Yunnan Corn

State of the Puer Union – Fall 2016

Reflections on 2016 Autumn Puer Tea

The last leaves have been plucked and another autumn has come to a close. This fall lead to some further exploration of teas that have typically taken a back seat to my focus on raw Puer; namely white tea and some experimental blending of white tea and black tea together. This is also the year I’ve pressed and piled the most shou I’ve ever done. (a real lesson in patience) Despite those explorations, the bulk of my time was still spent drinking raw Puer and traveling around to various tea areas.

tea leaf red stem purple
Beautiful tea leaves with reddish stems, Yunnan, 2016

Fairly Stable Weather

Most of late September saw fairly even keel weather and quality conditions for tea growth and production. Scattered rains were nothing beyond the norm and there were plenty of sunny days. Only one or two teas that I had commissioned ended up with a cloudier than average soup, due to a bit of excess moisture during processing. In general, the teas produced this fall met or exceeded my expectations. Should be plenty of good tea coming out in the coming months. Oh yeah, and there was also plenty of mud.

muddy yunnan
Much mud to be had. Yunnan, 2016

New Blending Techniques

This fall was the birth of a new pressing that blends both white and black tea (baicha and hongcha) together into a single cake. It’s an idea that I’ve been toying with for a while and the blend finally felt right, so i commissioned the production of the teas, blended them, and waited for the pressing below. My favorite part of the blend was giving it to some Chinese friends (who are in the tea industry) and watching them turn up their noses at the idea before drinking the odd ball blend, only to immediately back peddle after taking the first sip. As is my usual m.o., the blend of teas is made from exclusively large leaf varietal that is typically destined for raw Puer production. All parts of the blend were sun dried and processed with the coming years in mind, so I’m really looking forward to how the blend ages.

Hot Brandy Tea Cake
The 2016 Hot Brandy, blended black tea and white tea from white2tea , Yunnan, 2016

Side note, the tea was gifted its name by Max Falkowitz who was visiting Yunnan for fall tea. When I brewed a cup for him, he immediately reacted with, “Smells like hot brandy!” I couldn’t pass up such a delightful name, especially given Wisconsinites propensity for drinking brandy. That, and when drinking it the name “Hot Brandy” just felt right. It took all of my restraint to not use a still from “What About Us” for the wrapper art.

New Roads and Infrastructure

Several villages that used to have pothole filled dirt roads received cement from the government to finish roads and in some cases even build houses and schools. Some villagers in Lancang area that I spoke to had to provide their own labor, but the local government provided the cement and most of the the equipment. This is a boon for the local people as it decreases their travel time and improves accessibility, as well as protects their roads from being washed out during rain storms. The villagers organized crews to build the roads and used the materials provided with great success. It’s a generalization, but it seems that Lancang’s government is better organized for supporting infrastructure projects than most. These changes also benefit yours truly, as it shaves hours off of driving times when visiting far flung villages.

A newly constructed cement road
A newly constructed cement road in Lancang, Yunnan, 2016

It’s also encouraging to see villages getting quality of life improvements that will hopefully improve their local economies in the long term. This sort of investment is vital for the future of Yunnan. The downside is that there is a still a long way to go and it is a slow process.

Favorite Scene of the Season

This totem has stuck in my mind. There’s something about its presence in the forest that made it one of my favorite scenes from 2016 autumn. The structure was erected by Lahu people near a well spring where the villagers gather water. They explained that they see it as both an offering and protector. It shows that they are thankful for the water from the spring and that they hope the totem helps the water flow forever.

lahu totem
A totem from the lahu people, Yunnan, 2016

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the new fall teas as they trickle in over the next couple of weeks. If you’ve had a rough couple of days, take solace in a glass of tea and raise a toast, cause i am right there with you. Here’s to water, here’s to tea, and here’s to humanity. Flow on.

Autumn Puer Tea

Reflections on Autumn Tea, Yunnan 2015

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.

