Global tea Hut Trip Article
By Morten Menge
started writing immediately, as I did not want to lose too much time after coming back. I
wanted my memories of our Global Tea Hut trip to be fresh.
Well, I am glad to see today that those memories still are fresh. The whole past week I was and actually still am feeling a bit out of place, still feeling like I have not fully arrived back home. But there is much more to it than just that.
There is a melancholy feeling inside of me. And when I go deep and listen closely to it, it’ s telling me: “Morten, you left something behind in China. And to be honest, I doubt that you will ever get it back.”
I know that not just for me, but for our whole group of more than twenty Chajin, this trip has been transformative and life-changing. We have all had so many wonderful, intimate and emotional experiences.
During our trip, we would get up early and start the day together with a communal tea session. I will not forget how even a simple hotel room could transform into a “tea cave,” with all of us sharing tea in silence, peace and meditation. It bonded us all together for the days to come. After these sessions, I felt inclined to hug each and every one in the group and the whole world, too, just out of gratefulness for having me.
After that, we would then strengthen ourselves with tasty Yunnanese breakfasts. This often consisted of eggs from local hens, freshly made noodles and soup and the oh-so- tasty traditional steamed buns. We also all soon learned to be careful with the chilies! It felt good to get into a circle, to hold hands before each meal and express our gratitude for the food that was given to us.
While the sequence of tea time and breakfast was very similar for most days, the rest of each day unfolded differently.
We would had classes on chaxi and flower arrangements by our beloved Master Tsai or we listened to Wu De sharing his wisdom. All that was spoken by them illuminated the whole trip and further paved our way on the road of tea. Like never before, I wished I were a quirky, yellow sponge from down under the sea, able to fully absorb all the wisdom both were generously sharing with us. I often needed to be gentle and forgive my brain, which was trying so hard to record each and every syllable both teachers would say.
We also learned how to make tea! In Ai Lao, we learned how red tea is made and got to roll the leaves ourselves. The tea we made will be shared with the whole Global Tea Hut community this month. We all put so much love and effort into it. I am sure you will be able to taste it when you drink it!
In Jingmai, we learned how puerh tea is made, and again got to roll the leaves ourselves. In the end, we even “sipped a little love and did a little dance” on the puerh cakes to compress them. (You will see in the pictures and video footage, I am sure.)
We also went on hikes in the forests, led to places where we would sit down, drink tea together and become one with Nature. Wherever we went, it felt like Nature was embracing us and inviting us over to stay, and to come back soon once we left.
Wu De pointed out to us before we went into the tea tree forest, that we should all be mindful since we are guests in the forest. We were being invited into Tea’s living room, the place where Tea has its home, the place where it was born and grew up, the place on Earth it loves the most of all, the place where it has been living for thousands of years, long before any human ever stepped onto this land. Given these circumstances, how could we not show our deepest respect and love for Tea upon entering the forest?
Wu De put it in a nice way, saying, “There are two types of guests: One that you want to leave your place as quickly as possible and not return soon. The other type of guest you just love to have around, and don’t really want to leave. And when they do, you hope they return soon.” Our whole group dedicated itself to being the latter type of
In the forest, we had several deep, deep tea sessions, sitting right next to old- growth tea trees. We were using water from that area; we steeped tea leaves from those trees in our bowls, listened to the natural jungle drum of the forest and lost all sense of time and space.
Upon departing the forest I felt that a reunion in the future is something both us and our hosts, the trees, are already looking very much forward to.
Reflecting back on the whole trip, I feel that I am still very present in the forest.
We were all guests, and guests can’t stay forever. But it seems I unintentionally disobeyed this rule and left a part of myself there; he’s still sitting there, in Tea’s living room, drinking tea...
I am in love with Tea, and I have been so for such a long time. But never have I felt more connected to Her, never have I listened more deeply and talked to Her as intimately as in this encounter. In those past moments in the forest I realized and
expressed my deepest love and gratitude to Her, for She had changed my life upside-
down, and for the better. She picked me up, gave me shelter and eventually put me back down on my own two feet pointed in the right direction, like you would do with a young bird that has fallen down from a tree.
