Puerh is unique amongst all the genres of tea because the importance of the raw material far outweighs any processing skill. The quality of most oolongs, for example, is determined as much by the source of the leaves as by the skill of the one processing the tea. The value of puerh, on the other hand, is ninety percent in the trees. There are many kinds of tea trees in Yunnan and the source determines the value of the tea. What village a tea comes from and which trees will decide its value, in other words. Of course, there is also plenty of dishonesty in the puerh world: material picked in one region and then taken to a more expensive one to be sold as native tea, young trees sold as old trees, etc. This means producers and consumers have to be able to distinguish the differences between regions and types of leaves.
Puerh trees can roughly be divided into two main categories, though it is useful to understand some of the subdivisions as well: old-growth (gu shu, 古樹) and plantation tea (tai di cha, 台地茶). Old growth tea is by far the better of these two. This refers to older trees. There is some debate about what constitutes “old-growth” since tea trees in Yunnan can range from dozens to thousands of years old. Arbitrarily, we think that when a tea tree becomes a centenarian (100 years), it can rightly be called “old-growth”. Old-growth tea can then be subdivided into trees that are wild or those that were planted by people. Though planted by man, the latter are often indistinguishable from the former as they are both found in small gardens in the heart of the forest. In fact, you would have difficulty picking the trees out from their surroundings without the help of a guide. Another subdivision could be called “ecologically-farmed old-growth”, which refers to old trees planted in gardens closer to villages and/or homesteads. Some people also like to have a category for 1,000+yearold trees as well, calling them by that name or maybe “ancient trees”. Plantation puerh (tai di cha) is far inferior and often not organic. The trees there might even be several decades old, but they aren’t Living Tea, and lack many of the qualities that make puerh so special, as we discussed in our article about this month’s tea.
Rough Tea (Mao Cha 毛茶)
All puerh tea begins with mao cha (毛茶), which translates as “rough tea”. Mao cha refers to the finished leaf as it leaves the farm to be sold directly to factories small and large, or independently at market. Tea at this stage has been plucked by hand, wilted, fried to remove the raw flavor (called “sa chin” 殺青), kneaded (ro nien, 揉捻), and dried. These processes need to occur almost immediately after the tea has been plucked, which is why they are done directly at the farm rather than at the factory.
Most varieties of tea include all the same stages of processing as puerh, though unlike puerh, the final processing often ends there and the loose-leaf tea is then packaged right at the farm. (Some oolongs were traditionally finished at shops, as well. The shop owners would do the final roasting to suit their tastes.) Puerh, on the other hand, often travels to a factory for final processing: compression into cakes if it is raw, sheng puerh or piling and then compression if it is ripe, shou puerh.
Some varieties of puerh are also destined to become loose leaf. At the start, that means that they remain “mao cha”, but once they are aged, they are technically no longer “rough tea”. So an aged, loose-leaf puerh shouldn’t really be called “mao cha”.
Traditionally, these loose teas were the ones that were grown at smaller farms that didn’t have contracts with any factory—often from so-called “Border Regions” where Yunnan borders Laos, Vietnam or Myanmar. Such teas were then sold at market, traded between farmers or bought and stored by collectors. You can’t be certain, however, that a loose-leaf puerh is a Border Tea, as the big factories also packaged and sold some of their teas loose, though not as much as compressed tea. Although some of the tea that was sold loose was fine quality, most of it was considered inferior.
We have a huge collection of loose-leaf puerh tea here. In fact, we have so much that we have also become collectors of rare antique jars to store it all in. Loose-leaf puerh, no matter how old, is always cheaper than puerh compressed into cakes. One reason for this is that the cakes have an easily-verified vintage. Though there are fakes, experts have developed systems of identifying them, using a combination of factors from a kind of “wrapperology”, which identifies characteristic marks, color changes, etc., in the printing of the wrappers to the cake itself—its shape, leaf color or size, compression, etc. On the other hand, very few aged loose-leaf teas are pure. Most of them are blends. Some were blended during production, though more often, tea was added later on to increase the quantity of an aged tea. Sometimes blends of wet and drierstored teas, or even sheng and shou are mixed to make a tea seem older than it is. When drinking aged loose-leaf puerh, it is a good idea to only rank them relative to other loose-leaf puerhs, rather than believing in the date the merchant has given. While some loose-leaf puerhs do have a distinct vintage, most are blends. Looking at the wet leaves after steeping will also verify this.
