Almost ten years ago a particular Ban Zhang Puerh came gently into my life while sitting, ironically, in another tea town kilometres away. It wasn’t my first Ban Zhang experience but rather the first Ban Zhang experience that thoroughly impacted. This impact came not from the taste itself (for that was only to come much much later) but rather because of the generosity and tale of how the tea came to me.
My annual jaunt to sample and procure in southern Yunnan had brought me deep into the Bulang Mountains to Lao Ma E village. At that point in time the village hadn’t quite yet gotten its consistency of tea production right, though it had stupendous raw materials in the form of its ancient tea tree forests. Its teas more often than not had remnants of dust, chicken feathers and all manner of goodies (some hidden, some not) within its teas. Goodies or not, the resultant state of tea-drunk that I was in, acquired over days of sipping had created a strong and not-unpleasant film in my mouth and across my teeth.
Meanwhile just ‘down the dirt track’ in Ban Zhang , its teas were already powering their way upwards becoming an astonishing village-artisanal-tea (with the requisite astonishing prices for those special teas).
Sitting exhausted and absolutely ripped on days of samples and stimulant highs, I sat on the floor of a local family home along with another tea buyer, from Guangdong. I had met him a year previous in another town and in my mind referred to him as simply ‘Bamboo’ for his long bent body. He knew his teas and was one of the rare buyers I’d encountered who took chances with teas that he wasn’t certain of. Rare in the sense that not many mainland buyers take risks in sampling teas that aren’t going to necessarily ever sell. He enjoyed all teas for what they were and knew not simply the teas that sold but knew the people who produced almost every tea available in southern Yunnan. He had the requisite passion for people that some (though not nearly enough) within the tea world have.
We sat chatting comfortable in the knowledge that we weren’t competitors but rather fellow devotees of the leaf and the people behind the leaf. You tend to share more when there is that unspoken but entirely understood knowledge that our clients were never likely to be crossing over.
Discussions between buyers of tea often run the gamut of which tea’s from which villages and regions we had sampled, how we felt about production this year, and basically anything Puerh related. It is a time of equals or nearly equals and certainly of equal love of the leaf that involves gossip, guess-work, and notes on flavours.
It was at this point that he unfurled a long rolled up towel of various tea shapes – all meticulously labeled – and presented me with a gift. A gift of tea from those that spend much of their lives obsessing over and shooting back liters of, it is something of an offering of a lifelong bond. It is a desire to share something special, potent, or simply something deemed good. This little collection of dried beauty in a half a dozen shapes and sizes were part of his seasonal collection of teas that he had found “interesting” (and yes, “interesting” is a legitimate description in the tea world). The ‘gift’ was an eight-inch tube of compressed Ban Zhang tea in raw form. Bamboo informed me in his rapid-fire nasal twang that it was a tea I would thank him for introducing me to, but would regret because of its inaccessibility (here he clearly meant availability and the ludicrous prices that such a tea could command). He referred to it as an astonishing tea that I should only sip after five years. Whether it be a Pu erh cake, a nest, a brick or cylinder, formed or compressed Pu erh’s are revelations of flavours every time they are unveiled. Leaves in their compressed forms age differently than do a pile of loose leaf tea, with the friction of the compression creating its own signature on a tea.
Ban Zhang teas have steadily increased in value (though some might argue the point) and this gift was in a rare cylinder form having been recently made by Dai artisans who acquired some of the precious Spring harvest. One of the most ancient forms of compressed or formed teas, the cylinder was long a method of creating compact shapes ideal for the transporting of teas and was – and still is to a degree – a bit of an art form in itself. Though the tea itself was not cultivated by the Dai people, they are one of the creators of such teas in this form. Ban Zhang teas have reached a kind of pinnacle of price point in the world of Puerhs, so much so that its teas regularly sell out before the teas have even been harvested regardless of price. Sumptuous raw materials, a name that is almost fabled, and an ever-increasing standard and consistency has taken this tea into the arena of legends.
Steamed and in a forced into fragrant bamboo husks (a particular species of bamboo) the Dai create leaves that are fragranced slightly with their time within the husk, emerging as masterpieces. Quality tea leaves with added manipulations would in some portions of the tea-drinking world be sacrilege…unless one’s palate for risk and adventure is high. Any Puerh deemed respectable or otherwise can find itself being prepared for this immersion into bamboo, but usually it is a tea that is considered excellent to start with, as the process is not common nor is it one that just anyone can perform.
