Issue #6   June 2008

by Daniel Reid    danreid.org

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Welcome to Tea Tidings 6

     Greetings Oolong Oz Tea People!   I'm tapping out this issue of Tea Tidings from the Greenlake Hotel in Kunming, Yunnan, China, where Snow and I are traveling for a few months in search of a suitable place to set up a home base in China.  Why Yunnan?  First and foremost, it is one of the most beautiful places remaining on this planet (do a google image search on "Lijiang," "Dali,"  & "Shangrila" in Yunnan) and secondly because it is the most ancient tea growing region on earth.  There are tea trees here that are over 2,000 years old and still producing tea!

Designated by China as guo-bao ("National Treasures"),  only a few precious pounds of tea are allowed to be plucked from these venerable trees each year. 

Speaking of which...

Have a Cuppa History...

     A few weeks ago, after a big banquet with a bunch of Chinese friends at a fine restaurant, I came back to the hotel and strolled into the tea shop located in the lobby to clear my head with a cup of tea.  A clutch of Chinese tea people were gathered at the tea table,  chattering and sipping tea, and  hailed me to sit down with them to try the tea they were tasting. What luck!  It was the birthday of an important local lao-da (literally "Elder Great”, equivalent to "VIP" in English, but more venerable), who had managed to obtain a small bag, perhaps 100 grams, of freshly picked tea from a famous tree in southern Yunnan that is 1,700 years old.   It was unfermented and not compressed into a brick, like most of the Pu-Er Tea in Yunnan (more on that below), just small tender leaves that had been picked and wind-dried in baskets a few weeks earlier.

     I arrived on the fifth infusion, and I must say that the taste was superb.  Very different from our High Mountain Oolong from Taiwan, Yunnan's Pu-Er Tea is a tea world unto itself, a world well worth exploring, which is precisely what we have been doing since we arrived here from Hangjou. On the eighth infusion, a couple from Australia wandered into the tea shop to browse, and they too were hailed to the table with an outburst of babble from the tea drinkers, who by then were  all well tea tippled (cha-dzui).   "When friends visit from afar,  is this not indeed pleasure" proclaimed Confucius in the first line of  the Analects, this adage remains to this day the fundamental principle of Chinese hospitality.  So the couple sat down, and as the tea girl poured them a cup of tea, one of the Chinese hosts tried to explain in "Chinglish" (an amusing fusion of Chinese and English vernacular)  that this tea was very special because "it's 1,700 years old."  This clearly confused the Aussies, as they assumed it has been sitting in a tea caddy since the late Han Dynasty 1,700 years ago.  But when they observed me chatting in Chinese then turning to them to translate into English, their faces lit up in anticipation of an explanation, and when I told them this tea had been picked a few weeks earlier from a tree that is 1,700 years old,  they almost rose from their seats in surprise.

     It was a long and lovely tea session.  The man from Australia turned out to be one of the leading race horse veterinarians in Sydney, the chief horse doc at the stable recently bought by the Sultan of Dubai or some such Middle East potentate, and his young wife was in her last year of study in the same field.  By the 20th infusion, near midnight, I could see that they were reaching the brink of cha-dzui, so I suggested they retire for the night, lest they end up staying awake till dawn.  I excused myself after the 28th round, feeling that warm glow of inebriation radiating from my gut out to my limbs, and headed back up to our room, where I mused upon the precious treasures and traditions of China's Cha Yi (Art of Tea) until I finally dozed off to tea-dream-land....

Yunnan's Pu-Er Tea

     "Pu-Er" is the name of a region in southern Yunnan where tea was first cultivated thousands of years ago, and in recent years Pu-Er Tea has been making a big splash in the Chinese tea world.   Due to the fact that high-grade,  properly processed Pu-Er Tea may be kept in storage for decades, during which it continues  to mature and improve in quality, it has replaced gold as the long-term investment of choice among discriminating Chinese connoisseurs who have some money to invest.   We have met a few of them along the way here in Kunming.