It’s my deepest wish to always stay connected to that forest of tea.
And it’s my goal to become the second sort of guest, which is never expected to leave.
For that I will work hard and with my heart. My deepest gratitude to all that were in any way a part of this trip. And all my love to you, the whole Global Tea Hut community.
A Brighter Future through a Return to the Past:
Promoting a Continuation of Puerh Tea Tree Gardens through Ecological Awareness
By Zhou Yu
Zhou Yu was born in Chungking in 1945. He majored in foreign languages and economics. In 1981, he rebuilt his family home and created the Zhi Teng Lu Cottage, Inn and Teahouse, which he still cares for today. He has devoted himself to a life of tea, with emphasis on the way of Cha Dao. Tea to Zhou Yu is enlightening— a way of self-examination and exploration.
The traditional agriculture of Yunnan was based on the life-experience of Han Culture. The relationship between human beings and the universe played a major role in the thoughts and lives of these people. There is a huge conceptual difference between the methods and discernment of years ago and that of Western science and technology today. The Han people had been engaged primarily in agriculture for thousands of years. Throughout all those long eras the soil still maintained its fertility, the balance of nature was never upset and the harmony of life went on unchecked. The Western, production-based methodology offers no such evidence of its resilience. Quite the opposite, in fact. It took generations of traditional wisdom to create the ancient balance that is now being upset in one. Nowadays, any positive discussion about the continuation of Yunnan Puerh tea tree gardens must begin with the return to a natural, environmental awareness.
Following the times, some tea farmers have adopted the way of modern agriculture, which means synthetic weed-killers, fertilizers and pesticides. All too often the story ends with Nature in tears. And the long-term ecological damage is difficult to recover from. The essence of the leaves is lost and the consumers are dealt with in quantity rather than quality. We must promote an examination of the traditional wisdom that started our tea customs. After all, none of these problems are really the fault of science or technology. It is the responsibility of humankind to rethink the intuition and care that our traditional cultures had for their environments.
In the Chinese way of life, a discussion of traditional world view must include an understanding of Qi. Qi is a very difficult word to translate or understand without experience of it. It is the life force that moves through and in all things. Scientifically, it might be thought of as ‘energy’, but actually it involves much more than that. Energy is often the effect of Qi. On the other hand, one need not assume that it refers to anything mystical or magical. It can be viewed as simply the movement or vibration of the sub-atomic particles of which everything is made. Through self-awareness, based perhaps on instinct, or maybe intuition, one may begin to feel the Qi within the body and mind. This is often achieved through a method like Tai Qi or meditation. Since ancient times, Teaists have known about and discussed the Qi of tea. Cha Qi has always been a part of the appreciation of tea. When we drink tea the Cha Qi moves through the body. It is the focal point for self-awareness and part-in-parcel of living tea as a Dao. One might think of it as a sort of dialogue going on inside the body between the soul and the tea. Different teas produce different Qi. Often the flow of the Qi changes direction, moves quickly or impulsively, or encircles the body. Sometimes the Qi stays on the surface; other times it’s deep inside. And sometimes there isn’t any Qi at all. Many times natural, organic teas have a Qi that slowly rises through the duration of the session. The first few steepings are devoid of feeling, but then ever so slowly the Qi will begin to flow through the body and may be felt as vibrations, tingling or other subtle sensations. It may also produce more gross sensations like heat, perspiration or palpitation. Any of these sensations are the effect of the Qi, and should not be confused with the Qi itself. Even those that are not trained to feel the subtler sensations will still be affected by the Qi. After all, the atoms of the world are vibrating with energy regardless of whether we are aware of the fact or not. Unfortunately, many human beings have lost their intuition and sensitivity because modern civilization is too focused on external stimuli. Often times, people will just feel a general sense of ease or comfort when drinking good teas. Since Qi is in all things it is affected by the movement of all things, including the farmers, the land, the rain— all aspects of the environment. If the Qi of the land in which a tea is farmed is poor or out of balance it will translate to the leaves themselves. Ancient farmers were very concerned about balance, about Qi.
