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.

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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