Beyond the Leaf
Puer cakes being wrapped in bamboo "tongs" in Kunming, Yunnan
To be fair, puer tea can be difficult. The flavors and aromas don’t lend themselves to the obvious charms of sugars and salts. It’s not mysterious in a mystical sense, but quality information is elusive and this tea doesn’t fit neatly into a commoditized category like black tea or green tea. Its simplicity adds to its complexity, hence the trouble with giving it a firm definition.
Drinking puer with Mr. Zhao at his home in Nan Nuo Mountain in Yunnan
But I’m going to attempt to give it a working definition anyways. I will not address what it tastes like - it’s enough just to respond to “what is puer tea”? The below explanation assumes you have some understanding of how tea is made. I lack the skill to summarize without these assumptions.Freshly picked "Yunnan Big Leaf" tea for making puer
All puer is made using the Yunnan-grown assamica leaf. If it is made with the small leaf Camellia sinensis, it is generally not considered puer.
A small village in the town of Jing Mai, Yunnan
All puer tea comes from Yunnan, particularly the southwest areas of Lincang, Xishuangbanna, and Puer (hence the name). Even if the tea making process is the same, but if the tea material is not from Yunnan (particularly those three areas), it is not considered puer tea.
Sheng puer mao cha (loose leaf tea) from Mr. Zhao's spring 2019 lot
To be brief, puer tea comes in two very different styles: sheng puer (raw) and shu puer (ripe). Sheng puer is a simple non-oxidized tea whose finished product will change naturally over time. Shu puer starts out as sheng puer, but goes through one more deliberate and accelerated “post fermentation” process to speed up this change into a matter of weeks as opposed to years. However, these two styles of tea couldn't be more different.
Shu puer in the first stage of the post fermentation process
Sheng puer is a simple tea to make and goes through some similar processes as other tea, but there are two essential distinctions. The “kill-green” step is not as thorough as green tea, leaving the elements for oxidation somewhat intact. Also, puer tea is always finished by air drying, not machine drying, so the moisture loss is always imperfect. These two facts are critical. It preserves the elements of change within the leaf that become apparent with age.
The liquor of a 1988 sheng puer from Ms. Zhao
Both styles of puer tea can be drunk immediately after they’re made or can be aged indefinitely. There is no minimum age to define puer tea. However, the qualities of sheng puer will change considerably over the course of years. The change in shu puer is less dramatic.
Puer cakes in a special room for long-term storage
When aging puer tea, the environmental conditions during storage can vary widely and will have a signature impact on how it changes. It’s not uncommon for puer tea to be sent to Guangdong or Hong Kong to be stored in its warm and humid climate, which will cause the changes to be faster and more intense. Yunnan is cooler and dryer and so the pace of change is slower and more subtle. There is no universally agreed upon method of which storage is better. They are just different.Small, medium, and large tea trees from Mr. Zhao's fields in Nan Nuo Shan
Because of puer tea’s simplicity, the small details – the mountain, the tea tree, the season, the weather conditions – all play a pivotal role. It’s not hard for the puer tea enthusiast to get lost in the minutia of these details – and like baseball statistics when I was a kid; they are fun to get lost in. But it’s best not to take them too seriously. Statistics don’t always guarantee performance.
Traditional pressing stones for tea cakes
If you’re still reading, I hope this brings puer tea a little more into focus. This is not an official definition of puer. I am not qualified to give one. Any of the above parameters can and are being disputed by someone. It doesn’t matter. Always let the tea speak for itself.
Here’s a compare and contrast of three Chinese green teas we received in 2019:
Wuling Mountains in Hunan Province, China
Each steep was 8 grams tea, 5 ounces of 180 degree water, steeped 30 seconds in a gaiwan. Normally I would not make the tea this strong, but for the purpose of this multi-steep evaluation I wanted to pull out more elements quicker. There’s no strict rule about how many grams to put in the gaiwan or how long/hot to steep it (I’m sure some of you disagree), but I would dial it back a bit based on my own preferences.
Gu Zhang Mao Jian - Buy this tea
Attractive looking, tightly twisted, dark green leaf. The steeped aroma is that garden-like vegetal floral that I’m a big fan of (because I garden). The cup is a dark, deep, vegetal flavor, sharp, and a savory broth that’s not too soupy. It has an oily mouthfeel and a slight, pleasant bitterness. The body and mouthfeel are sustained through second and third steeps, but the bitterness starts to take a back seat to more floral flavors and an undefined sweetness. It warms up the body more than most Chinese greens. A very full experience. Touches all bases.