The perfect analogy and application of this understanding is to look at what has happened to the Taiwanese tea industry, especially Dong Ding Oolong. There is a proverb amongst Mainland tea lovers that “Puerh teas were grown in Yunnan, formed in Hong Kong and carried on in Taiwan.” This mostly refers to the Cultural Revolution and then the change of government in Hong Kong in the 1990’s. Because of those historical changes, much Chinese culture and art has been preserved in Taiwan. But why had Puerh become so popular in Taiwan? Why was the demand there in the 90’s when the supply from Hong Kong became greater? After all, Taiwan has its own rich tradition of tea farming. All and everything is Qi, and therefore Qi is the answer. When Taiwanese farmers started growing tea in the mountainous regions of Nantou County, they had an intimate knowledge of ecological balance and a thorough understanding of Qi. As mentioned above, tea gets its Qi mostly from the ground. Some comes from the sun and rain, but even the rain is absorbed into the plant underground. Twenty or Thirty years ago the land in the Dong Ding area of Nantou was brimming with Qi. It was chosen for that reason. Natural, organic farms produced green teas that made the body peaceful and comfortable. The Qi was strong enough that even people without training felt relaxed drinking it. However, since that time the economic success of the tea industry has caused the government to initiate research that has altered the agricultural methods. The focus has now become on increasing production. The farms began using man-made fertilizers, weed-killers and pesticides. The Qi of the land was damaged. This loss was transmuted, of course, into the tea people drink. There are exceptions even today, but most Dong Ding is flat and devoid of Qi. In fact, the focus of the Taiwanese tea industry has moved instead towards an emphasis on flavor and aroma. How good is the flavor? People ask. “What a delightful fragrance!” And as the Cha Qi faded, many tea lovers in Taiwan began to turn to Puerh tea. There were already Puerh lovers in Taiwan prior to that, but it was only when the Oolongs began to lose quality that it became really popular. Puerh tea and the ancient tea trees from which it is farmed have in them an even more powerful Qi. Aged Sheng Puerh can accumulate Qi to a great degree, leaving the one who is drinking it beyond comfortable, beyond simply relaxed to a state of bliss. There is no need for a lab report to prove this. The body itself will tell the tale. Drinking these teas makes the whole body comfortable in part because of the changes time has brought to the tea. The same can be said for leaves that were harvested from ancient trees. Even the molecular structure of the known stimulants like caffeine changes from bush to tree, according to professors of agriculture in Yunnan.
A good tea taster, with years of experience can intuitively evaluate a tea simply by looking at the leaf. One can call this “intuition”, just as one can call the aforementioned comfort when drinking a good tea “quality”, or one can call it “Qi”. The name is unimportant. According to my experience, taller and bigger tea trees have higher quality leaves, better tasting teas with more Cha Qi. Previously, the tea trees on Mt. Dong Ding in Taiwan were larger and planted naturally. Through breeding and the use of cuttings, rather than seed-based reproduction, farmers have increased their yield. They have switched to plateau-based farming of smaller, denser tea bushes that are cut to produce the next generation as quickly as possible. But bigger tea trees have deeper roots and larger crowns beneath the sky. There can never be too many of them, too close together. They are balanced and absorbent, creating better, healthier leaves. Doesn’t this make sense? Isn’t it obvious? I consulted a professor teaching at the Department of Forestry in the Taiwan National University. He was a bit uncomfortable with the word Qi, but admitted that my assumptions were correct. He said that any tree relies on its root system to get its nutrients from the soil, and of course the photosynthesis of the leaves. The deeper the root system the more nutrients the tree will absorb, and the larger the crown it will produce. This crown of leaves then, in turn, increases the photosynthesis and the overall health of the tree. If half the tree is cut the leaves are obviously reduced by half. If the plant is half as small, and the root system corresponds accordingly, then the nutrients will also be half as much. The root system shrinks when the tree is cut in order to keep a balance, reducing the Qi the plant is absorbing. Clearly, cutting the tree in half to speed up production will only maintain the same quality for that first year, after which the tree will naturally reduce its root system and therefore its Qi. To me this seems like “killing the hen to get the eggs”, as the Chinese proverb goes. Perhaps I have oversimplified things, but the real test is in the tea itself anyway. And the steady decline in the quality of Dong Ding tea is concurrent with these changes. As the farmers began cutting the trees and densely packing them together in an attempt to increase profit as much as possible without regard for tea, the Cha Qi has been lost. A similar process is occurring throughout Yunnan right now.
