensure some familiar joy at the end or beginning of each day…or simply some random blasts.

A Tujia elder near Yichang…standing within his tea fields

As our tour is whisked to a conclusion a small mob of us sneak towards a pair of tables where a tea stand of sorts offering the local brew sits waiting. With a week in us of serious drinking of the leaf, daily thermos loads of tea, and the ensuing onslaughts of offerings and samples…we all reach for another cup.

A small homestead near Enshi surrounded by the only crop that matters here…tea.

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Feature Article: The Great Gangotri – Feeder of the Ganges

Gongotri Glacier – Great Feeder of the River Ganges

One of the great moving river bodies of the planet, the mother Ganges, is fed by the Himalayan Water Towers; glaciers that ebb slowly at greater speeds. We know the river itself but not necessarily the epic bodies that feed it. They are revered and worshiped…and they do ebb. The Gangotri is one of those feeders, lying in India’s stunning Uttarakhand State.

The article in September/October, 2017’s edition is based on a month long expedition made the end of 2016, traipsing under some of the climbing world’s great peaks: Meru, Shivling, Bhagirathi…but we went not to ascend the spires but to travel horizontally to the Gangotri glacier which acts like a great funnel that feeds the Ganges.

My feature in Outpost on one of the prime feeders of the Mother Ganges

The article focuses on the great glacier and the feeder glaciers that rest in some of the most worshipped landscapes in the Himalayas. It focuses too on a wonderful team of porters, my guru Karma who creates the pungent masala chais that feed and nourish us, and upon a space that needs a little more attention: The Third Pole, the Himalayas which feeds so very much of Asia with precious fresh water.

Glacial water that will pass beneath the Gangotri Glacier and into the Ganges River

A glacial stream within the Kirti glacier burbles its meltwater way down towards the greater Gangotri. This water will take will end up in the Ganges and in perhaps couple of days arrive to the Bay of Bengal.

Big thanks to Outpost Magazine’s editors who continue to reel me in while making everything read and look just that little bit better…and in this case plaster a huge shot myself on the cover (taken in true blue steel surroundings by great friend, Michael Kleinwort).

Enjoy the read and look forward to hearing your thoughts on water and the precious mountains.

Glacier meltwater flows towards the Gangotri Glacier

With Shivling in the background, water from the Chaturangi Glacier flows towards the Gangotri.

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