Beyond that, cakes have been found to have more Qi than loose leaf puerh, so that if the same tea were left loose and processed into a discus (bing, 餅), for example, and then aged for thirty years, the cake would have more Qi than the loose leaf. Having done several experiments where we stored the same exact tea from the same farm in both loose leaf and cake form, we can say for sure that the compressed teas age better, and not just in terms of Qi. They are better in every way: flavor, aroma, etc. They also age faster and more evenly. One possible reason for this is that the steam used to compress the cakes seals the bacteria in, and the inner moisture creates a better environment for them to do their work. Still, despite the fact that cakes are better, loose-leaf teas are often great deals since they are much cheaper than cakes of the same age. It’s like choosing a more affordable antique teapot with a chip under the lid versus a perfect, very expensive one. Depending on your budget, the former may be the better choice.
The freshly plucked leaves are carried back to the house or village and gently spread out on bamboo mats to be slightly wilted before they are heated to remove the raw flavor. The purpose of wilting the leaves is to slightly reduce the moisture content in the leaves so that they will be more pliable and less likely to be damaged when they are heated. This process must be watched carefully so that the leaves do not oxidize more than is absolutely necessary. For that reason, wilting typically takes place outdoors and indoors. The tea is withered outdoors for some time and then placed in a well-ventilated room, often shared by members of a particular farming village.
The heating process/firing (sa chin) is literally performed to remove the raw flavor of the tea leaf. This occurs in the production of most all kinds of tea (except white tea, which categorically skips this process). In Yunnan, the heating process is still often done by hand in large woodfired woks. The temperature must remain constant and the leaves have to be continuously turned to prevent any singeing. In larger farms, though not often in Yunnan, this is done in large barrel-like machines that spin around like a clothes drier. With puerh, however, the firing is still done by hand, once again lending tradition and wisdom to the puerh process. Workers sift the leaves around in circular motions ensuring that they never touch the wok for longer than a blink. Through generations of experience the farmers can tell by appearance and feel when the leaves are sufficiently cooked, and their timing is as impeccable as any time/temperature-controlled machine elsewhere. Scientifically, the process is removing certain green enzymes within the leaf that lend it the raw flavor, which in some varieties is too bitter to be drunk. As we’ll discuss later, the sa chin of puerh is less-pronounced than in many other kinds of teas.
After the leaves are fried they are kneaded (ro nien). This process also occurs by hand on most puerh farms or villages near old trees. A special technique is used to knead the leaves like dough. This bruises the leaves and breaks apart their cellular structure to encourage oxidation, and later fermentation (fa xiao, 發酵), which will occur through the various methods (explained in the box about sheng and shou puerh on the opposit page). It takes skill and method to achieve a gentle bruising without tearing the leaves. We have personally tried this in Yunnan and Taiwan, and found it is very difficult to achieve. We invariably tore up the leaves. The farmers, however, can go through the movements with surprising speed.
Finally, after the mao cha has been kneaded and bruised it is left to dry in the sun. Once again this process must be monitored carefully to prevent any unwanted oxidation or fermentation from occurring. Usually, the leaves are dried in the early morning and late evening sun, as midday is too hot. They will move the leaves into the same well-ventilated room used earlier for wilting during the hot hours of the day. The leaves will be inspected hourly and when they have dried sufficiently, they will be bagged and taken to the factory to be processed, or to market to be sold as loose leaf.
The two most distinguishing aspects of puerh production are the sa chin and the sun drying. The firing of puerh tea does arrest oxidation, as in all tea, but it is usually less pronounced than other kinds of tea, leaving some of the enzymes in the tea alive, as they help promote fermentation. Then, after firing and rolling, puerh is sun dried. This gives it a certain flavor, texture and aroma and helps further the natural vibrations present in the tea. Not all puerh is processed in this way, especially with all the innovation and change in the modern industry—though, ideally, we want tea made in traditional ways.
Once the leaves are processed, they will often go through their first sorting (fan ji). A second sorting will occur later at the factory itself. This sorting is to remove unwanted, ripped or torn leaves, as well as the leaves that weren’t fired or rolled properly. At this stage, the factory/ producer may ask the farmer to sort the leaves according to size, called “grade”. This practice is becoming rarer, however, as the prices of oldgrowth puerh increase. Nowadays, farmers sell most everything. Sometimes, they don’t even sort out the broken or mis-processed leaves.
