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

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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4 Responses to Pu erh Tea and its Precious Pickers

  1. Scott says:

    Always fascinating to read – would be curious to hear the songs they sing when plucking the tea.

  2. Carole Rose Marshall says:

    I much enjoyed your lecture at RGS with IBG really interesting and I would have loved to hear more stories I.e the nomads and the wolves I have been to Stanfords to ask about your book but they don’t have any in stock. Amazon has it for £60+ which is frankly outrageous. I asked at RGS on Mon and they suggested writing to you in the hope that more books will be on the way! Have you any other books with your marvellous photos. I go on safari whenever I can in Africa and India and I get a lot of satisfaction from a successful shot!
    Perhaps you could let me know. Many thanks

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