Like any good day in china we started with noodles, greens and omelette at a small store on the roadside - very welcome after a long trip which saw us finally arrive in Kunming the evening before.
Felling ready for the day ahead we headed to the tea market to meet with Mr Ni and Mrs Zhao who I had previously visited in 2017
[pictured below - entrance to Kunming Market]
We started chatting over our first tea - a sheng puer that they refer to as "old and pollarded" - meaning that back in the 1950s and 60s they had been cut back [we still have a little stock of this tea from 2016]. As a result the leaves tend to grow a little quicker which results in a little less finesse in the finish of the tea compared to say an ancient tree puer but nethertheless a wonderfully smooth and fruity tea which gets better over the course of 10+ infusions - highly recommended.
And this is the profile that we come to Mrs Zhao for - the tea from the Mengku region is known for its fruity tones and flavours with increasing sweetness through the infusions.
First a bit more about Mrs Zhao & Mr Ni. Formally in the army Mr Ni is calm, kind and very patient with our questions but it is Mrs Zhao who has lived and breathed puer her whole life that we had predominantly come to visit.
As she explained 'I was picking tea in my village when I was 3, my mother was picking tea when I was in her belly' Mrs Zhou grew up in Mengku and started out as a primary school teacher 'I still see it as my role to educate' she shared 'so I am very careful to only share and broadcast the things I am absolutely certain of'. She continued 'In 2005 a few people from Kunming started to come to our village and started to say how good the tea was. This type of approach had not always been possible. In the 1960-1990s all the tea was procured by the communist government. In the 1990s things started to change but it was not until 2000's that the shift to private enterprise was finally possible. With this came some issues, many factories started to open but they had little expertise and gave little consideration to what they were selling.' With their expertise and close ties to the community and a ready market it made sense to Mrs Zhao that they should start producing their own tea.
And so they started with their family garden. The tea and the company gained a reputation and started to grow. In order to meet demand they started to lease other areas of land in the surrounds. To understand how this is possible or how land is available you need to understand the dynamic of the area. Some people have become incredibly rich from the Tea grown here - with little interest in continuing to farm Mrs Zhao explained that their plots lie idle. On the other extreme other farmers own extremely lucrative land but have no tea knowledge, lacking the considered approach needed to make great tea. Both of these groups have found a beneficial partnership with Mrs Zhao and allowed her to expand to meet demand.
And what of her ambition? 'I want to support farmers in their local community and build a company that will pass to the next generation. I want the locals to have a stable income and the work we do to support the natural landscape'. On the second point for us in the West who perhaps have only encountered puer recently it pays to remember that it was not so long ago that farmers only gained a subsistence living in this area - building a stable, sustainable industry both financially and environmentally is at the heart of Mrs Zhao's ambition.
This seemed a good time for a break so we headed over to a local Yunnan restaurant for a meal of fresh local produce - including bugs [which I confess to not eating]. The way to order in many restaurants like this in China is not from the menu but rather from the fridge where you go and look at the ingredients and simply choose and specify the cooking method : fresh, tasty, yum!!
Refuelled we returned to the store and, over tea [naturally] we delved a little deeper on the details that Mrs Zhao had shared earlier. The below is a summary of the approach they take here.
PEOPLE : Firstly the people. 150 people come to pluck the spring tea from March to June. The other jobs such as processing & pressing the tea are often given to people from the same family. There has been an increase of 10 rmb increase since last year giving a wage of 150 rmb a day for cultivation work and 80rmb for sorting
LAND : No pesticides are used. The approach to the soil is simple : in October they turn 20-30cm of the top soil - turning in the grasses and other leaf matter resting on the surface. The second turning is in December to loosen any grasses that may have started to grow.
ORGANIC CERTIFICATION : Mrs Zhao explains 'our volume is small and at the moment we sell into a network who know and value our tea and our natural approach. Many people are starting to see that we have done well - they know that I keep high standards - so we are starting to consider whether it is something we will pursue'.
MANAGING THE APPROACH TO THE LAND AND THERE-AFTER THE QUALITY OF THE OUTPUT : Mrs Zhao and Mr Ni have designed a system where mini factories pop up around the clusters of trees. Mrs Zhao, with her lifelong understanding of the area, groups the trees not just according to 'type' I.e. 'Old and pollarded' or 'ancient tree' but also according to what she calls the 'leaf type and flavour profile'. She believes that by doing this she achieves more balance in the tea and therefore in the cup.