At the Factory
Upon arrival to the factory, the mao cha goes through its second sorting (fan ji). This is often done by hand even at the larger factories, though some have large winnowing machines. And most have strict rules controlling the diet of the sorters. Tea is an extremely absorbent leaf and will be altered by any impurities. Sorters therefore shouldn’t eat chili, garlic or onions. Nor can they drink alcohol the night before a sort, as it will be secreted through their skin and contaminate the leaves. The sorting that occurred on the farm was more cursory and based solely on leaf size or “grade”. This second sorting is more detailed and thorough. The leaves are distinguished not only by their size, but also by their quality, type (old or young growth, which mountain they came from, etc.), and other criteria that are constantly changing. Larger factories often have mao cha arriving from all over Yunnan and therefore employ experts to monitor all sorts of conditions to determine which leaf size, which locations, etc., will have a good harvest that year. More and more, factories are targeting collectors by creating limited edition sets, with cakes from certain mountains, for example.
There is a lot of discussion nowadays about the differences between single-region and blended puerhs. For the last fifty years, most all puerhs were blends. The factories would collect the mao cha from various regions and then blend them in ways they thought improved the tea: choosing strength and Qi from one region, blended with sweetness and flavor from another, etc. In this way, cakes would be more balanced. In the last fifteen years, there has been a trend towards single-region cakes, and with it the idea that such tea is more pure. It should be remembered that all old-growth puerh is actually a blend, since no two trees are the same. So even tea from a single mountain will be a blend of different teas. If you are sensitive enough, you can even distinguish the leaves from the eastern and western side of a single tree, since they receive different sunlight. There are merits to both kinds of cakes, and it seems pointless to say that one is better than the other in general. It would be better to talk about specific teas, as a certain blended cake may be better than a given single-region cake or vice versa.
The trend towards boutique, private and single-region cakes has also changed the way that puerh is produced. For example, some cakes are made on site and completely processed by the farmers themselves. Most tea, however, still travels to factories for sorting (blending) and compression. What was once one of the simplest teas, at least as far as processing goes, has now become complicated by the vast industry that has grown up around it.
Mao cha can sit in a factory for a long or short time, depending on many factors. In doing so, it technically ceases to be “rough tea”. Sometimes tea is aged for a while and then piled to produce a nice, mellower shou tea than a new tea could produce. Other times the tea that was inferior and didn’t make it into a cake, is then sold loose leaf later, and labeled “aged” to help market it.
Once ready, the leaves are carefully weighed and placed into cloth compression bags or metal pans. The texture of these bags can be seen imprinted on puerh tea if one looks closely. They are not used to package the tea, only in the compression process itself. They are made from special cross-woven cotton. Strangely, even the larger factories that we’ve visited still use antique-looking scales to do their weighing. Along with human error, this explains why even new cakes are often incorrect in either direction by a decimal of a gram (of course in aged tea this is usually due to pieces breaking off).
Steam is used to prepare the tea for compression. The steam is carefully controlled—mostly automatous in the larger factories—to ensure the leaves are soft and pliable, but not cooked or oxidized in any way. It is basically a process of slight rehydration. The steam softens the tea and the cloth in preparation for compression. Sometimes the steaming takes place before the tea is placed into the cloth, using metal pans instead. In a non-mechanized factory a wooden table is placed over a heated wok full of water. The steam rises through a small hole in the center. This is far more difficult than the automatic steam generators at larger factories because the temperature control is lacking and the leaves can end up being burnt. It requires the skill of generations to successfully steam the tea this way.
The compression process was traditionally done with stone block molds. The tea is placed in the cloth, which is then turned and shaped into a ball. The nei fei is added at this time—an “inner trademark ticket” compressed into the tea to establish branding. The cloth is then twisted shut and covered with a stone mold block. The producer would then physically stand on the stone block and use his or her weight to compress the cake. In some of the smaller family-run factories, puerh cakes are still created using this method. On our recent visit to Yunnan, we had the chance to make our cakes by dancing around on the stone molds, to the delight of the Chinese audience present. Larger factories often have machines for compressing their cakes, though some still produce some of their cakes in the traditional way. Some are hand-operated presses that require the operator to pull down a lever and press the cake into shape; others are automatic and occur with the press of a button. We even saw one machine that was capable of compressing twelve bings simultaneously.