Some Yunnan farmers have also tried making plantations on plateaus and propagating the plants through cuttings. While this works for many varieties of tea, many Puerh farmers have found that the leaf-buds of Puerh are inherently different. It is not known why Puerh leaf-buds are different. Perhaps it’s the complexity of the environment itself. Nevertheless, most of these farmers have found that Puerh is much better when disseminated by way of seeds, not genetic breeding and selection of cuttings. In my opinion, the same can be said about any kind of tea, or plant for that matter. While other kinds of tea are acceptable when planted through cuttings, I think they would be better if they had come from seeds. After all, Nature has been producing trees that way for millennia— since long before there were even people to enjoy the tea. The new Western agriculture emphasizes output and efficiency, and the farmers pat each other on the back when the crop is larger and the growing season shorter. Meanwhile the buds get smaller, the land gets ruined and the Cha Qi is gone. There are still many tea trees in Yunnan, on the other hand, that are hundreds of years old. They have watched the lifetimes of men go by, and still they produce delicious leaves with excellent Cha Qi. Though the production area is smaller with such large trees, the leaves themselves are larger. They are tall trees full of life, full of Qi.
Yunnan is home to thousands of species of plants and animals. It is a lush, vibrant jungle, and it is also the birthplace of tea. The weeds, ferns, flowers and shrubs are nascent and colorful in the rainy season. Many of them die annually and provide a natural fertilizer. The fecundity of the region is evidence enough that the land is full of nutrient, without the need for man to add any. If one were to transplant a tree to Yunnan, it would thrive as it hadn’t in a less fertile environment. When I went to Yiwu and Jing Mai I noticed that the farms still had weeds beneath the trees. I’m sure that this undergrowth helps to keep a diversity and balance in the soil. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to weed a tea garden, but one need not use artificial, sprayed weed-killers. The farmer can instead just uproot the weeds and leave them to decompose, providing natural fertilizer. Even that, however, is affected by the size of the tea trees. Smaller bushes cannot be allowed to compete with the weeds, and the garden must therefore be weeded; but the large tea trees found in Yunnan are in no competition with this undergrowth. Conversely, the weeds attract insects, microbes and other natural aspects of the whole ecological system. Tea trees were born before man cultivated them, and my heart, as well as my taste buds, tells me that the trees produced in that natural way are better. Perhaps that isn’t the case with all agricultural produce, but it certainly is in this instance. Weed-killers, one farmer told me, also affect the earthworm population. So do some chemical fertilizers, I’m sure. Fertilizers make bigger, brighter leaves and everyone is impressed, but it wears off and the taste isn’t as good after a year or two.
This leaves the last of the man-made intrusions, pesticides. Normally, old tea trees in Yunnan don’t have a serious insect problem. They never did, not at any time in the thousands of years they have thrived there. The trees are able to secrete defensive substances that reduce the amount of leaves destroyed by insects. As long as the ecology of the environment is balanced, the leaves will never be completely destroyed. And if the farmer needs to increase production there are other more natural methods of decreasing pests, like introducing carnivorous insects, planting camphor trees, and other well-known organic techniques. Also, as mentioned above, the fact that the underbrush and other surrounding trees are all left untouched helps to feed insects that would otherwise attack the tea leaves right away. On one of my first visits to Yunnan years ago I asked a farmer if he used pesticide and he laughed. “Where in the world would we get the money for that?”. But now with the rising price of Puerh tea some farmers are beginning to be able to afford pesticides, weed-killers and fertilizers. The businessmen arrive, just like they did in Taiwan in the 1970’s and 80’s, and sell what are often low-grade chemicals. Many of these will indeed increase their production and everyone’s profit goes up. Other farmers see that and follow suit. Soon the Qi of the land is damaged from the chemicals and overuse. Once the damage is done it’s difficult for the land to recover. It takes many years.
