meng song

State of the Puer Union – Spring 2016

Reflections on Spring Puer in Yunnan

As 2016 spring teas are slowly working their way into the teapots of tea drinkers around the world, it seems like a good time to reflect on my spring in Yunnan. Technically it isn’t over yet, as I am still here for a few weeks yet, but as everything is being pressed and packed it feels like the rush is over. The streets are a lot quieter and the luxury SUVs full of tea tourists are nowhere to be seen. I much prefer this time of the year. Year after year the early spring tea tourists and whirlwind buyers are increasing, and they make me feel anxious. There are all sorts of festivals, parties, and box socials. I am tired of it. This year I became increasingly anti-social, retiring to my hotel room to drink tea all night and have some snapchat jam sessions, (snapchat: white2tea) rather than going to boozy dinners, crowded karaoke rooms, and meeting up with distant acquaintances. I also found myself becoming increasingly skeptical of new people. It seems every year there is a new person or two showing up, making tea for a year (maybe two) and then you never see them again. This high turnover of would be tea masters and blowhards has left me craving headphones instead of chit chat.

Naka tea
Lone tea bud, Naka Mountain, Yunnan 2016

Tea Tourism in Yunnan

There has been a huge influx of tourists over the last few years. Ever since Laobanzhang got its ATM a few years ago, the direction of the current has been apparent. Since then, more and more tourists flood into the village each spring. Most spending way too much money on very low quality tea. Several of the people from Laobanzhang who I am close with told me the amount of money they were making from retailing a few kilos per tourist and I could barely imagine it. Nannuo mountain was the same. Nannuo, which is located very close to both Menghai and Jinghong is a very tourist accessible location. The tea farmers, savvy as ever in their ability to dupe tourists, are making a killing.

Puerh tea leaves
Hand and Tea Leaves, 2015

One farmer bragged that they took most of their young tree material and put it into small paper sacks, 700g of this, 900g of that, and labeled it all as single tree ancient arbor. (Tree #4, Tree #16b) Selling each bag of “single tree ancient arbor” for a few hundred dollars to random tourists. I can’t say I blame them. If I grew up without electricity and suddenly tuhao (see:yuppy) Chinese tourists started knocking on my door with LV wallets full of cash, I think I’d probably start telling them about the 2000 year old trees in the forest that I picked just for them.  And hey, maybe it’s a win-win? The tourists just want a memento and probably know very little about Puer anyway. The farmers are partly selling them tea and partly selling them the experience. As long as the tea farmers are making a lot of money from tuhao tourists, I am happy for their lies. As long as they don’t shovel too many my way.

And a side note; if only these tourists followed my blog they could learn some important tea buying tips. Like, if you hear the words “single tree” or “ancient” just run away.

Shady as the above practices might be, the tea tourism is a boon for the farmers. One farmer who I’ve worked with for several years sold out of his tea before mid-April, selling (almost) all of it to tourists and at a much higher price than he would have been able to sell it to the likes of me or someone else buying maocha.

Tea Tree Age and Descriptions

It’s been interesting to watch how people describe the ages of their trees, for both the farmers and vendors. It’s also made me increasingly cynical about how old a lot of trees actually are. An anecdotal example; another vendor and I split a farmer’s entire production of tea last year. I hadn’t pressed mine, but he did. I was looking at his wrappers and he wrote on the back “Tree ages from 100-300 years old, xiaoshu [little tree]”. This made me laugh for a couple of reasons. First, the material was from 30 year old trees and that is being generous. Second, little tree? How warped is the market that anyone would consider 100-300 years old “little”? For the record, 100-300 year old trees are not only not little, they are rare and expensive. Or put another way, if you took teas from 100 vendors with Puer tea labeled as being from trees over 100 years, most of it would not be from trees over 100 years of age.

Tea Caterpillar
Caterpillar in a Tea Tree, Mengku, Yunnan, 2016

Naturally I started giving him shit for his ridiculous age statement. He told me, and I’ll paraphrase, “What do you want me to do? I have no options. Everyone else is writing 1000-2000 years old on their wrappers. If I write 30 years old, nobody will buy it!” And he’s got a point. This same mentality has leaked over into most of the Western market too. People somehow have come to think that 70-100 years old is “small” or “typical”. With some vendors tossing around high three digit and four digit ages, people get a warped senses of what actual tea trees are like and how much old tree material there is. It’s not for me to dispel all this nonsense, but it’s worth repeating something i’ve said 100 times before; ignore wrappers, ignore stories, ignore ages/sizes/village names etc. Most of it is completely meaningless. Just pay attention to the tea.

Price Fluctuations

Price trends seemed roughly in line with what I’ve written in the past. Low quality material dropped a bit in price. High quality material from older trees and famous villages either maintained or became more expensive. A few villages in particular, like Xigui, continued to climb in price. Some areas that are lesser known stayed about the same or dropped in price. The market seems fairly stable, save for a few outliers on either end, good and bad. It all seems fairly natural. The teas of high quality can demand a higher price, as most of them have a limited production and are typically purchased by the wealthy. Historically speaking, whenever rich people fight over limited resources, bad things happen.  The low quality teas are going to need to up their game if they want to fetch a high price in the future. There is a lot of over production of crap tea and no real market for it.

Tea Stone Press
Pressing Stones, Menghai, Yunnan, 2016

Moonshine of the Year

As with previous years, I’ve had many (often unavoidable) encounters with various grain alcohol when tripping around the mountains. This alcohol from Mengsong was this spring’s most entertaining. They took corn based alcohol and drown live mud wasps in it. These wasps are fairly fat and roughly the size of a quarter. After stuffing these wasps in the glass jug, they let is sit until it turns a healthy(?) umber color.

Wasp Moonshine
Mud Wasp Hooch, Mengsong, Yunnan, 2016

Obviously this drink has significant TCM applications. Most of which revolve around the invigoration of men (strengthening the stinger, if you will) and alleviation of pain. I always laugh at the “relieves joint pain” portion, as if you need mud wasps for this when drinking 50%+ grain alcohol. I’m not a doctor, but the mud wasps probably aren’t doing the heavy lifting on pain killing there. Has anybody with joint pain every downed a glass of moonshine and said, “My joints still hurt! If only there had been mud wasps!”?

Thanks for reading, spring teas will be on the way towards the end of June.