After compression, the cakes are taken out of the compression cloths and placed on wooden shelves to dry. They are still slightly damp from the steam at this stage. Many larger factories have a separate room with tons of shelves lined with drying cakes. The cakes are monitored and often even stored on particular shelves that are numbered according to their processing time. Different types of puerh leaves and different shapes or levels of compression will affect the amount of time that is needed to dry the cakes, from hours to days and sometimes even up to a week. Some big factories use ventilation systems and/or fans to speed up the process.
When they are finished drying, the cakes are taken off the shelves to be packaged. Each generation of cakes has its own unique characteristics with regards to the wrapping paper, printing, style of Chinese characters, nei fei, etc. As we discussed earlier, there is a whole science of “wrapperology”. Each decade brought revolutions in the printing process worldwide, so it seems obvious that the larger factories would change their printing methods. Also, the wrapping paper in particular is handmade, and a lot can be discerned via fibers, texture, and the appearance of the paper as well as the ink color. It is impossible to forge many of these paper and ink combinations and make them appear aged.
Discus-shaped cakes, called “bingchas” are individually wrapped in handmade paper and then bundled in groups of seven (qi zi, 七子) called tongs (桶). Each tong is wrapped in Bamboo bark (tsu tze ka, 竹子殼). Sometimes English articles mistakenly assume that these are bamboo leaves. Actually, bamboo trees shed their skin whenever they get bigger or sprout new stems. You can see this material covering the floor of any bamboo forest. The Bamboo bark conserves the freshness of the tea and makes packaging easier. Twelve tongs are then further wrapped using Bamboo, into a jian (件), which is twelve tongs of seven, so eighty-four bings in all. Other shapes of compression include bricks (zhuan), mushrooms (which look like hearts to the Tibetans they were primarily exported to, and thus named “jing cha”), bowl or nest shapes (tuocha), and sometimes melons. We have found that the discus-shaped cakes (bings) age the best.
Puerh production may seem complicated at first, but it really isn’t that difficult to understand. We hope that the basics we’ve covered in this article, along with the accompanying charts, will help simplify the process for you and increase your understanding of the more linear aspects of puerh tea. By including other articles about the energetics of puerh in this issue, as well as past and future issues, we hope to fulfill you in a more balanced way. Thus, our understanding of puerh will be more holistic, including its history, production methodologies and other informative approaches along with a spiritual and vibrational understanding of this amazing tea.
In coming to understand the history of puerh, especially the last century or so, you include heritage and historicity into your appreciation of this magical genre of tea. For a long time, aged puerh was the mark and measure for every discussion of the genre. In those days, we rarely drank any newborn tea, except to see how it was aging. So you really haven’t explored puerh as a genre until you’ve also had some aged tea. We hope this article helps you on that journey. It should be noted that most all the terms used to identify the families and eras of puerh tea began for the most part with the scholarship of the 1990’s. During their own times, these teas were everyday commodities, and names and trends always changed with the times. Also, one should remember that the lines between these eras, while based on reason, are ultimately arbitrary. Though most scholars agree in general, certain vintages right near the boundaries might slip into either age depending on what one reads. Throughout the coming pages, we’ll discuss the eras of puerh tea, accompanied by pictures of the rare and priceless teas from the Masterpiece Era...
The Antique Age
This era of tea includes all the tea that was produced prior to the formation of Communist China in 1949. All of the factories from that time were private businesses and none had anywhere near the output of those today. Many of these trading firms also dealt in other goods as well, like rice and other agricultural products. Puerh tea was just one commodity amongst others. Some of them were even owned by single families, like the legendary Song Ping Hao and Tong Qing Hao. They were often small, rural houses where tea and other products were all processed completely by hand. The demand of the market at that time was small and annual production in numbers that would make even the state-owned factories of later years scoff. Old tea house owners in Hong Kong have reported that 10 jian (or “cases”, each with 84 cakes, therefore equaling 840 cakes) was enough for the entire island for one year. The demand for puerh was low because the retail price was relatively high compared to other teas. Nevertheless, many would argue that the cleaner and more natural farming methods and environment lent these cakes a certain majesty not found in any of their descendents. The fact that many of these teas are now 70 or more years old, coupled with the fact that very few were produced to begin with, makes them extremely rare and valuable—sometimes costing more than a hundred thousand USD per cake.
The cakes from the Antique Era were never wrapped with an outer wrapping paper. Perhaps it was considered too costly at the time; and preservation wasn’t as much of an issue. However, all the cakes did have a nei fei or “inner trademark ticket” embedded into the tea just like the ones of today. Many also had a nei piao or “stack ticket” that rested in each stack of seven cakes (tong). Other than the leaves themselves, these trademarks are really the only way that collectors can tell cakes apart, especially ones from the same factory, like for example the Red and Blue Mark Song Ping Hao cakes. The leaves in these ancient cakes were larger-leaf blends, and were harvested completely from old-growth trees.
