Mud Packed Moonshine Still

2018 Spring Puer State of the Union

Reading Between the Tea Leaves

Originally I was going to play hooky on the state of the union for Puer in 2018. I haven’t fully accepted the fact that I am no longer a citizen of the Puer world, able to freely comment on this or that as I please with anonymous internet impunity. I have yet to fully embrace my identity as a dreaded vendor. Every word carries mysterious ulterior motives. If I say the weather was good, am I trying to sell tea? If I say the weather was bad, am i trying to sell tea? Even reporting seemingly objective factual information must have a villainous commercial motive. What do you mean there are no one thousand year old trees in the Laobanzhang I bought?! Well, whatever. Motives and perceptions be damned, here come some anecdotal musings on the 2018 tea year. Read between the lines as you will.

Astonishingly, I am still in Menghai as I write this tonight and will be here through the autumn tea season. Having arrived in mid-March, this is one my longest stints in the mountains. Usually I take a break from season to season, leaving after spring tea before returning for the autumn harvest. However, this summer was full of new teas being pressed and extenuating circumstances that have kept me in the tea mountains for most of the year. It’s been a long haul, but I really love a lot of the 2018 teas, so all in all it has worked out well.

On to the state of the union.

tea leaf bug
Beautiful bug on a tea leaf

Puer Tea Price Considerations

Someone asked me, “Can we expect year over year increases in prices in Puer tea?” In order to venture a guess, please allow me to conveniently sweep aside large scale considerations such as the Chinese economy, tea market prices, tariffs from some fuckwit and other X factors that nobody but the most enlightened diviners can scry. While there is no clear cut answer to such a complex problem, we can assume a few influences will have notable impacts in the years to come.

What to expect in the future

First, labor costs will continue to rise in the foreseeable future. China is a developing economy and the people here need rising wages for the economy at large to make any sort of sense. Several tea producers in Yunnan mentioned they were having increased difficulty finding laborers, both in the most skilled positions such as wok frying, and the less skilled (but also crucial) positions of tea picking or general labor. When I first started buying Puer tea, most of the labor of picking and processing was performed by local villagers. Over the past several years, many villages have sought migrant laborers from neighboring areas such as Myanmar. Increasing unrest and border security have contributed to this labor shortage and it seems to be on track to continue for the time being.

The labor of making Puer tea is difficult in that it both requires skill and it is physically demanding. For example, a person frying tea will have to work late into the night over a very hot wok, continually tossing large amounts of moisture laden leaves. This duty used to be performed by someone within the family, but more and more often I see people hiring outside help to fill the position. It’s no wonder why; if you had a windfall of cash and limited time to court your tea customers, sweating over a scorching iron wok for hours at a time does seem like one of the first jobs you’d take a pass on. The same goes for tea picking, which is also tough labor. Picking tea in the high altitude sun might sound like a romantic thing to do – and it totally is – for exactly 20 minutes. Picking tea for an entire day is tough work. It’s no wonder that year after year the people doing this labor see the costs of tea going up and say, “Hey, I see you’re making money. Pay me or i’m out.” One day this spring I picked tea in Laobanzhang for roughly 3 hours and I was exhausted. The heat is enough to make you build a small shrine to pray to the people who have made your tea possible. Next time you have a cup of tea, pour a little on the curb for the people who did the hard work to make it happen.

Fresh spring maocha

In a few instances villages gathered to make formal pacts on how much they would pay for labor in an attempt to keep costs down. For example, village X decides they will only pay Y amount of money for laborers this spring. The outcomes of that sort of behavior were entirely predictable. In most cases the workers left to go to other villages where the farmers were paying better wages. In other cases, someone in the village broke with the pact and raised the set price out of desperation. This was frowned upon, as they not only broke the deal they had with their fellow villagers, but they also started bidding wars within their village to hire the few remaining workers. All in all this was a good lesson for many villages; even when the tea farmers conspired to keep wages down, it totally backfired and most of the workers figured it out anyhow.

These increased labor costs will be reflected in the 2018 teas you purchase. On the one hand, consumers might bristle at increasingly costly tea. Puer costs rising 20% sucks, when barely any job in the Western world gives a 20% raise out of thin air. However, if you take a different perspective, the people involved in Puer production are (save for the most famous villages) living a modest life and just beginning to experience an uptick in life quality which many in the developed world take for granted. Obviously, higher prices do not do tea sellers/consumers any direct favors, but it’s a great thing that Yunnan’s labor operates in a competitive marketplace where workers can ask for higher wages or decide to do a different job. It may not be a utopian paradise, but China’s tea production and workers’ life situations are still far ahead of many other tea producing countries. The economic growth is also a boon for migrant labor coming from Myanmar or labor from neighboring cities where jobs and decent pay are in short order.

And as a quick side note, if your Puer seller’s prices have not risen year over year for the past several years, that should be a red flag. The costs from every direction have risen, both in terms of labor and market demand for high quality material. The higher prices are a natural movement of the market. If a vendors prices are somehow the same as several years ago, that is a major issue that indicates cutting costs on quality or not paying people a reasonable wage; both of which should be of concern to people buying tea. There simply is not a way to keep costs the steady or reduce costs when labor and demand have both steadily climbed every year in the past decade.

The second factor to consider is that there is increased demand for limited quantities of high quality tea. These trends predictably end the same way; increased amounts of “rare tea” in the market that aren’t accurately labeled or rare. It seems in the last few years, teas from “national forests” or “ancient trees” (where it would often be questionable/illegal to buy tea in most cases) and villages with extremely limited quantities of tea have all surged in quantity. The truth of the matter is that these teas are in such limited quantity that no retail tea customer should assume they could ever purchase such a tea. This trend is also nothing new. Years ago it was Bingdao and Laobanzhang, now it has moved on to Mansong or other such locations. The same mantra that I have always preached rings true. Drink what you like and can afford, and ignore the stories of people who tell you why they have the thing that nobody else does. If you like the tea in your cup and can afford it, you win. If you’ve spent over your budget to buy a story, you lose.

