Musings from the Autumn Tea Season in Yunnan
After roaming for a month in Yunnan for the Autumn harvest, and more than a month back in the PRD, it is time for what has somehow become a tradition on this blog. This Puer State of the Union has evolved partly because I have given up on reviewing teas and partly because it seems like the best place to compile my disjointed seasonal observations about Puer tea. I’ve been busting my hump working on a new project (more details soon) hence the delay for the 2015 Autumn Puer breakdown.
This autumn I went slightly later than last year, helping me to avoid a bit of the rain and mud, but avoiding rain in Autumn Yunnan is a fool’s errand. Having some mud worthy shoes is a prerequisite. Though, this year I had much better luck than in previous years, where I’ve been out and out stuck. The gods of four-wheel drive smiled upon my journey and granted a seasonal pardon.
After pressing a lot of what I intended to press this year in the Spring, I only had a few objectives this fall. First, I wanted to finally put together the cake that has been baking in my mind’s oven for the last three years, the 2015 Pin. Second, I wanted to press a lot of ripe Puer material I have been saving over the past two years. Third, and most importantly, I wanted to experiment with some different traditional pressing and processing techniques that I’ve been interested in for a while.
While we are waiting for the ripe teas to calm down from the pressing – for those of you, who don’t know what I am referring to -freshly pressed ripe Puer tea tends to retain a lot of excess water from the steaming process. When brewed, the soup appears visually cloudy and it also takes at least a couple of months before the fragrance and character become clearer. Freshly pressed ripe Puer can still be good, but it improves dramatically in the first several years after pressing. So, while I wait for the ripe teas to calm, on to the third point – the traditional processing.
Bamboo and Raw Puer Tea
The first process I worked with was bamboo processing, which has been a mainstay of Puer tea processing for a lot longer than any of us have been around. As with most processes, it can be done the right way (time+money) and the wrong way (cutting corners), and it took me several batches of duds before finding the right partner to work with. The basic premise is that you use a specific type of sweet bamboo, stuff it full of dry raw Puer maocha, cap it with a leaf and roast the bamboo. The result is that the tea becomes steamed with the bamboo’s juices, similar to prior to pressing a cake. The tea absorbs the fragrance and flavor of the bamboo and is then pressed into a tight shape inside the bamboo and then dried. For more in depth details and pictures of the processing, check out this companion article which describes bamboo Puer processing from start to finish.
Suffice it to say that bamboo Puer abides by the same rules as other teas, which is that material and process greatly impact the final product. I decided to make two different productions, one of Huangpian and one of medium quality Puer tea. In the future I might try to make a higher quality production, however I’d first like to observe how the tea feels after a year or two. My first impressions have been nothing but positive, in the end only time will tell.
Ripe Puer Stuffed Mandarin Oranges from Xinhui
The second process is a Cantonese specialty, incorporating tea from Yunnan; Ganpu (Mandarin orange stuffed with ripe Puer tea). An area South of where I live called Xinhui is the most famous area for the production of the Mandarin rinds used in the production of Ganpu and Chenpi (the aged rind). Think of Xinhui as the Burgundy of fruit rinds. To answer the inevitable question with famous things in China, Yes, people make fake Xinhui Mandarin rinds. This is another topic that deserves its own dedicated article and I will write one with additional pictures when time allows. The basics are this – pick the fruit, cut a cap, take out the fruit and discard it. Stuff full of ripe Puer (or raw! Maybe next year…) and then bake or dry the skin and tea in order to remove excess moisture. (This varies by producer and can include extra processing steps) Then, wrap the Mandarin orange stuffed with tea in plastic to lock in the fragrances and let it age or drink whenever. The way to drink it is to break apart pieces of the Mandarin rind and brew them along with the Puer. The result is lovely fragrant tea with a huge citrus component, like Earl Grey’s uncle, King Grey. (Earls. Pffft.) The chenpi (aged Mandarin skin), has great value in Chinese traditional medicine as a remedy for scratchy throats amongst other things. I also pressed some aged chenpi with ripe Puer, but alas, I have to let those rest too. It might surprise many of you that the cost by weight of aged chenpi can be much, much greater than the cost of good Puer tea.
Autumn Puer Tea from 2015
As for the Autumn teas in Yunnan this year, I have to say that I had a very inconsistent experience. Certain areas seemed to be lacking something in their Autumn tea, while others had excellent productions. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the reasons were (weather? processing?) but on the whole the tea this year seemed less consistent to me than last year. That being said, these feelings are all quite subjective and I would not be shocked if other folks had a totally different experience. I still made a few teas like the Pin and the ones mentioned above, but overall I was not as struck by the teas this year as I was Spring of 2015. I ended up using a lot of material I had from Spring, rather than purchasing more tea.
So, that is the state of the Puer nation as I experienced it. Wishing a happy impending tofurkey day to my fellow Americans and happy autumn to everyone else.