     Unlike green tea, oolong tea, and black tea,  Pu-Er tea is not fired in ovens at temperatures over 100 degrees C. After the tea is picked and allowed to ferment to the desired degree, it is steamed to stop the fermentation process, then pressed into bricks--either square loaves or round discs--and set out to dry naturally in the open air.   When the brick is dry, it is wrapped either in bamboo leaves or a special type of paper, which allows the tea to continuing maturing slowly during storage.   Just a few days ago, a Chinese lady tea connoisseur treated us to a pot of her most precious tea treasure--a 50-year-old Pu-Er--and it was superb on the first half dozen infusions, better on the next half dozen, and supreme through the final dozen pourings.

     The reason that good Pu-Er tea, especially the more mature varieties that have been left to age for ten years or more,  continue to steep up tasty cups of  tea through 20-30 infusions is that the slower, natural drying process leaves certain elements in the tea that escape when tea is fired at higher temperatures in ovens.  This does not necessarily make Pu-Er superior to other fine teas such as our High Mountain Oolongs from Taiwan, it just makes it different, for the processing and firing techniques applied to oolongs also produce particular flavors and factors that are not present in Pu-Er.   For us, no other tea on earth will ever replace a top-grade organically grown High Mountain Oolong Tea from Taiwan first thing in the morning, but during our sojourn here in Yunnan, we are beginning to appreciate fine quality Pu-Er as an afternoon tea, or an after-dinner digestive, or as a good complementary option to our main oolong tea act.

     There are 2 basic varieties of Pu-Er:  sheng cha, which is natural, unfermented  "raw" tea; and shou cha, which is cultured, fermented  "mature" tea.  Each has its own unique properties, and like with other teas,  each appeals in different ways to different tea drinkers.  Sheng cha steeps into a light-green brew which, if the tea is of particularly good grade, often has overtones  of dried fruits or herbs lingering  in the after-taste, and it leaves a pleasant dry tang on the palate.  This is Snow's favorite type of Pu-Er.   I prefer the more mature, robust shou cha, with its deep red-wine color,  its smokey, woody flavors, and its more aggressive presence on the palate.

     Sometimes,  Pu-Er Tea is neither fermented nor steamed nor pressed into bricks.  Instead,  only the most tender new leaves are picked and set out in baskets to dry naturally and quickly in the sun and wind,  then packed loose-leaf in bags or clay caddies.   This sort of tea is known as mao cha ("furry tea") and is usually prepared only from cultivated trees that are over a thousand years old,  or else from wild tea trees in the mountain forests of Yunnan,  in which case it's also known as yeh cha ("wild tea").  Our lady tea friend let us sniff a couple of cannisters of very rare mao cha from her collection, and the aroma was incredible--traces of dried longan intertwined with nuts, licorice, and some je ne sais quois flower.   Amazing...

An Urban "Rain Forest" Tea Refuge in Kunming:
The Yulin teastore (yulintea.com)

     On our first day in Kunming, Snow and I wandered around the downtown browsing area known as Jin Ma Bi Chi Fang,  the "Golden Horse Jade Rooster District,"  Kunming's main drag, and with unerring accuracy our radar led us to the door of the Yu Lin Tea Shop.   We only needed a single glance inside to know that this was the place we should stop for our first Pu-Er Tea experience, and so we did.  "Yu Lin" literally means "Rain Forest," and indeed as soon as we stepped inside are were poliltely invited to sit down at the tea table, it started to rain outside....

     Mr. Lin, the manager and presiding  tea master of the Tung Ren Street branch of Yu Lin Tea (they have seven branch shops in Kunming) personally took the helm at the tea table and started us off with an excellent 2001 vintage shou cha,  and as we sipped our way through about 20 infusions, he started to introduce us to the finer points of Pu-Er Tea art.  While Pu-Er may be prepared in unglazed terracotta pots such as we use for our High Mountain Oolong,  Yu Lin as well as most other Pu-Er purveyors in Kunming prefer to use glazed pots or gai-wan  (lidded bowls) to steep their tea.  Before long, as we got halfway through the 1998 vintage sheng cha which Mr. Lin offered us next, our eyes began to wander around the well-lit shelves, displaying fine glazed teaware from the famous Jing Deh Yao Kiln, exclusive supplier to the emperors of China since the Ming Dynasty, from which Yu Lin commissions a variety of pots, cups, and gai-wan for sale in their shops.