The aboriginal people in Yunnan know that a balanced ecology is what makes the tea special. There is a stone monument in Jing Mai that reads “an inheritance of money will be spent; cattle may spread disease to people, but a tea garden is an endless gift that may be enjoyed for generations.” Some say the monument itself is almost a thousand years old. This goes to show that even in ancient times the aboriginal people knew that as long as the environment was cared for the tea trees would continue giving their bounty forever. There are those that know tea trees interspersed amongst camphor and cinnamon, with natural undergrowth and organic, natural production is the way. Some ancient tea gardens have even been found in the wild and are now being restored. The future is not entirely dimmed by those that would be careless.
Currently, there are three basic kinds of farms in Yunnan: the large, plantation operations on plateaus where seeds are bred and harvested en masse and the teas bushes are always kept small. Secondly, there are old tree farms, some of which were once wild. This is often the most valuable tea for its quality and the fact that it takes longer to grow. These farms are handled and cared for in the same manner as the large plantations. Some are organic and some aren’t. Finally, there are the arbor farms based on natural ecology. These are the ones following the traditional way. These are the farms that produced the great aged teas like Hong Yin or Lan Yin that we are now enjoying years later. As this method decreases, so does the quality of the aged tea that will be available in the future. Traditional farming involves putting the seeds directly into the ground, not cuttings, and they are properly spaced—perhaps closer in their youth and wider when they become trees. These farms begin in the forest in a small area and can only expand slowly over long periods of time, but the ecology of these natural, arbor farms can be maintained forever.
A big part of what makes Puerh tea so special, and why so many people adore it, is the fact that it comes from larger more natural trees. Maintaining that tradition is an important part of the continuation of Puerh tea. If the environment is damaged, the tea quality will decrease and everyone will lose in the end. The price of tea in Yunnan is still nowhere near the level of Taiwanese Oolong or even Wu Yi Yen Cha, which has suffered a similar fate as Oolong has. This means there is still time. Puerh has been popular in Taiwan and Hong King for quite some time, spreading to Korea not long thereafter. As it continues to gain in popularity those who understand have a responsibility to promote natural, organic ecological farming in Yunnan. This must be done by raising the consumers’ ability to distinguish quality and teaching them to request a higher standard. Ecologically sound farms are beginning throughout the world. Not just for tea. Consumer consciousness is growing, and is evident in the increased availability of organic groceries. As the prices of old Puerh rise and the cakes become rarer and rarer, more Taiwanese are beginning to be mindful of the modern productions and try to help promote cleaner, healthier farming so that the same quality can be enjoyed in the coming decades. Tea has the ability to improve our lives as a drink and a Dao, and part of that is through living responsibly, learning about how to live in harmony with the Earth. The universe is as alive as the beings that course through it. Harming the Qi of a land is only hurting ourselves. Arbor based agriculture is the only way to ensure the continuation of Puerh tea. And without tea there is no tea culture to speak of. Cha Dao starts on the farm.
Nostalgia for a life of Conscientious Puerh Production
By Huang Chan Fang
Recently, I wrote a forward to one of my books and tried to encourage readers to only use the resources of Puerh to enrich humanity. The book was published by my good friend Wu De Liang, and entitled To Seek Tea in Puerh, referring to the region. The book was actually the second in a two volume series. The first volume was called Puerh Tea Rising Like Wind through Clouds. The completion of these books fulfilled one of the greatest desires of my lifetime. In 2002, I was in Si Mao township, standing on a street where the Jiu Jia town government was located, and watching the residents come and go from the market. Most of them were still very poor. All the tea leaves picked from the ancient gardens were harvested by them, and yet they earned less than 10 RMB per kilogram. It was a hard realization for me: that these people and their ancestors had maintained the mountain, its tea and heritage, and yet didn’t reap the benefits. I promised myself that I would do something to help them. I urged my friend, a journalist Wu De Liang, to come to Si Mao, and help me interview some people with the intention of publishing two books. We agreed to help the people by donating proceeds. Together with the aboriginal locals, we also developed some unique ways to help promote the betterment of Puerh production, development and even appreciation, and covering these is the essence of what I wanted to put forth in this article. For me, 2006 was very much a reflection of my own journey into the Puerh world and the insights it has afforded me.