When the “New China” was established in 1949, the central government declared that all industry belonged to the people. Even the tea industry was handed over to the local government. These changes closed these family-run, private businesses in the 1950’s and the Antique Era came to an end.
The Masterpiece Era
The start of the Masterpiece Era began with the creation of the state-run factories, like Menghai, which is still in existence today (though it is privately owned now). In order to control and stabilize the production of tea in Yunnan, the “China Tea Corporation, Yunnan Branch” was created. They had their own logo, brand and trademark— established in 1950, and registered with the central government in 1951. This trademark is the now famous “8-Zhong Tea” character that is in the center of all the cakes from the Masterpiece and later Seven Sons eras. The character “zhong (中)” means “middle” or “Middle Kingdom”, viz. China. Eight of them surround the character for tea (茶) since that number was considered lucky. It also symbolized the goal of distributing Chinese tea to all eight directions of the world.
Red and Blue Mark teas, as well as others from the Masterpiece Era, are now also very rare. While they aren’t as expensive or as difficult to find as Antique Age teas, many vintages are quickly approaching comparative values. Like the older teas, these too are treasures. Tea cakes in the Masterpiece Era are distinguished from earlier ones by the obvious change to using outer wrapping paper. All these cakes were wrapped in handmade papers with the “8-Zhong” trademark in the center. The name of the “China Tea Corporation, Yunnan Province Branch Company” was printed in a ring around the central character, and read from right to left (which helps distinguish these cakes from later ones produced in the Seven Sons Era). The style and methods used to wrap seven cakes into tongs didn’t change in the Masterpiece Era: they still used bamboo bark with soft bamboo twine to hold the tong closed.
The Masterpiece Era is considered to be the 1950’s and 60’s, and characterized by four main categories of tea. Some authors subdivide these cakes into more varieties. This list is, therefore, a gross simplification, as most Chinese anthologies will include some later teas in this era, as well as subdivide these categories into many cakes. Nevertheless, this is a start to understanding the Masterpiece Era:
1) Red Mark Round Cakes
2) Red Mark Tie Bing (iron discus)
3) Grade A & B Blue Mark- Round Cakes
4) Artistic Font Blue Mark- Tie Bing (iron discus)
The Seven Sons Era (Qi Zi Bing)
The Seven Sons Era began in 1972 with the formation of the now-famous “China National Native Produce & Animal By-product Import & Export Company”, referred to so often as the “CNNP”. The new agency would take control over all the puerh production during the period. The three main factories of the time period were Menghai, Xiaguan and Kunming. During this time, the production of puerh tea increased as a result of a growing foreign market. More tea was exported than ever before. As a result, more of these teas are floating around the vintage market than their predecessors, though some of these famous vintages are also now starting to become rarer and more expensive. Some of the earliest cakes from this era are just now starting to reach maturity, and connoisseurs are all interested in tasting these vintages as well as the earlier ones.
When the CNNP took over the production of puerh in Yunnan they changed several aspects of the design used to package tea, as well as the blends and raw materials. Consequently, besides the change in management, these changes justify the demarcation of two eras of tea at this time. Firstly, all the teas were no longer called “Yuan Cha” or “Round Tea Cakes”; instead, they were all now called “Qi Zi Bing Cha”, which literally means “Sevensons Tea Cake”. As mentioned before, the characters on these cakes also changed from ‘right to left’ to ‘left to right.’ The cakes made by Menghai also began using Roman Pinyin font beneath the Chinese for the purpose of exportation. (Xiaguan and Kunming factories were slower in making this change). Menghai also began adding a nei piao between every cake and outer wrapping. Scholars often differentiate these nei piao tickets from the ones used in the Antique age by calling them “Description Tickets” and the earlier ones, “Stack Tickets”. The nei piao from the Seven Sons Era were called “Description Tickets” because they contained short descriptions of the tea inside, sometimes with the region, product information or even marketing about the health benefits of puerh tea. Again, Xiaguan and Kunming’s early Seven Sons Era cakes didn’t have these nei piaos inside. Of course, the name around the “8-Zhong Tea” was also changed from the China Tea Corporation to the CNNP. There were several other changes in packaging at this time, like the use of metal wires to tie tongs, factory and batch codes and even changes to the design of the nei fei tickets compressed into the tea.