Dragonwell Superior - Buy this tea
Those iconic flat, little, yellow-green leaves are in high demand in the tea world. Its unique qualities are well on display here. The cup is grassy with a strong nutty flavor and lots of little nooks and crannies for nuances like a little floral here, a little bitter there, maybe a brussel sprout over here. It continues to distinguish itself as it refuses to diminish through the second and third steeps. The edges do soften a little with the nutty quality giving way to more floral flavors. Its presence lingers strong in the mouth for as long as you wish.
Wuling Mountain Yunwu - Buy this tea
This is classic Chinese green tea! Its dull green leaves are twisted and curled. The cup is a combination of leafy greens, chicken broth, and flowers. The soft mouthfeel makes the liquor go down easy and is largely forgiving of any bitterness. The body and flavor of this tea fade quicker than the Gu Zhang Mao Jian and Dragonwell, but it’s an excellent value and the aroma is first class!
Steeped Asanoka #80
Here’s a quick compare and contrast of the three newest Japanese green tea arrivals:
Each tea was steeped three times in the following manner:
10 grams of tea, 10 ounces of water
1st Steep – 1 minute, 160°f
2nd Steep – 1 minute, 175°f
3rd Steep – 1 minute, boiling water
(There’s many more ways to steep than what I did. Don’t judge me or take it as gospel. It was just my mood at the moment).
Asanoka #80 - Buy it here
This tea is my favorite of the bunch. Asanoka is the name of the cultivar. It has a long-leggy, deep emerald green appearance. The steeped leaf aroma has a slight roasted grain quality to it without being toasty. The cup is DARK and savory – a real mouthful! It has a mushroom-like quality that warms the mouth and travels to the gut well. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad, because that aftertaste is going to hang on a long time. A silky textured body fully hangs on for the second steep and only barely declines after the third. This tea will go the distance.
Asanoka #80 liquor
Sencha #35 - Buy it here
This is an excellent tea for the price. It’s made of the popular Yabukita cultivar and contains mostly small particles (which is not uncommon in Japanese tea). The aroma and flavor are notably floral. It packs its punch quickly and fades to a more sweet, slippery body. Because of the small particles the second and third steep thin out quickly and the liquor turns a charming incredible-hulk opaque green. This tea is double or nothing.
Incredible Hulk Sencha #35
88th Night Shincha - Buy it here
Classy stuff! The dry aroma is seaweed and rye. It has those deep green long leaves that produce a heavy, brothy body that reminds a Midwesterner of buttered corn. A mushroomy undertow warms up the mouth and gut, but a floral quality holds on if you breathe out your nostrils. It thins out a little for the second and third steep and starts to bring forward a melon/floral sweetness that almost wants to get sharp, but doesn’t. When you start talking about the intentions of the tea you know it’s time to hang it up. Turn off the jukebox and cut this guy off.
-Michael Lannier, Operations Manager
The Wild Tea Trees of Nan Nuo Shan
The most notable thing that morning is that it wasn’t raining. It rains a lot in Yunnan in July. Cloudy and wet are not considered good conditions for tea picking. Neither is summer (usually), but I was told they chase the weather, not the calendar, and some farmers are finally getting the weather conditions they want. As we were sitting with Ms. Wang in her tea shop, we observed evidence of this. The spring was too cold and dry. The resulting tea was muted of its potential. Her summer sheng puer, just made, was already fuller and more vital with a warm, oily character.
Hanging out in Ms. Wang’s tea shop drinking the 2019 lot of our 2018 Yiwu Sheng Puer tea
Mr. Yang Xiuhai is the maker of these teas and an acquaintance of my travel companion, Daniel. He had to leave unexpectedly before we got there, so Ms. Wang Xiyan (whom none of us had ever met), his business partner, hosted us instead. It is common to hang out, drink tea, and march off into the woods with complete strangers in China. Mr. Yang makes the tea. Ms. Wang runs the business. The shop is gorgeous, but completely comfortable. Their giant tea table had an island surrounded by water with goldfish, live plants, a Plecostomus “suckerfish” (to keep it clean), and topped with dry ice.
Ms. Wang and her tea table. Without a doubt I would have dropped the cup in the water.
The next day we left Ms. Wang’s shop in Jinghong to visit the wild tea trees of Nan Nuo Shan (“shan” means “mountain”) in the Menghai area of Xishuangbanna. On the way up we made an unannounced stop (at least unannounced in English) to meet Mr. Zhao Tian, whose family owns tea fields on the mountain and used to help out Ms. Wang in her tea shop (I would piece together all this information later. At that moment and for many hours to come, I had no idea what was going on, which was typical).
Left: The King of Puer Tea Trees. Not very photogenic, but you don’t have to be at 800 years old. Right: Me & Mr. Zhao
The first stop was a visit to the “King of Puer tea trees”, an 800-year-old giant that has been “retired” and is now just here to remind us of the length of time that passes in a place like this. The fields are well taken care of with a few boardwalks and paved walkways, because in China there is such a thing as tea tourists (that would be me on this occasion).
