by ali on March 11th, 2015
In 2013, Jen, Ali and Phil (and a documentary film maker!) went on a three week sourcing expedition to Yunnan – the home of Puerh tea. Here they recount some of their memories.
Our trip to Yunnan to source Puerh was the first tea buying trip I ever went on, and my first experience of China – talk about being thrown in at the deep end. Yunnan is a vast province covering 152,000 square miles: that’s nearly 60,000 square miles bigger than the UK. Located in the far south-west corner of China it boarders with tropical Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. The whole province is blanketed in nosebleed-inducing high mountains (literally! I think I had at least five) and is intersected by the mighty Mekong river. Yunnan is also filled with such a diverse mix of people as the province is home to quite a large number of the 55 Chinese minorities (and the Han people – who are the majority).
Going to Yunnan was really an eye opening experience for me to appreciate the true workmanship that goes into making good quality Puerh. We saw the whole process from the picking of the leaves to the processing of the maocha and finally the pressing of the cakes. It truly is an artisan product. People that we met were masters of their trade. Su’er and Wang Fang, who live and farm on Nannuo mountain, hand-pick their leaves from their small, steep field- only harvesting the very best leaves (1 bud and 2 leaves to be precise). Su’er masterfully hand processes the leaves in a single wood fired wok. The entire process is driven by his finely tuned senses- he knows exactly when to change steps from the sound of the crackle of the frying leaves, the change in smell and the feel of the wilting leaves. Standing in the dark, hot room, the whole experience is a total assault on the senses for anyone who has not experienced it before. Once the processing is finished the leaves are laid out in the sun to dry. At no point in the process was any electricity used. This was not a show put on for the western buyers either; a large proportion of Puerh maocha is still hand-picked and processed on small family owned farms- still using the techniques that their ancestors have been using for generations.
Nannuo Mountain is also the setting of my most embarrassing tea related story. An important background fact about me is that I am a bit obsessed with fabric, especially brightly-coloured embroidered fabric. I have amassed a decent collection from my trips around the world including traditional fabrics from China, Turkey, Morocco and South America. The Hani are famed for their painstakingly hand embroidered fabric, usually made for their special occasions. Knowing this, I asked Wang Fang if I could see some of her traditional clothes. The item that she showed us was a beautiful embroidered waistcoat, I was clearly impressed with it, so being wonderfully kind and generous Wang Fang insisted that I keep it. I excitedly wore the jacket to trek up through Su’er’s steep tea fields, to help make Puerh Mao Cha and to eat a wonderful lunch. When it was time to leave a hushed argument broke out between Wang Fang, Su’er and Xiao Yen (our Chinese buying partner… and translator), after a while Xiao Yen came to me and explained that I should probably give the jacket back. It turns out that the lovely waistcoat was in fact Wang Fangs wedding jacket and Su’er was not happy about his wife giving it away. Of course I gave it back… with a very red face!
I have many memories of Yunnan, but the strongest is the welcome and generous hospitality that we received from the farmers. Most tea trips, even in China, involve meeting in an office and tasting room to assess samples, but we had some very different experiences in the mountains of Yunnan. We would walk up to a small village and meet a tea farmer at his house. He would take us up into the mountain to see some of his tea trees, and then we would sit down and taste the raw maocha from the previous day. This is done in a very relaxed way, no formality, just enjoying tea with friends. We would then share a meal with the family, always beautiful food using wild vegetables and herbs that had been gathered from the forest, seated round a low table on tiny stools. I include this last detail because it was the source of much amusement to the hosts – I am a very big bloke and felt like a giant in the low-ceilinged houses.
This is nothing like the normal experience of buying tea. It is much more about sharing, about generosity. In most cases there is a commercial transaction, but this happens much later and is not allowed to intrude on the hospitality. You find yourself leaving without really knowing what you have bought and at what price, but at the same time feeling that you have made a good decision. This is a mile away from the usual cut and thrust of buying, and I appreciate it very much because of that. It’s a much more personal, polite and civilised way of doing things.