The story of the production of the Memorial Beengcha for the 2006 Taipei Tea Culture Exposition
The 2006 Taipei Tea Culture Exposition was held by the Department of Culture of the Taipei City Government. It had a Puerh tea area, devoted to furthering the culture of this tea in Taiwan. The Jing Mei Tang Aged Tea Store together with Lin Qi Yuan of Hong Kong supervised the manufacturing and circulation of the Memorial Beengchas for the event. I was entrusted to go to Xi Shuang Ban Na, Yunnan, and choose the raw material, as well as mix the tea. Its production would then be done with the help of the Chang Tai Tea Company. Before this, I had mostly focused on developing new and better methods for the production of shou (ripe) tea, and only had experience with the raw material of sheng (raw) tea. I knew I would have to proceed very carefully.
In May of that year, for the first time, I had been in the tea-reviewing room of Chang Tai’s factory while the spring tea from sixty different mountains were there. I returned again and this time viewed tea from ninety other mountains, making a total of 150 mountains to choose from, and I could mix at most only five. I asked the tea-master at the factory to prepare ten bowls, dividing the tasting into fifteen sessions, six the first time I had gone and nine the second. Each time, we steeped the leaves in the bowl for three minutes to observe its conditions when stressed. I ignored all the information about where the tea was from, how it was processed and by who, etc., and focused just on the tea liquor. If it was cloudy it was eliminated; if it had a smoky or burnt smell, it was also removed. I kept only those with yellowish/slightly-greenish liquor that was fragrant, clear and mellow. After this round of elimination, only twelve teas remained. I found out that they had come from seven different mountains. I began drinking them a lot to help make my decision. Five of them had excellent Qi, were smooth, active, fragrant and bitter. The others didn’t have as strong of characteristics to distinguish them, but could still be the base of the production. Coming from different mountains and farmers, from seven regions, meant they each had their own good and bad points to deal with. I chose the best of the bunch, including one that I thought was far more fragrant than all the rest, and took them back to Taiwan to drink and discuss with the supervisors of the event and production, Jing Mei Tang and Lin Qi Yuan.
To distinguish between so many teas, it’s necessary to have some knowledge about the elements within the essence of Puerh tea. For example, if I had drank all 150 teas and sampled them, my stomach and kidneys would have been done for, so I just steeped the leaves for three minutes and eliminated the teas with defects. I had to rely on knowledge of the elements needed in a good leaf, and recognize the process—during farming, harvesting or processing—that had affected the leaves in a negative way and thereby eliminate the various candidates, without ever having really drank them. (We did taste the liquor with a spoon, swirling it in the mouth and spitting it out.)
After consulting with my supervisors on the project in Taiwan, I returned to the Chang Tai factory in July. I had chosen teas from five mountains within four regions. The first one was from Ge Lang River. It had a strong Qi. The second was from Nan Nuo Shan. It was smooth. The third, from the Song region, was still very active and I thought this would enhance the cakes’ future prospects. The fourth and fifth were the very fragrant ones, a batch from the Nan San region and another from the Song region. The products were divided into two types: one was a 400 gram beengcha and the other was a 100 gram mini-beengcha. The rate of these was one to one and there was a total of 5000 kg. To begin with, samples were compressed using both machine and traditional stone-pressed methods. I observed the end-product of each method and decided to go with the traditional, stone-pressed way.
