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