Examining fresh growth on a Puer tree, Yunnan Province, 2015
Examining fresh growth on a Puer tree, Yunnan Province, 2015

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.

Bamboo Tea How to Make
The roasting process of bamboo Puer tea, Yunnan Province, 2015

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.

Xinhui Mandarins
Xinhui Mandarins in the orchards, Guangdong Province, 2015

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.

The near finished results, Ganpu - Mandarin oranges stuffed with ripe Puer. Guangdong Province, 2015
The near finished results, Ganpu – Mandarin oranges stuffed with ripe Puer. Guangdong Province, 2015

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.

Autumn Puerh Tea Twodog

Autumn 2014, Yunnan

Pictures and Travel Notes from the Fall of 2014 in Yunnan

After  a month spent traversing the muddy roads and trails, and then a brief personal trip, I have returned to a stable internet connection and the comforts of my own bed. My accommodations in the tea mountains of Yunnan were generally comfortable. Though there were a few nights spent in a room directly over a pigsty with eight young piglets who decided darkness was their favorite time to squeal. And there were the many nights spent bug eyed and wired from fresh young Puer tea until daybreak. Now, it is back to city life. City life, and drinking aged Puer tea until my stomach forgives me for the fresh tea binge.

Before I settle in to my warm bed and brew up some smooth, aged tea, I thought I would post a few interesting photographs from the Fall and some impressions about the autumn Puer of 2014.

tea flower
Tea flower bug from Xigui

tea flower tea fruit
Some tea flowers and tea fruit [cha hua & cha guo] from Xigui area. The signs of autumn on the tea mountains
Many of you Puer veterans will recognize the small fruit on the left of the above photograph. It is chaguo [tea fruit] and it sneaks its way into tea cakes often. The tea flowers don’t find their way into cakes as often, but sometimes they sneak in. Some locals will dry them and brew them to drink. These pictures were taken in and around Xigui.

Tea Mountain Path
In Lincang a few friends and I went to a village without a road. This was both the beginning and end of the path.
Lincang Tea Mountain
Half way up the mountain. The view across the river.

Outside of Lincang, the hike up to a small village without a road took about two hours. I was pretty impressed with two of the guys with us, who managed to smoke several cigarettes along the hike. I kept thinking, “Don’t these guys need oxygen? I’m sweating my balls off here!” We were all covered in sweat by the time we reached the village. Luckily, we encountered a tea farmer who offered us giant cucumbers from her basket. Nothing could have been better at that moment.  I won’t soon forget those magical cucumbers. For all of our trouble we only left with enough fresh leaf to make one kilogram of maocha. We split it amongst ourselves. After a few tea tastings, my bag is already empty. Damnit.

Wild olives
Olive Trees near Bingdao

These fresh wild olives are some of my favorite things to pick for a hike. Some of you might remember people near Menghai mixing these olives with moonshine. They are as sour as any lemon on entry, but they leave a wake of sweetness in your mouth. I am told they are also very healthy, though I don’t have the nutrition facts.

tea tree lichen
Lichen on some old trees

I was able to buy the rest of the 2007 Hekai material to make more Repave cakes. The good news is that I got enough to satisfy all of the people who were e-mailing me saying, “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO WITH ALL THE REPAVE”. The bad news is that had I arrived in Hekai a week earlier, I could have bought much more. A week before my arrival a Taiwanese guy bought the majority of the material. Can’t win them all. Tenet 3…Tenet 3.

Overall, I’d say the Puer market is still in a strange place. The prices in some areas for autumn plantation tea were dumbfounding to me. Especially when I was able to find some slightly older teas for fair prices. I pressed a few old arbor teas that I had been resting  Spring, and pressed some Xigui area tea from Autumn that really caught my attention. And also a (very) small amount of true old arbor Xigui. I will be interested to see what happens with the prices of Puer in Spring – but until then I will resting myself before the onslaught of fresh tea.