Presently and finally that tea cylinder lies uncovered in front of me after thousands of kilometres of travel and almost a decade of intention. Four years ago I wrapped it in a layer of light paper from a Dai village to wrap it. Having sat in a box untouched since then, and never sampled, it now sits awaiting its dousing with hot water. It is just after 4 pm in the afternoon and it is almost the time of the first harvest throughout the tea world. Spring teas the world over are awaited with something akin to a slightly paranoid lust. Considered by many to be the harvest of all harvests, drinkers are also wary of the famed fakes that abound.
Hawaii may not be a place that strikes one as tea country but in the words of one of my tea mentors “A good tea takes you into the earth of its birth”. My stained and loyal tea table provides the setting.
My own imminent travel back to Yunnan has reminded me of this tea and it seems a fitting time to sample and remember how it came into my hands and pay a little tribute to that man Bamboo.
The cylinder is tightly compressed, with the light delicate strands of the inner layer of bamboo adhering to its surface like threads. Part of the delicate flavouring of the tea comes from this ‘skin’ and it is not simply any bamboo which can be used but rather a delicate version, which is available in the autumn months.
Whittling away an end of the cylinder a wedge comes off with a slight satisfying crack of noise. I’ve already decided that there will be no first throw-away rinse of this tea but rather a long infusion time to loosen up the tight compressed leaves and a contented swilling down of the first round. I’m not going to waste the water nor the precious first opening round of this special tea. The description those years’ ago from Bamboo of this tea being “astonishing” come at me into view as I prepare.
In the subsequent years since receiving this gift I ran into Bamboo three more times as we charted our respective courses through the Puerh lands of southern Yunnan and each time we’d share teas, stories, whisky and he’d inevitably ask if I’d sampled the tea that he’d presented, to which I could only shake my head. Then I lost track of him and his wondrous tea ended up in one of my boxes of neatly arranged artifacts of tea. I think of Bamboo and his life now and wonder where he might be and what his tea collection might look like. I think too of the wonderful generosity of that moment and how simple most of the most cherished gifts inevitably are.
This first infusion – so maniacally important to some and casual to others – takes a long while to inundate and break into the solid compacted shape. The fully boiled water though, works its own bit of magic and it will not be denied as it slowly breaks up the tightly held together leaves.
Good amounts of white end buds appear and unfurl. The colour retains a fairly light apricot hue given that this tea has aged almost ten years. I expect more colour but as I watch there is a hint that it will in fact continue to darken over the course of successive infusions.
Scent-wise a coppery-earth smell comes up out of the steaming leaves and the first sip is a powerful jolt of initial iron and soil that hit the sides of the tongue. It gives way to layers further in the mouth with a touch of smoke and some soft but unrelenting notes of brown sugar. The finish is a sweet one as any great tea endeavors to do as it disappears into the throat.
Bamboo has left its impression, softening the powerful Ban Zhang flavours and introducing some sweet touches. A second infusion softens but lengthens in time and experience as further layers of the leaves are revealed and the whole mouth can take part. Age has softened edges but with classic teas like Ban Zhang that are produced well, those edges remain ever so slightly and strength is retained. Bamboo has added soft nuances that are unmistakable and almost loam-like. The colour has in fact darkened and this raw Puerh’s transition tint-wise is one of the proofs of its ageing.
There haven’t been too many sips taken in my days of tea that don’t take me back to where the leaves and people of the leaves reside but this particular session hints at something all-encompassing. Produced by Hani, grown in the famed red clays of the greater Bulang Mountain, and ‘curated’ by the dominant minority of the region, the Dai, this experience is one that feels ‘entirely Yunnan’. Age has nicely rounded off the edges of this tea and will continue to over time. With Puerh cakes or cylinders one of the great beauties is that one can never be entirely certain of which tea will age well and become something better. Right storage might help and great raw materials and carful production cannot harm,but there is still a kind of random bit of alchemy involved.
As one of my old tea mentors once remarked during a tea-taking session, “What you taste when you know what has gone into creating that tea is an entirely different sensation than that same tea served without its story, without its hands”.
For now at least my hand remains perched contentedly upon the cup in front of me.