In August I returned to Chang Tai to check on the products, which were still being pressed. It takes some time to press that much tea in the traditional way. We sat in the reviewing room and tasted the final result. The cakes were very nice. My experience over many years with tea of all kinds had paid off. The teamasters at Chang Tai were impressed. They asked me to hold courses for their blenders there. I showed them the methods I had used to discriminate the negativities in the teas, eliminating candidates. I also showed them how I had mixed teas with different characteristics that went well together: a smooth one, one strong in Qi, some fragrant ones and at least one that is still very active. Chen Wei, the general manager, asked me to compose some different kinds of tea for their own production line. Together with the teamasters there, we selected thirty leaves, blending them into a few different products. One tea lover who was visiting thought that the newer blends were inferior to the older. He took several examples of each back to Guang Zhou and brewed them with friends and experts there. He later contacted me to say that all his associates had unanimously found the newer blends to be better than the older ones. In this way, my career as a blender of Puerh tea had begun.
Revisiting Puerh, the Source
In 1999, I first went to Puerh, Yunnan. I was looking for the source of Puerh tea. Later, after I realized that part of my life’s aim was to help the aboriginals in Si Mao, a friend named Wang Jian Guo asked me to open up a tea company called “Kang Ti”. The idea was to spread tea and tea culture, while at the same to promoting education about the tea and the people that produce it. After the company was established, I returned to Taiwan for some time. I read my correspondence, noting the steady rise in the price of raw material in Si Mao, as well as the flourishing of the industry. I was amazed to watch Si Mao begin to develop. In 2004, the number of tea businesses there had grown to more than four thousand, including small stores. It had become a real tea town.
In August of 2006, I returned again to Yunnan, as I often do, to cover the activities of the Yong Nian Tea Company’s official opening ceremony. I revisited the Ning Er Township where the Puerh county government offices are. I remembered that before 2003, there weren’t any large Puerh companies in the center of the county, but now there were shops and factories lining each side of the road. I strolled through some of them and they all approached me as a tourist, claiming that their shop was “the only professional one on the street.” I laughed as you would and kept on browsing. I was happy that tea was allowing the people here to prosper, as improvements will trickle down and benefit the farmers. Even better, I found that the old United Monument and Memorial Hall had been converted into a Puerh National Tea Art Gallery, with performances of aboriginal dances and art. Some of my dreams had come true. The local people had begun to burgeon.
I sat down for the show and the announcer proclaimed that “we are entering the golden age of Puerh tea.” My mind naturally slipped into a reverie about the history and development of tea. Since tea was discovered more than three thousand years ago, perhaps by the legendary emperor Shen Nong Shi, this original technique of processing has gone on unchanged. It wasn’t until the Song and Tang Dynasties that new processing methods, like green tea, were even invented. In the Ming, roasting skills began to develop and even more varieties of tea emerged. In the Qing Dynasty, completely fermented, black teas arose and following the industrial revolution began to be produced in mass quantities. For a long time Puerh tea was forgotten by most. Just like olives or bananas, local farmers would supplement their income by picking Puerh leaves occasionally. Some was used as Chinese medicine, but it was always cheaper than other kinds of tea. But as I snapped out of my woolgathering and saw the colorful dancers whirling and the packed audience of tourists, I realized that the once poor farmers were growing rich. I wondered if all this success wasn’t a step backwards in terms of tea processing. Are we returning to the ancient production methods? Does this somehow negate all the progress that was made in tea production and processing? Then again, Puerh—its culture, people, land—all deserve the overdue attention. I smiled and watched the show.
Creating a Puerh Culture
The business of tea is totally different from others like cars, cell phones or electronics. These products are constantly innovating and the business person must stay up to date or be left behind. Consumers want new function and fashion, and newer products always sell better. Puerh tea, however, needs long periods of time in order to be appreciated. Even the farming and production have recently begun to aspire towards the past. The ideals and relationship our elders had with tea was much better than what is often conducted in these times. Firstly, the processing techniques were slower. Second, the source of the tea was exclusively ancient trees that were left to grow in their natural environments. The gardens, even the planted ones, were ecologically sound. Finally, tea, to our ancestors, wasn’t just food and refreshment; it was an ennoblement of the spirit and a way of life.