Mr. Zhao Tian
We met a tea farmer dressed in camouflage with a small market stand in the middle of the tea fields. We drank tea, ate candy he made from the fruits of the tea plant, and tea eggs. He says that the farmers are no longer growing rice and vegetables on the mountain anymore and are going into town to buy such things. He considers this a good situation and a sign of prosperity. I bought some tea from him.
The tea farmer in camo. It is somehow not considered rude to take over a complete stranger’s tea table and drink his tea.
We then traveled to Mr. Zhao’s home in the village of Bama on the same mountain. Let’s just say the conditions are modest by American standards. A one room flat that includes the fire pit where he cooks his food, eats, sleeps, and stays out of the rain or sun. An outdoor patio-like area is attached for washing (clothes/utensils) and an Asian toilet that is not hooked up to running water. His vegetable garden is just off to the side and below this area. His tea drying and processing rooms is on the opposite side of the house. The accommodations may not be fancy, but the material from their tea field is in demand. He plans to build a new house in the village. Modern instead of traditional style, but the fire pit will stay.Mr. Zhao cooking for us. The traditional fire pit is the most important part of the house and they will retain it even in a modern home.
He cooked us a six-course lunch while we drank his tea out on the patio area. He made greens and onions from his garden, bamboo, pickled vegetables, two kinds of smoked pork, and soup. Upon learning how much I love spicy food, he insisted I take home a jar of his homemade hot pepper blend, along with some of his tea. I just met this guy this morning.
Mr. Zhao's tea fields
After lunch we hiked up (mostly vertical) into his family’s tea fields on the side of the mountain near his home. There were wild tea trees of a range of ages intermixed with pruned, terraced tea bushes for easier picking. It was all woven through a largely untouched ecosystem that will keep the plants healthy (and bite Mr. Zhao’s foot at one point).
Mr. Zhao’s mother and Ms. Wang picking tea.
His mother was out there picking tea for summer material that was still in demand. From here I could see down over the village in what for me was an exotic landscape, but for them could not be more mundane. This place is not a carefully messaged brand, it is just life – as important and regular as anywhere else. Their tea will arrive at TeaSource in late September if all goes well. A transaction that will hopefully warrant a return visit someday.The village of Bama as witnessed from the tea fields.
-Michael Lannier, Operations Manager
Check out Golden Buddha & Rock Oolong!
Both of these teas were made by Mr. Tang Shuang Jiang.
Mr. Tang cupping sheng puer in Xi Gui
I love the food in China (a geographical distinction from Chinese food in America). I love the seemingly infinite variety of plates that march endlessly towards your table that you communally pick from, the generous use of chili peppers, and the comfort of three constant companions; tea, rice, and some kind of savory, brothy soup. Making that broth takes time and patience rarely found in American kitchens.
Mr. Soup taking a picture of the soup from Mr. Zhao
Driving in Southern Yunnan also requires time and patience. Since most of the land there is vertical it’s best to be on good terms with those in the car with you. We have been buying tea from Mr. Tang Shuang Jiang for the last two years, but on this trip he was “The Driver.” He is a long-time friend of my friend and travel companion on this trip, Daniel Hong, who said of him “even get lost will not panic” (I had no choice but to be convinced). It would be the first time I’d spent more than a couple hours with Mr. Tang and now we were going to be cooped up together for 10 days. Daniel refers to him by his nickname, “Mr. Soup.”
Daniel and Mr. Soup drinking tea at Mr. Zhao’s home
A good driver is always valuable, especially when driving in Xishuangbanna where sometimes the road is only there in spirit. And that spirit is alive with pigs, chickens, slow lumbering trucks of prior eras, cows and their owner on foot, scooters with too many people on them, and us. Driving there requires ever-present awareness since it is mostly scenic and uneventful until it becomes scenic and eventful. This was particularly true when I wasn’t always sure where we were going, and I wasn’t sure they knew where we were going either. True to Daniel’s word, Mr. Tang did not panic.
A view from the side of the road in Jing Mai
These long car rides gave me the chance to question Mr. Tang “Socratic-method” style on tea making. Instead of just accepting the direct answer, I had time to ask the naive question “why?” To understate it, the body of information on tea-making printed in English is limiting. He was able to walk me through the thought process on why he chose the specific tea fields, the particular cultivar, and processing decisions along the way to the finished product (and even when a product is ideally considered “finished”).
Check out Golden Buddha & Rock Oolong!
Both of these teas were made by Mr. Tang Shuang Jiang.
Mr. Tang examining the tea of Mr. Du. This is what you spend most of your time doing.