Different authors end the Seven Sons Era at different times. Many modern factories are still producing cakes with the same packaging designs as those made during this era, and the continuous production of that design makes the delineation between the Seven Sons Era and what scholars call the “Modern” or “Newborn Era” difficult indeed. However, most all puerh historians end the Seven Sons Era sometime in the mid to late 1990’s. For us, 1997 is a good time to mark the end of this era because the private orders made by tea merchants to the national factories increased drastically after 1997. In addition, different kinds of wrapping styles emerged alongside the Seven Sons style. Since the beginning of the Newborn Era, the production and variation of puerh tea has increased in a whirlwind of volume. Also, more single-region tea is being made these days and there has also been a dramatic increase in what we call “Boutique Tea”, which means private, small productions made by shop owners or puerh lovers who travel to Yunnan themselves to see the trees and order cakes to their taste.
Many state-produced bingchas have a four-digit production number. This trend began in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s and consequently doesn’t apply to very old antique puerh. These were internal factory batch codes originally and were only known and used by factory workers and merchants who ordered from them. Nowadays, however, the old recipes have become famous and many companies, small and large, are trying to reproduce the famous “7542” or our favorite, “8582”. Consequently, it’s worth knowing a little of what these codes are about.
Basically, the first two digits are the year in which that production was first started. If a particular mixture/ processing procedure marketed well, it was then continued the next year, sometimes even for decades to the present. In other words, if the first two digits are “75,” this means that this particular production method/ mixture was first begun in 1975. This doesn’t mean that the tea itself dates to 1975. It could be a 2006 cake. It just means that the recipe itself began in 1975. The methods used to blend and process puerh tea into cakes are often experimented with until better formulas are developed.
The third digit refers to the leaf size or “grade” used in production of the cake. Grades of teas were and are often very complicated. Different factories follow different guidelines and/or change them over time. Generally, though, the first grade leaves are the smaller ones, buds, and then the bigger the leaves and further back up the stem, the higher the grade. In the olden days, the first four grades were often used to process bowls or nest-shaped teas (tuochas 沱茶) and mushrooms (jingcha 緊茶) and larger fifth through ninth grades were reserved for bingcha and brick puerh. This has changed in the modern era. Nowadays all different kinds of cakes are made from the selection of grades.
The word “grade” can occasionally confuse English speaking people. This is because the grade mentioned above is not always relevant to quality. Of course, a first grade leaf is more expensive by weight because the buds are smaller and there is a lot less of them. But price and quality are not always commensurate. The word “grade” in English also denotes “quality” and is therefore misleading. There are two Chinese words, one for the grade (dang ji 等級), i.e. size and location of the leaves on the plant, and another for the quality of the leaves/tea (pin tze 品質). Many times the first leaves are better quality, but not always.
The final number in the four-digit code refers to which state factory produced the cake. Knowing the factory can often help determine the tea-growing region in which the raw material was farmed as well. In those days there weren’t so many factories as today. As we mentioned above, these recipes are now copied or commemorated by many different factories, so the last number has less relevance in modern times. The numbering for the factories is as follows:
1 Kunming Tea Factory (昆明茶厂)
2 Menghai Tea Factory (勐海茶厂)
3 Xia Guan Tea Factory (下关茶厂)
4 Feng Qing Tea Factory (凤庆茶厂)
8 Hai Wan Tea factory (海湾茶厂) * “8” was also used by Long Sheng Tea factory in the past (龙生茶厂)
9 Langhe Tea Factory (郎河茶厂)
Sometimes factory codes are also followed by a dash and then a number of the particular batch. This doesn’t occur that often, though. But when it does, it can help identify the vintage as long as one knows how many batches are produced each year. Below is a summary, then, of the four numbers present in a factory code with an example for clarity:
If you love puerh as much as we do, it helps to get to know Yunnan a bit. In previous issues, we’ve discussed the term “terroir” and its significance in relation to tea. “Terroir” is a French word that is generally used in discussions of wine, but it is so applicable to tea as well that most tea lovers have adopted it into their discussions of the Leaf. Terroir denotes the special characteristics of a place, found in its geology, geography, climate and even cultural heritage, which interact with a cultivated plant species to create unique expressions. Terroir is the soil and weather of a particular region, the geography and culture of the people and their relationship to the plant, and even the microorganisms and their interaction with the plants. Every place has a unique soil composition, pH, minerals and climate—all of which create a distinctive tea. When we talk about a tea’s terroir, we are speaking to the unique environment that created it, one that couldn’t be reproduced. Even if you took a grafting of a tree and cloned it elsewhere, it wouldn’t be the same since the sun would be weaker or stronger, the soil composition different, etc., etc. It follows, then, that every region in Yunnan produces a very distinct puerh tea, with unique flavors, aroma and Qi.