She explains 'within each area there are variations in individual plants (trees). The trees may look similar but there is variability in their output which comes down to a number of factors including soil, microclimates etc. One important consideration is that due to the fact that many of the trees are from seeds over time they have developed different characteristics' [and by time, in Yunnan, we are of course referring to the high 10s or 100s of years] 'It is impossible, in my opinion, to age a tree accurately, for our ancient trees we have variation of about 200 years to 4-500 years. While I can predict a range for a particular tree it would be dishonest to say I know exactly. What can be said of ancient trees is that many of these belong to the La Fu minority (unlike the pollarded trees or small trees that belong mainly to the Han Chinese) - a group who believe there is a spirit in the trees and in the tea. Historically these areas have had a lower birth rate which has put the land under less pressure. Compare this to other areas where Tea forests or trees have been cut back or cleared to make way for agriculture or animals. With less pressure on the land the trees have been left undisturbed to grow and produce at their own pace' - producing the flavour we know and love today.
IMPLEMENTING A REGIMEN TO ENSURE GOOD AGRICULTURAL PRACTICE IS FOLLOWED : There is a strict regimen in place to ensure that agricultural processes are followed across the plots : 'during the picking season there are 20 permanent staff, 1 at each of the micro factories and each with 3 staff who oversee the 150 pickers dividing the work between them. To ensure quality in processing there are 10 full time staff pressing and 20 who help on a part time basis with a similar number for sorting the Maocha. 100 staff are needed to turn the land. Looking to the land every farmer whose land comes under the care of Mrs Zhao signs a basic contract in which the expectations are outlined. This is a yearly process and includes the expectations for land management and tea management. In order to incentivise farmers to working with nature and the land they offer a premium of 30-50% above market value and also agree to sell the Autumn teas -something that many farmers struggle with as demand for these teas is lower'.
Of course the main concern is the use of chemicals - especially during October to December. In this period assistants travel around to the plots of land on motorbikes regularly to check that good agricultural practice is being followed - anyone found to be operating outside the contract conditions will no longer be able to sell tea into the group, which, considering all the above, is considered a risk not worth taking.
As we sipped tea sitting among the boxes and bamboo crates of tea we reflected on our discussion which had focussed on the intricacies of the farming and the leaf in great detail. Mrs Zhao took a sip of tea and shared her belief that although it is important to seek to understand it is also important not to over complicate : 'drink tea for flavour' she shared 'consume puer to aid your metabolism and help your body. In reality although the puer landscape can seem complicated it is really quite simple - it is a plant that you grow, pick and dry - and one that humanity massively over complicates'
Sipping the 2018 grade 1 ancient puer I enjoyed that simple pure flavour. Indeed the process to reach this wonderful cup is simple if the land and the people who farm it are respected. The tea is simply picked, laid out on the ground to wither ('until it goes sticky'), pan fried (the exact time is decided by touch), rested and then rolled before being placed in the sun to dry.
From the sheng we then moved to the shu puer - produced by 'taking the Maocha, wetting it and conducting 'wo dui piling' a process that lasts 3 months in a special warehouse and during which secondary fermentation starts. The process begins with a 'warmer stage' before gradually decreasing it and then drying the tea' Here they make 2 types of shu puer : ancient tree and 'small bush' made from the self seeded, varied smaller trees in the pollarded area. The process due this tea is started in Nov/Dec to be ready for march. Mrs Zhao uses the previous years autumn pick (40%) and the late spring pick (60%) so for example the 2019 shu is 2017 autumn and 2018 spring. We only tried the ancient tree but the result was delicious and smooth - one we hope you will enjoy an appreciate at the Tea House.
Preparing to leave we were offered one last tea : the black tea produced here from the old and pollarded trees. Deliciously light and more-ish this was the perfect way to end our time here - and prepared by a colleague who had the most beautiful technique for preparing the tea using the gaiwan
As we enjoyed the last cup I asked Mrs Zhou about her concerns for the future. 'The climate is one. Very little rain this year has seen production fall which quality has risen but this would be a dangerous trajectory were it to continue' However, she added, 'with the rain comes air pollution as it pushes through from other more polluted parts of the country'. The second was the market : the over marketing of tea has, in her opinion, made puer difficult for consumers to understand. This would be a topic that would be discussed by the other two farmer/producers that we had come to Yunnan to visit. Their desire is to produce good quality, great tasting tea that takes into consideration the environment, the land, the people and the tea drinker. It is not to enter into a battle over the 'oldest tree', the 'finest puer' or any of [in their opinion] unnecessary snobbery that can exist around puer. Sure, puer can be expensive, but you need to understand what commands that price in order to determine whether you are prepared to pay it. There are too many puer teas with high price tags and little sitting behind that. Perhaps this is why we found each other - a shared set of values and desire to promote quality tea, produced well and with an authentic story.
It was time to leave. I handed Mrs Zhou a copy of our book in which my previous visit to their tea farm features and she invited me to come for the next season and take part in processing again. Its an invite I feel I may take up.....until then Ill be sure to make time to enjoy her beautiful teas and invite you to do the same.