Mr. Tang’s career in tea came by happenstance. His father sent him to the Fujian tea college after high school. It was free and they were poor. After graduating he got a job roasting oolong at a big tea company, but the politics of a large organization didn’t suit him and he soon quit and found work outside of tea.
Mr. Tang and his friend Mr. Liu Zhao Qian, Chief Tea Officer of Logan Tea Company
Fast-forward this story, and when asked why he stays with tea, he smiles and says “I don’t know other stuff better than tea.” On this trip we visited Mr. Liu Zhao Qian, Chief Tea Officer of “Logan Tea Company” in Puer city. Why? He was a classmate of Mr. Tang from tea school. We visited Ms. Chen and her husband in Kunming and drank puer collections in the back of ceramic flooring companies (yes, plural). Why? She was a classmate of Mr. Tang from tea school. Most importantly, how did Mr. Tang meet his wife, Ms. Lin Feng Ying? She was a classmate at tea school. Their two-year-old daughter will request a cup of Ti Kwan Yin by name, wait for the cup to cool, then pick it up and drink it.
Mr. Tang and Mr. Chen. We were drinking tea at a tea table in the middle of a ceramic flooring showroom.
In English we tend to talk about tea in myths and legends and not in terms of technique, economics, and daily life - which is actual and fascinating by itself. In the story behind his teas, Mr. Tang is the main character. No monks or monkeys were employed. Just Mr. Soup, time, and patience.
Mr. Soup and his new friend
-Michael Lannier, Operations Manager
Ms. Zhao cupping 2017 Bing Dao Sheng Puer – Bing Dao translates as “Iceland”
It’s strange to meet someone for the first time who you’ve talked so much about. The anticipation was heavy since I had come so far and had to enlist the help of others to make this happen. I wanted it to go well.
Ms. Zhao's store front named Han Ming Xuan, which literally translates to “Elegant Tea Shop”
Ms. Zhao and Mr. Pan’s shop is clustered among many other tea shops (as is Chinese style) in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city (population 6.6 million). Introductions are always awkward when you don’t speak the language, so to break the ice she offered to cup some sheng puer dragon pearls they made two days ago that were still air drying in front of their shop (air-drying is critical to making puer and is almost never employed in making other teas). The cup is a good model for young, high-quality sheng puer – plum sweetness, a slight pine-like bitterness, a full “oily” body, and a long warm finish that heads straight for your gut. A nice way to set the tone.
Sheng Puer Dragon Pearls made two days ago and still drying outside their shop.
We cupped a dozen more teas over the next two days. That may not sound like a lot, but each tea is steeped as many times as it would yield a quality cup. Some lasted up to an hour. Cupping puer tea tastes like a map of southern Yunnan and Ms. Zhao put numerous teas on the table from places we would visit later; Ban Zhang, Xi Gui, Lin Cang, Menghai, etc. Some of the places I knew of and could point to on a map. Many of them were sub-regions and villages within a well-known area that are difficult to discover without showing up.
Left: 2019 Xi Gui Sheng Puer – Right: 1988 Sheng Puer
Though she comes from the famous tea town of Chang Ning, Ms. Zhao says she didn’t care about tea growing up. She graduated from school and moved to Kunming looking for work, where she met Mr. Pan. They fell in love, got married, and (as often happens) started thinking about the future. Her sister is in the tea business and suggested this as an opportunity for them. Ms. Zhao claims she has a “slow brain” (her words, not mine – and I don’t believe her for a second), but found the tea business came naturally. She and Mr. Pan opened their own tea shop together, Han Ming Xuan, and have been doing this ever since.
Ms. Zhao and her baby boy, Pan Yi Ming (his twin brother Pan Yi Cheng was not there).
When asked of the future and its challenges, she says it’s the Chinese economy. Since nearly all her customers are in Yunnan and Guangdong, her fortunes will rise and fall with it. But she says she is not an ambitious person and wants to lead a simple life, raise her family, and sell high-quality Yunnan tea - a belief that demand for this timeless product will see them through the ups and downs. TeaSource is their only export.
What tea cupping really looks like. It’s very slow and people come and go. That’s me trying to figure out what’s going on.
I relate to her sentiments about ambitions (or lack thereof). I am just a normal guy from the Midwest who could not be further away from home in every sense of the word. I could easily (and more efficiently) sell tea without coming here. It’s that pursuit of tea itself that brings me here and gives us common ground. Ms. Zhao offered no fluffy answers to my questions, as good as they would look in print. She gave honest assessments of their normal life without exaggeration. The tea itself (the craft, the cup, the business, etc.) is enough for those who love it. I wanted this visit to go well. It could not have gone better.
The whole crew from left to right: Pan Yi Han (their daughter, 11), Ms. Zhao, Me, Mr. Pan, Daniel Hong, Mr. Tang
-Michael Lannier, Operations Manager