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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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).
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
January 30th’s talk “Puerh’s Roots – Caravan Fuel to Boutique Idol” will look at the ascent of the unique big leaf varietal that has appeased nomads and collectors alike for centuries.
January 31st’s talk “The Tea Caravans to the Top of the World” will focus on the trade routes that ushered tea into Tibet and beyond. The faces, the words and memories, and the landscapes of the Himalayas will feature…along with the Puerh leaves from Yunnan.
More of the precious from 2015. A final Ascent…An End and the New Beginnings
A morning snow, A Lao Banzhang Leaf, A Mountain Steward, A timeless Trader, and A Tea Mantra for all-time.
Thanks for joining and another great year of sips of green and ascents of stone to come.
Magnificent Raju, an old friend, and landscapes that are tortured and utterly narcotic. The Mountains’ and their people and spaces that moved the blood in 2015.