I truly believe that if Puerh tea is sold as just another kind of merchandise, it won’t compete with green or oolong tea. Puerh tea’s very attraction lies in the culture, aging and mystery that it invokes. Drinking aged Puerh is an experience; many people come to feel the Qi in their bodies for the first time drinking vintage Puerh. For these reasons, the Puerh market—consumers and producers—need to focus, like me, on nostalgia for past ages, and antique ways. Of course, healthy innovation is always welcome, but the spirit of traditional methods meant producing tea with respect for nature. Old trees need to be cherished and valued. Puerh should be grown organically and naturally, as it was for thousands of years. Puerh is the origin of all tea, and within the region there are twenty-five nations of people, each with its own tea history and culture that I think is very attractive to consumers. Some of my friends in Yunnan always ask me why I don’t promote Taiwanese tea culture there. I always tell them that there is enough tea culture here to last me a lifetime of learning. I hope that Yunnan people also awaken to the richness of their homeland and culture and begin to protect it for the coming ages.
Ideas for New Products
I was first introduced to Puerh tea twenty years ago. The first time I had it, I preferred oolong; I thought it was “smelly.” Someone wiser than me told me that Puerh was medicinal and I was intrigued. I started trying to roast Puerh tea. I thought that if I could get rid of the negative tastes and smells, it would be pleasant to drink and healthy too. I also experimented with refining it, thinking that many health care products could be created. I have spent the last twenty years observing many consumers, as well as my own family, and the effects of daily Puerh consumption. I have noticed definite changes in the health of everyone, including myself. I was always catching cold when I was young. I had a fragile disposition. My good friend had painful stomach ulcers, and now he is better and I don’t catch cold. These signs always encouraged me to study the processing of Puerh, and experiment with its inherent ability to improve our health.
In 2001, I set up a trade company in Kunming and sent Puerh tea to various labs and hospitals for testing. I was excited by the results. In general, dried or roasted food faces a reduction in protein and other nutrients. One of the studies conducted at a hospital showed an increase in all seventeen kinds of amino acids, protein and other nutrients in patients who were drinking Puerh. Another experiment proved emphatically that Puerh was helpful in cases of high blood pressure and high uric acid. In 2003, a friend of mine served Puerh tea to fifteen AIDS patients in Burma and noticed an improvement in their condition over just one or two months. Inspired by my friend who was cured of his stomach ulcers, I plan to conduct more research on its relationship to that problem.
Since 2003 several health products have been invented through our research. We have made Puerh wine to thin the blood, Puerh powder for convenient and instant use, syrup, as well as Puerh tea crisps and cakes for consumption. My daughter has kept one of these cakes for one year, wrapped simply in plastic, and it hasn’t gone bad at all. In the same way Puerh enhances the ecology and culture, the spirit and understanding, it can also enrich the health and life of a person.
I also have come up with a new idea for Puerh trademark tickets (nei piao). It is so easy to get confused about the ages and vintages of Puerh, and older teas are often very valuable. Our products will therefore include a ticket that clearly states the date of harvest, manufacture as well as the region and specific mountain(s) it comes from. Furthermore, the ticket will include spaces so that every person who collects the tea can inscribe their name and the dates in which they kept it. If it is sold a few times, the new buyer will have a record of all the hands the cake has passed through. We are currently petitioning a few of the larger factories with this innovation in the hopes that they also begin to make these “passports for Puerh”. Someday, aged teas will have names dates and perhaps small stories as well as storage locations that accompany the tea like a passport, making each and every cake feel truly unique. All of the vintages around now are equally special, it’s just more difficult to discern their stories.
My journey through Puerh tea has been an amazing one. I have watched it change from a small production of poor farmers, to a rich and rewarding industry that is quickly becoming global in nature. The benefits Puerh offers to one’s health, lifestyle and spirit are too numerous to mention, and a drink or two should suffice to explain them. 2006, for me, was a chance to look back on how far I myself, as well as the entire Puerh world, have progressed over the years. While others focused on the future, I returned to the past.