When I began to understand the depth of tea culture in China, I quickly realized that I knew absolutely nothing about tea. Now, after several years of being in the world of tea drinkers and producers, and spending weeks in Yunnan in total immersion, I can tell you with confidence that I still know absolutely nothing about tea.
Above all, it is not your grandmother’s type of tea: not the classic box of tea bags, a boiled kettle, a spoon of sugar and the pretentious milk before or the milk after pouring the type of tea from water debate.
It’s a thousand miles away. It’s a beautiful, meditative social practice where you glide for hours, gently rolling the tea in hot water, pour after pour over the same carefully measured pot of leaves.
Between politics and gossip, you sniff and sip your delicate cup, noting the evolution of flavor, commenting on how the subtle initial bitterness has faded, how this time there are hints of honey, next time hints floral, then fruity, before diving back into the subject of the day.
There is a world of discovery, not only in the tea itself but also with those who sit around the table. Some of my most memorable conversations in China took place over the elegant ballet of a Chinese tea ceremony.
If you’ve ever immersed yourself in the depth of a tea tasting, the grand finale is often a Pu’er tea, from the southern province of Yunnan. It’s boss-level tea: it’s not outrageous that a third of a kilo sells for tens of thousands of dollars.
Like whiskey, it is about ageing. Recently, an 80-year-old Pu’er tea cake sold for 1.8 million RMB (270,000 USD). Like I said, boss-level tea.
If you enjoyed Pu’er tea, you probably found it very earthy, with maybe even a little barnyard flavor. It is dark in color like black tea, but with sweet and complicated flavors – a bit fruity and floral.
But Pu’er tea hasn’t always been so earthy in flavor; in fact, the style – one of the most popular tea varieties in China – is probably younger than your grandfather.
In the 1970s, as China opened up to foreign affairs and began to develop its export market under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, a task force was formed in Yunnan to try to make tea more accessible to buyers. international.
The result was to put the tea through a long fermentation process, taming down the bitter flavors so it was more convenient to dip in hot water and have great tea from the first pour.
It also required a lower quality of leaves, so it was easy to make Pu’er from the fall harvest or using younger trees. We were no longer limited to the best picking of leaves. However, this dark, rich tea is not what Pu’er tea used to be.
Another world of Pu’er tea still exists using the traditional method, without the long dedicated heap fermentation process. The result is a lighter tea, perhaps a little bitter from the first pour. But as you drink it opens up with sweet honey notes, fruity and floral scents. It’s a real treat to experience.
For this you need the best: carefully selected leaves, ideally from an older tree, ideally sitting at high altitudes, picked only in the spring before the summer rains.
If you’ve ever toured the vineyards, you’ll often hear about the age of the vines. Simply, as plants get older, it takes a lot more effort to create fruit, and so the fruit that is produced tends to be rich in flavor. This is also true for tea.
In Menghai County in southern Yunnan, where I spent time at the Li family farm, they had a lot of 40-year-old trees and a small collection of trees planted 200 years ago. (Pu’er trees can easily be 200-300 years old – sometimes they break 700-800 years old.)
High up in the mountains, requiring constant picking, these ancient, albeit slow-growing, trees were less than 3 meters tall – still tall enough that Mr and Mrs Li had to climb nimbly to reach the highest branches. . (Such efforts mean tea isn’t cheap!)
The best leaves are new growth from these older trees, picked within a one-month window in the spring after resting all winter and before it rains.
The bitter notes in tea are often present in the water, which is why much of the initial process involves removing this water, and why the best leaves are harvested during the dry spring months on the mountain peaks of Yunnan.
This is also why green teas are more bitter – they haven’t had as many processing steps to remove the water.
Modern types of Pu’er tea use a 50-day fermentation process to mellow the flavors. This method really pays off if you’re harvesting tea outside of that magic window, harvesting from younger trees, or being less selective with the leaves you pick. It’s like aging a cheap wine.
After the tea is harvested, roasted and dried, it is transported to factories to be fermented or stored until it is time to be packed in airtight bricks and shipped.
Tea is often aged for decades, mellowing out the flavor, grabbing your attention and time to enjoy it as it unfolds, pour after pour.
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All images courtesy of Graeme Kennedy