Tea Trek 2004: China
by Mary Lou Heiss ©2004
Finally, this Spring, the tea gods smiled upon us and granted our wish for a long-awaited second tea trip to China. Our traveling companions from the last trip, Eliot from Peet’s Coffee and Tea and Tom from Stash Tea were again on board for this journey, so we made an eager band of 4 happy tea buyers, and assorted Chinese tea brokers, exporters, producers and experts who accompanied us. As a group, our tea interests are complimentary, not competitive, because we each search for the right teas to fit the needs of our clientele and our businesses.
It is a thrill for us to make these journeys to China’s historic tea regions, to visit the tea gardens, tea factories and the remote tea villages that produce the hand-processed teas that we seek. We marvel at the resiliency of this ancient tea craft in the new China, a fast-changing, opportunity-driven place.
In China, we become students of each person that we meet in the tea trade, whether it be a tea factory manager, tea researcher, tea picker in the field or factory worker. What we learn first-hand about tea from all of these professionals – tea culture, tea appreciation and tea processing – is immeasurable. Each experience that we share exposes us to a new layer of the history and mystery of Chinese tea.
Back home, we in turn become teachers and cultural emissaries, educating our customers, radio listeners and readers about Chinese tea from a perspective that only a handful of tea retailers in this country have experienced. So, along with the splendid new teas that will be arriving soon, we will share information, stories and colorful photographs of interesting people and stunning places.
This trip took us to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, the western-most tea producing regions of China. Yunnan is mountainous, vast in size, very agricultural, and far from the concerns and confines of Beijing. Tea production mainly occurs in the southwest region, close to China’s borders with Burma and Laos, in the tropical region of Xishuangbanna. Here, colorful ethnic minority groups such as Dry Dai, Water Dai, Color-belt Dai, Hani, Akha, Bulang, and Jinuo work in the rubber tree industry, tea fields and tend their crops in a vast network of terraced gardens that rhythmically cascade down the mountainsides and hug the banks of ponds and rivers.
This is a region of loose borders and a China that is peopled by as many Thai, Burmese, and Tibetans as Han Chinese. This fascinating stew-pot of cultures thrives in a sultry climate that is fueled by easy transport up and down the Mekong River. At the outdoor wet markets we find fragrant pineapples, bags of fiery red chiles, unusual varieties of fresh local rice, tender river greens and grasses of all sizes. Delicate mosses and fungi vie for attention along-side small, flat pond and river fish, fresh wiggling shrimp, black-skinned chicken, goose intestines, water bugs, pig snouts and fresh leaf tea.
Yunnan produces both green and black tea, and it is the home of Pu-erh, one of China’s most unusual and historic teas. Pu-erh is a fermented tea that is prepared in a vast number of ways, yielding a complicated and confusing variety of styles and choices. One finds loose leaf Pu-erh in many grades of quality ( our Tribute Pu-erh is a very high-grade with an elegant long leaf style ) and pressed Pu-erh, made from long or short leaf that is compressed into bricks, rectangles, rounds, mushrooms or little buttons. Both types of Pu-erh are found in green and in black tea versions, and are sold ready-to-drink or to be put aside for aging. Very expensive aged Pu-erh teas are sought after and collected by rich Hong Kong and Taiwanese patrons, and at one time these legendary teas traveled for months along the Tea Horse Route, carried by horse caravans over the rugged mountains from the town of Lijiang up into the nomadic regions of Tibet.
In Yunnan, we discovered many green teas we did not know existed, including a ‘sunshine-dried’ green tea made from large leaves picked from 200 year old wild tea trees. This tea is produced by a small cluster of families in a Jinuo village, and has a mellow, sweet and delicious flavor. We visited the tea factory that produces our Tippy Golden Yunnan tea, which we still believe is one of the finest black teas in the world.
From Yunnan, we headed north into Sichuan province, best known for giant pandas, access to Tibet, and a fiery cuisine laced with handfuls of red chile peppers, mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper, and fine tea. Yes, the food is very hot but it is very skillfully prepared and quite addictive and delicious. I miss the breakfasts of hot spicy noodles with finely minced meat sauce and the Ma Po Do Fu ( fiery hot, spicy, soft bean curd ) that could cure anything that ailed ‘ya. And yes, we saw pandas at the Panda Breeding Center, and we were smitten. We arrived early, at feeding time, and first saw two ‘teenage’ pandas snacking on long stalks of leafy bamboo as they lounged on their climbing perches. Later, we were entertained by four adorable, wild-eyed, cavorting panda cubs, who, under the watchful gaze of their keeper, chased one another and romped & rolled like tumbling dice around their hilly, grassy enclosure.
The primordial forests of Sichuan are believed to be where the first tea bushes in China were discovered centuries ago. At the top of cool, misty Mengding Mt. we visited the tea gardens where two of our incredible teas come from: Sichuan Snow Buds and Imperial Sichuan. Here, we were shown the Imperial Tea Garden, where Buddhist monks tend seven tea bushes that are hundreds of years old. Each spring the monks pick a few ceremonial leaves from each bush to celebrate the harvest. Nearby, we visited Sichuan Agricultural University, where one of the undergraduate degrees is in tea science. The professors explained the work that they do, from conducting field trials with organic tea production techniques, hybridizing tea bushes for different zonal climates, and studying the effects that the size and configuration of plucked tea leaf brings to bear on the polyphenol content of dried tea leaf.
From Sichuan, our group dispersed and Bob and I traveled on to the high plateau of Tibet, the glorious temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the bustle of Hong Kong. Each of these profoundly interesting places added something unique to our understanding of Asian culture, tea and food. We departed with a new set of questions than those that we had when we arrived, so we are looking forward to Tea Trek III, hopefully in 2006.
text and photographs by Mary Lou Heiss ©2004