     After that first and many subsequent visits to the Tung Ren branch, which has become a sort of home base for us in downtown Kunming, we have become the proud owners of two pots, four gai-wan, and about a dozen cups of various size and design.

     Mr. Lin and his able assistants are a goldmine of interesting information regarding Pu-Er Tea.   For example, when I asked him  the price of the most expensive brick of Pu-Er he's ever known,  he calmly replied, "One million RMB."   RMB is the Chinese currency, currently valued at about 7 RMB to 1 US$, so that's about US$ 140,000 for a 400-gram brick of tea.   Yu Lin doesn't carry such extravagant vintages, but they do have a few varieties that cost up to 9,000 RMB, while the least expensive runs about  50 RMB per brick. Yu Lin trades only in the renowned and reliable Da Yi brand of Pu-Er tea.

     Due to the fact that good Pu-Er may be kept in storage for decades and continues to improve with age, many Chinese these days, especially those who live in Yunnan, invest their money in new teas at 50 RMB per brick, then put them into long-term storage in order to sell them for 10-20 times the purchase cost 5-10 years later.  In fact, we saw several of the regular members of the Tung Ren Yu Lin tea circle buy 10-20 bricks of the lower-cost new teas for precisely this purpose.

     We spent many a happy hour nestled around the tea table with our newfound tea friends at Yu Lin's Tung Ren branch, as well as at their Cui Hu (Greenlake) branch located only a few minutes stroll from our roost at the Greenlake Hotel,  and eventually, after we establish our own base in Yunnan, we will try to make arrangments to offer a few of their finer vintage Pu-Er teas on our own menu.   

In the meantime....

A Word of Caution....

     According to all of our new tea friends in Kunming,  almost all of the Pu-Er tea that is exported for sale outside of China is of inferior quality, and some of it is downright hazardous, due to toxic chemicals that unscrupulous producers use to hasten the maturation process and cover up the foul taste of low-grade tea leaf.  This is partly due to the fact that the good stuff, especially new teas that still cost relatively little, are usually snapped up by tea collectors and tea investors in Yunnan and elsewhere around China, and partly due to the limited supply of truly fine grade leaf.    Therefore, we suggest that you wait until we have made suitable arrangments with the Yu Lin Tea group before exploring this branch of the Chinese tea world, or else make a trip to Kunming yourself, and pay a visit to our friends at either the Tung Ren or the Cui Hu branches.   Mention us and you will be treated like members of the family.

Zen and the Art of Tea....

     In closing, I'd like to leave you with two nuggets of Chinese tea wisdom, culled from the walls of two of the tea shops we visited in Kunming.

     The first, which we found serenely meditating on an old scroll on the wall of another tea friend's tea shop,  is one of those terse Zen gems that leaves nothing else to be said:

cha chan yi wei
Tea and Zen are one taste....

     The second is inscribed in black stone at the entrance to the Tung Ren branch of Yu Lin Tea shop:

Seven cups deliver the flavor
One pot reveals the real essence
A hundred thousand mantras on a mala
Don't sing the truth as well
As a single taste of tea.

     On that note, we bid you farewell for now, tomorrow morning Snow and I and her cousin's wife, Lilly and her lovely daughter Wendy, our niece, head down the highway in a brand-new Mitsubishi cruiser to explore the western mountain regions of Yunnan - - places with names like Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Gorgeous River, Soaring Fount and Shangrila - - where we will look for a suitable spot to establish a base here in the legendary tea region "South of the Clouds," the last remaining outpost of traditional taste and classical civility in China.

 

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