The vibrations of an environment are the organism itself, and the organism is the environment. There is great wisdom in understanding that living things “go with” their environment, as Alan Watts used to say. Any change in the environment is a change in the organism—physically, and more subtly, on the vibrational level as well. When you watch a documentary on “Rivers”, it isn’t just an hour of water flowing by; it also contains the fish, frogs and crayfish. Each of these affects the water chemistry of the river, the levels of its banks, etc. And the river in turn affects their lives. They are the river, in other words. Similarly, tea trees are their environments, which is why it is so important that we promote living and/or organic teas!
As a result of tea trees being their environment, one of the first steps on your puerh journey will be getting to know some of the key regions of Yunnan, the birthplace of all tea, as well as the flavors and vibrations of the teas that come from those places. Nowadays, puerh tea is mostly produced in three areas: Xishuangbanna, Puerh (which was called “Simao” for a long time) and Lincang. Historically, the most famous of these was Xishuangbanna, which literally means “Twelve Rice Paddy District”. During the early eras of Puerh, almost all commercial tea came from this region. It is in the very south of Yunnan. There were traditionally “Six Famous Mountains” in Xishuangbanna, all located in a cluster to the northeast of the Lancang river (Don’t get confused—“Lincang” is a province and “Lancang” is a river). The names below are Yunnanese aboriginal words. We have also included the meaning in English, Mandarin characters and pinyin as well:
1) Mansa (慢撤山) literally, “seed sowing bag” (sa dai, 撒袋)
2) Mangzhi (莽枝山) literally, “copper cauldron” (tong mu, 铜鉧)
3) Manzhuan (蠻磚山) literally, “iron brick” (tie zhuan, 铁砖)
4) Gedeng (革登山) literally, “leather stirrup” (ma deng, 马蹬)
5) Yibang (倚邦山) literally, “wooden clapper” (mu bang, 木梆)
6) Youle (攸樂山) literally, “copper gong” (tong luo, 铜锣)
There are many other popular areas producing puerh tea in Xishuangbanna. The most famous in recent years is Lao Ban Zhang (老班章), which is the most expensive of all puerh tea regions. Nannuo (南糯山), Bada (巴达山) and Menghai (勐海山) are amongst other famous tea producing areas that are to the southwest of the river. The “Puerh” region is home to the city where this magic tea got its name. This is also where we took our trip, covered in July’s issue of Global Tea Hut. Qian Jia Zhai is in Puerh, which means many of you will be drinking tea from there soon. Puerh is in the southwest of Yunnan, just north of Xishuangbanna.
The Lincang region is the northernmost of the three major tea areas in Yunnan. It is also the birthplace of all tea. The forests there have the oldest trees, and deepest roots in Cha Dao. There is some disagreement amongst scholars as to the origin of tea, but in traveling to the three major areas of Yunnan, we have found that the Lincang region is the home of all tea. We especially feel this in the “Five Mountains”. Our understanding, however, is based more on a feeling, a connection and affinity to Tea and Her spirit than on any linear proof—take it or leave it… The five mountains all tea originated from are:
1) Ming Feng (鳴風)
2) Mang Fei (忙肺)
3) Mei Zi Qing (梅子菁)
4) Wu Jia Zhai (武家寨)
5) Da Xue Shan (大雪山)
There are many other tea-growing regions in Lincang, like Bing Dao, where this month’s tea comes from. Tea from this area has only blessed the market in modern times, though the aboriginals have been drinking this tea for millennia. The tea here is strong and deep, with sun, moon, mountain and air pouring through it. Recently, teas from other regions in Yunnan have also started to become available, following the great popularity of puerh tea in China. De Hong is one other region in the very west of Yunnan. Our beloved purple varietal red tea, which we have recently named, “Plum Blossom Trail” comes from De Hong.
