When one is able to link a cup of tea – its leaves, strengths, and characteristics – to its origins, it creates a link that is irreplaceable. When one can link a tea to ‘its people’ that is one of the pinnacles. Even if it is simply to see the soil, meet the people who harvest and create the tea, this ability to ‘trace’ a tea back makes that tea stand out in the mind, on the palate and in that little bit of the brain that obsesses about such things. The journey to find the ‘home’ of the leaves gives a whole dimensional life to the experience of the final sip. Vitally too, it allows an appreciation of perhaps what it is – the elements – that make a particular tea taste the way it does.
I am trekking another tea mountain when I get the call from a local friend Dan that I am to return to Menghai and get myself to a friend’s teashop. We are going to one of the iconic geographies of the Pu’erh tea world, Jingmai. This of course will only happen though, once a few sips of Jingmai tea are had.
Once installed at the teashop with the usual tea-obsessed suspects: a real estate developer whose addiction to tea somehow manages to supersede his abilities to make money (perhaps even interfering), a small power-package of a man who’s face bares a single scar below the mouth giving the appearance of perpetually smiling, a local live-wire of a man who delivers tea from the villages to the suppliers, and a local tea buyer who is the local ‘diva’ – done up every single day in garish colors that never quite seem to match. All are regulars and all know tea intricately.
On the menu in a variety of forms and shapes is Jingmai tea. Known for its slightly sweet and subtle fragrances, its ancient tree tea is one of the most sought-after annually. Far to the west, only kilometers from the Burma border, Jingmai claims the largest ancient tea tree forests on the planet. For those with palates that prefer a more subtle ‘green’ Pu’erh, there are few teas that are more coveted (or more costly). My impressions (which are often pleasantly off-base) is that the Jingmai teas I’ve had, lack the ‘bite’, that for me at least is necessary to stir the senses and play with the enamel on my teeth. Having said that, an intense bout of drinking tea to prove me wrong is always welcome, as sips in these parts are free for as long as one has the power (and the bladder) to withstand the repeated infusions.
Of all of the teas, the one – and only one – that hits my own buds on this morning with aplomb is a month-old spring tea. While it holds with all of Jingmai’s typical and lauded qualities of fragrant and almost sweet tangs, it hits with a fresh bitter blast. Jingmai teas need almost double the amount of leaves and a blatantly long infusion time to get a taste that would be considered ‘bitter’, but the spring tea carries a wicked little punch.
My own taste preferences aside, it is a brilliant tea in that its value and character traditionally hold true, year after year. It also is one of those rare Pu’erh classics that isn’t ‘faked’ very often, making most Jingmai’s, Jingmai’s.
Today, an invite has been issued by one of Jingmai’s ‘makers’ and in preparation we indulge in some of the area’s finest before our journey west to his home. Such invitations are not necessarily rare, but one has to know someone who knows them personally in order to be ‘granted access’, otherwise the only contact one can have with a master maker is to slurp back one of their wondrous creations. The spring tea that has made my palate hum is his, and it is to his home that we will travel.
As it ends up, the invitation isn’t specific to people or even a time. There is only that vague promise that someone will show up at some point to his home…and to his tea.
While the distance isn’t huge, the windy roads, neurotic traffic habits and our conservative slightly menacing driver make it an almost three hour journey. The dreams of a sip keep the journey interesting with the hint of expectation. Making it up to Jingmai village we cross a bridge and head up a cobbled road where locals fling their motorcycles around with casual competence. Our driver evidently feels no such compulsion or rush – I am almost willing him to press on faster, faster, faster…
Lunch awaits – no formal greetings or anything else. Lunch will be served now! Our host, Mr. Bo, one of the local tea masters is almost a peripheral character, behind his wife, who is cloaked in a traditional Dai dress of bright green. She is a bull of a woman who moves us around, cooks, keeps an eye on the fire and sets the table. Our host and hostesses’ home is huge but the kitchen where we will eat is encased in old smoke-stained wood, unchanged from the traditional days of the past. A fire pit crackles in the corner of the room. The only modern piece of equipment is a rice cooker that looks as if it has been through every war ever fought. Slabs of drying pork hang from the ceiling and gently sway with the breeze that comes through the open window.
We eat and are ushered off to the teahouse by the gentle Mr. Bo, but before leaving we are offered a little sip of some of the local firewater, which is served warm. It scorches down into the digestive tract but leaves little after-taste. It is the kind of heady firewater that could lead one off a cliff, it is so strong.
Sips of the latest spring harvest of tea here are treated with none of the huge words used in the cities. One wouldn’t do well here to peer at the color and make haughty declarations of a tea’s vintage Here it is simply “Spring harvest, Old tea trees”. The rest can be assumed in one word: stunning.
Around the tea sipping station, which is nothing more than some chairs, tea, a table and a supply of water, I can hear the nasally tones of a group of old women who sort through tea leaves. They are removing the last of the unsightly leaves, that have no place in the final product (but that they themselves will happily consume). Wrapped in the traditional coloured garments of their people, there is a kind of slow methodology that comes when people know – and accept – their role and take it to heart. Wrinkled brown fingers paw through the large rattan ‘plates’. Twinkling eyes, little chuckles, and a rare patience makes the venue something comfortable and real. What is also revealed as time passes is how Mr. Bo’s wife is in fact the power-broker in this part of the world. It is to her, that he defers, and her voice which silences the room.
The tea we sip is rampantly fresh and green tasting and for many tea buyers of the city, would be worth a half-month’s salary. It still has this overriding mildness which leaves me wanting at times, but this is exactly why many deferential takers of tea sip it and none else: this mild, sweet tang.
I am eventually beckoned by the woman of the home. Her hands are the toughened appendages of someone who spends more time working than speaking and I feel a strange sense of trust in her … and maybe a little fear. She is a solid block of person, with no jiggles of excess weight, and limbs that are oak.
She walks me past the old women – who all coo their little hello’s – into a miniature factory, where massive sacks of tea lie tucked into a corner. The little factory has a view of the town and is casually immaculate. Amounts of tea produced here are not huge, but rather controlled and comfortable. JIngmai is in its entirety, a tea town. Mr. Bo is still the instructor of how and when to fry the leaves, but the woman beside me, his wife, is clearly the overseer of all.
Poking through the sacks of tea I see that the leaves are smaller than the gigantic Pu’erh tea tree leaves of further east that I am so used to. “A different species”, I am told, and a species that creates these more mild notes in the tea. Production is identical to other Pu’erh but the leaves must be carefully monitored that they aren’t over-fried as they are more delicate.
Making our way back out the door, a couple of young shirtless men walk in. Covered in tattoos they hum a gentle tune. What impresses here is that the factory is a casual production facility, that feels the human touch with none of the silent, speed-driven fervor of other factories I’d wandered through. Add to this the fact that this factory is producing some of the most anticipated teas, the whole set-up of the place reinforces the notion that tea here is of people, for people.
My powerfully built hostess tells me that I must now see the source of all of this potent green magic: the actual tea forests which sit another ten minutes by car up the mountain. It is an area of almost spiritual vibrancy with almost 17,000 acres of tea trees that are harvested.