April 26, 2013

A New Way of Thinking

Also published on TChing. blog on April 25th, 2013.

Sometimes, when you search long enough, dig deep enough, and study hard enough, you find yourself facing an obstacle that comes not from outside, but from within. One’s preconception and understanding become themselves a limitation. One must somehow come to terms with the awareness that one’s perspective faces a fundamental challenge and that to deepen one’s knowledge you need to see things from another angle.

The purpose of the World Tea Tours – Immersion: Pu Er program this past November was to gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of this ancient and sometimes esoteric tea through intensive, hands-on training with some of the most renowned experts in the field. These experts live in the world of Pu Er tea and understand things in a more intrinsic way. They have acquired their knowledge within the context of their own culture and senses and by spending countless hours drinking in the lessons from trees hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

In the West, we often consider our perspective to be the best and most accurate way of understanding and communicating a subject. Yet, it was on the first day of the program that we learned that we needed to expand our minds and look at something as basic as tea tree classification differently from how we are used to thinking about it. We are taught that the tea plant belongs to the genus Camellia. We simplistically consider that there are two members of this group, Camellia japonica, a flowering bush, and Camellia sinensis, from which tea is made. Further, we believe that from the latter, there are three varietals, Camellia sinensis sinensis, Camellia sinensis assamica, and Camellia sinensis cambodi. From these, there are a number of plant cultivars, which can, in turn, be further segregated into thousands of sub-cultivars. According to the Chinese system, however, these classifications are notably imprecise and oversimplified.

We tend to consider things from the point of view of the present and to forget that plants as we know them now have evolved over millennia. There are uncountable variants from the “original” source – if you can even say there is one source. The Yunnan/Guizhou plateau of southwestern China is an expansive, yet contained, ecosystem from which thousands of plant and animal species have proliferated. From prehistoric times, there have been many Camellia varieties. One of them is referred to as “Dali” – also the name of a region in western Yunnan province. Over the ages, this plant (thought of as a bush that can easily grow to 30-40 feet in height) had been domesticated and cultivated in organized gardens. As a result of the adaptation to the environment, these plants transformed into tea trees that are called “guo du,” or transitionary trees. Though rare, some of these trees still exist today. They, in turn, developed into a number of types, one of which is referred to as “Pu Er.” Again named after a place in Yunnan, it is these Pu Er trees from which the other familiar tea plants across China came.

In addition to the local big-leaf “Da Ye” plant, Yunnan also has a small-leaf plant. This is the ancient source for, among others, the small-leafed Dragon Well bush in Zhejiang Province. It can be said that Yunnan is the primordial origin for the cultivars that are used for making oolong and black teas as well. It is thought by Pu Er scholars that the Assam plants in India also come from the progenitor Pu Er trees.  

Yunnan is not only the cradle of the tea plant, but also the birthplace of post-fermented teas, the most famous of which is also called Pu Er, named after the ancient tea-trading town. This point can be confusing in that the name Pu Er refers to both a plant varietal as well as a specific type of manufactured tea.

So then the question ultimately comes down to: What is a Pu Er tea? In fact, this is a matter of some contention and even experts disagree on the precise guidelines of what qualifies as Pu Er tea. Some say that any post-fermented tea that is made from the Yunnan big-leaf tea bush can be called a Pu Er tea. Others maintain that big-leaf tea bush leaves that have been processed as green tea and dried under the sun must be used. Some maintain that the geographic location is also critical and that the transplanting of a Da Ye bush to another region disqualifies it as true Pu Er, even if the same manufacturing procedure is followed. There are several Pu Er production centers in Yunnan and certainly Dali and Lin Cang producers also feel they are producing genuine Pu Er tea. In China’s Pu Er tea circles, books and magazines abound that debate the finer points of the definition, citing the views of various renowned, but conflicting experts.

Besides environmental factors, small differences in processing methods also lead to distinctions between different manufacturers. Length of withering time, temperature, pan-frying duration (to arrest oxidation), amount of rolling, and drying conditions all result in nearly limitless variations. The microbes that create the fermentation can vary. Then come the effects of steaming and compressing into cakes, either immediately or after some time has passed.

The two types of Pu Er are based on method of fermentation, namely Sheng (raw) and Shu / Shou (ripened). While the Sheng method has been in use for centuries, the Shu method is actually quite recent. Raw Pu Er tea was shipped from Menghai to Guangdong province in the southeast. The warm, humid coastal environment accelerated the fermentation of the leaves, turning them a darker color and rendering the taste decidedly more earthy and robust in only a fraction of the customary time. With this knowledge, the famous Menghai Tea Factory (in Yunnan’s southern XiShuangBanNa prefecture) initiated this accelerated process in the mid-1970s. Though Pu Er connoisseurs will easily tell the difference in taste and aroma, this new technique effectively reduced the fermenting time from years to about 47 days. This made Shu Pu Er a much more viable business in that more product could be produced and sold in a shorter time. This tea is highly favored in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Pacific Asian areas.

Tea from South Yunnan has been an important trade good for well over a thousand years.  Transported in many ways, one of the most romanticized routes is known as the Tea/Horse Road. More of a network of trails that linked a number of trade routes in Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, and Qinghai, the Cha Ma Gu Dao (Tea Horse Ancient Road) was the artery for trade of all goods.

Tea was carried by both mule and man along the often precarious and always arduous trail. It is said that the naturally fermented Sheng Pu Er tea came to be so not out of conscious planning, but rather serendipitously through prolonged exposure to the elements. Taking months for a consignment of tea to reach its final destination, along the way it would have been subjected to a range of moisture and heat conditions. Since tea leaves are in essence a green leafy vegetable, it is no surprise that it should begin to degrade along the journey, even begin to mold and compost. Natural, fresh tea at its origin became something quite different when it reached the cup of the drinker so many miles and months later.

Now this process is done intentionally under controlled conditions to produce a distinctive tea that is not only appreciated by millions, but also collected as a treasure. A well preserved cake of 30-40-year-old Pu Er can fetch amazing prices on the collector’s market. In the 1960s, a 2.5-kilo Golden Melon Pu Er was discovered in storage in the Forbidden City in Beijing (among a huge trove of tea). It had been a part of a tribute gift in the late 1800s and was insured at a value of $2.6 million.

As Pu Er tea becomes better known outside China, more dealers are offering more choices from more suppliers. There can be a wide range in quality, so it is best to start slow with smaller quantities or lower grades. Get to know a particular brand and grade first; then start branching out to discover the range of tastes of Pu Er.