While it is nice to learn some of the names associated with the tea we love, more information alone doesn’t really improve your affinity with tea or your ability to appreciate it. It is much better to travel to Yunnan and meet the geography in person—or, if that’s not possible, travel the regions by drinking your way through them. In this way, your knowledge of puerh will be experiential! We hope to provide more chances for you to do that. Of course, not all of our teas will be puerhs, or even come from Yunnan, but we will definitely be sending more of this magical tea—and from different regions of Yunnan—in the coming months and years…
Your Tea of the Month, March 2012 2004 Yiwu Mountain Sheng Puerh & Qi Lan
This month’s tea is another of our favorites around here, and we all have a special relationship to it, indeed. It is actually a blend of two different plants, an old-growth Puerh and an ancient Daoist herb called “Qi Lan”. Together, they dance in a magical way, filling you with old myths about the forest and the animals there. As we mentioned last month, all Puerh comes from Yunnan, the birthplace of tea. And we also talked about how there are two kinds of Puerh, sheng and shou—remember? Sheng is the more traditional, greener kind of Puerh. It is picked, withered, fried and sun-dried. Sheng tea is then naturally fermented over time, and the older the better. It miraculously mellows from green, powerful, astringent tea to deep and dark elixirs. It also changes from “cool” to “hot”, in the Chinese medical sense of the words. Shou tea means that the tea has gone through piling under thermal blankets, or more rarely in baskets, in order to artificially ferment the tea. Aboriginals in Yunnan had many ways to turn their tea warm, again in the TCM sense, including baking, roasting, or even burying it in bamboo. However, the modern method of piling the tea was developed in the 1960’s and then commercialized in 1972 by big Puerh factories in an attempt to reproduce the amazing effects that time, and natural fermentation, have on Puerh tea. Of course, they only succeeded in inventing a new genre of tea, rather than actually achieving what nature does over such long periods of time.
Our tea of the month is once again a sheng tea, just like last month. Last month’s tea was a unique example of sheng, though, because it did undergo some pre-production piling, which is very unusual for Puerh tea. This is not the same as the post-production, wet piling of shou tea. It is more akin to red tea, where the withering leaves are piled for 12-24 hours to increase oxidation. (Our February tea was only piled briefly, 2-4 hours, if you remember.) This months tea, on the other hand, is a normal sheng tea: picked, withered, fried and sun dried. It dates to the year 2004 and is from the Yiwu Mountain region.
We often drink this Puerh on its own as well. It is strong and rich, with the hints of honey and orchids that are characteristic of so many of the trees growing near Yiwu. It is also from old-growth trees, but we don’t know the precise age. With the Puerh boom, much of the region has become overcommercialized and the quality of tea has decreased as a result. Generally speaking, 2004 was the last year before this major shift. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides: places/farms that had shifted towards less environmentally ethical principals pre- 2004 and great, sustainable teas after 2004, like the wonderful Ai Lao we enjoyed last month. Still, there was a change in the industry around this time, as more big factories built plantations and began using pesticides, weed-killers and chemical fertilizers to meet the growing demand for Puerh tea.
Every 5-7 years Puerh tea turns a corner in its aging process. This tea has been stored rather dryly and has therefore not turned the first corner into adolescence. It has changed, however, taking on a richer, oilier depth as the years have passed. It is syrupy and full-bodied with a powerful yang Qi.
To our tea we have added a very rare herb, and the two go together like meditation and tea. “Qi Lan” is the leaf of a rare, old-growth tree that grows in Yunnan, Szechuan and to a lesser extent Guang Zhou. Our Qi Lan comes from Szechuan and Yunnan and has been aged about 10 years to mellow it out. Not much is known about this elusive plant. It has yet to be domesticated, and we do not know its scientific classification at all. It has been treasured by Daoist recluses and Tibetan sages for thousands of years, as it uplifts and amplifies the Qi. We revel in the mystery of this magical plant. It tastes of sandalwood, and carries frequencies of Qi not to be found in any other plant we have ever interacted with. It is a Qi tonic, uplifting the spirit tremendously.
The harmony between these two plants is amazing. The Qi Lan actually turns the cool nature of the young Puerh hot. It amplifies the Qi of the Yiwu tea and also adds more of its own, altogether enough to soar through the clouds dragonbacked. We suggest drinking this wonderful blend mid-morning, and after a nice, filling breakfast. Be sure to leave enough time/space to really enjoy it; its magic lasts a day and more. You will find yourself transported to where the poetry and myth of tea has meaning again: Spirits sway the leaves of these old plants, and tell stories of blind old shamans pushed into the river by naughty raccoons, only to find that they could see again…