Kettle boiled water during a power outage

How was 2018 Spring for tea and weather?

Last time I answered this in 2017 I caught a bit of flack, so best to keep this short and sweet.

2018, in a vacuum, was better than 2017.The weather was better, the tea was better. That being said, nothing exists in a vacuum. The quality of tea that any particular person procures is directly related to their effort, connections, experience and abilities. As a consumer, it’s not about which vintage, its about whether the tea is good or not. There are amazing teas from 2017 and shit teas from 2018 and vice versa. Again, buy tea that you like that fits your budget – beatdeadhorse.gif.

One way to apply this knowledge would be choosing to purchase the 2018 vintage over a 2017 vintage if you tend to buy single origin teas that have a high level of consistency from a singular vendor. If your favorite vendor makes the same tea from a specific village year in and year out, go with the 2018.

Anecdotal Story about Fake Puer Tea

I went to Laoman’e a couple of weeks ago and there were several factories buying tea at a set price. I happen to be particularly close with several people from Laoman’e, due mostly to reasons of basketball. We went to see what kind of tea their relatives were giving to these factories. One of the relatives had brought in over two metric tons (must re-emphasize – that is over 2,000 kilograms of tea) solely to fill the order of this factory. Fake tea is alive and well, within villages and in the greater market at large. The scariest part is that a two ton order is not large. The biggest factories wouldn’t barely consider making a two ton production.

And for the sake of clarity, this is not a new practice. I spent over a week living in Laoman’e in 2013 and similar practices were already common. If you haven’t taken my previous ten warnings to disregard the labeling of provenance to heart, heed this last one; Labels are mostly meaningless. When even showing up in the village does necessarily mean you can acquire a tea of proper origin, woe to those who buy through proxies and label on good faith. Even showing up to a village does not guarantee accuracy.

If you are concerned with accurate provenance labeling and purchasing single origin teas, one way to avoid this kind of trickery is to purchase tea from areas that are less well known. Instead of buying tea labeled Laoman’e, aim for Ailao mountain. Nobody is going to fake tea from Ailao mountain. This means making a sacrifice on quality in some cases, but it will ensure that you purchase something that meets your goal of being accurately labeled. Another way is to avoid larger factory productions. Large factory productions tend to work with an amount of weight that demands concessions on quality, as with most agricultural products scale and quality often have an inverse relationship.

Best Moonshine of the Year

This year I spent multiple days in the mountains next to a still making my own moonshine. I had a friend with a small plot of peaches that were popping in late April, so I went up with a couple of large containers and commandeered 100 kilograms of fresh peaches. A friend and I cut them up and set them to fermenting. The hotel where I was staying thought it was a bit odd that I had 100 kilos of peaches fermenting next to my bed, but they eventually chalked it up to me being an odd fellow and moved on. We later hauled the boozy peaches up to a still and spent the day drinking tea and moonshine while we waited for the wood fire to hit that critical temperature when the crystal clear spirits began to trickle out. It might not be the best moonshine on earth, but there is an emotional connection to the peach fragrance and thoughts of the hungry fruit flies that hovered in my room, waiting for a chance to swoop down and lick a bit of that peachy goodness.

Peach Shine
The clear spirits of the peach

And if I can declare a tie here, and I can, the plum moonshine that followed was also excellent. The first batch of peach shine got rave reviews, so we headed to a local plum orchard outside of Menghai and wrangled 400 kilos (split between a few people) for fermentation and distillation. The results were a beautiful plum spirit with a deep perfume that will be a joy in a few years.(spoiler: fresh moonshine is harsh as hell) Luckily I’ve got a few liters to set aside for the future. No wasp steeping necessary.

Stay loving, drink good tea and I’ll see you in 2019 – if I can avoid writing an autumn version, which i will try to since it is practically autumn already.

Picking Puer Tea from Old Arbor Trees

When is Old Arbor Puer Tea Picked?

The Difference Between Picking Old Arbor Puer and Smaller Trees

Puer tea trees can be divided into several ages and categories, but for the ease of explanation we are going to discuss three different stages: young (xiaoshu), middle-aged (often called qiaomu), and old arbor trees (also called gushu / dashu). Young tea is around 5 to 20 years old. Tea bushes that are younger than 3 years of age will rarely be harvested in Yunnan as they are still maturing. We will broadly define middle-aged as anything from 20 to 80 years old. Any trees older than 80 years old are quite old and are already very mature, so we will lump them in as old arbor, even though that might make some age queens angry. Some of you who frequently read the descriptions scattered around the internet about 1000 years old trees might be scratching your heads thinking, “100 years old doesn’t seem very old!”. I’d like to gently assure you that even 100 year old trees are the minority in Yunnan and produce spectacular quality tea. Don’t get too caught up in claims made about tree ages. It sounds sexy to drink tea from 500 year old trees, but 99.9% of the time the people who bother advertising that as a selling point are selling you an idea rather than the tea in the description.

The youngest trees, which are usually planted as terrace tea, tend to be ready for spring picking far earlier than their older counterparts. The younger the tea, the earlier it is ready to be picked. In certain low lying areas of Yunnan, this might even mean being ready as early as February, however it more likely means early to mid-March. These are general rules which are weather dependent. That being acknowledged, it would be very rare that spring tea, which we can define as the tea that sprouts forth after a dormant winter, would be ready any earlier than February. Middle Aged tea trees will be slightly later than this, you can think of youth and readiness on a spectrum, with increasing age meaning later budding.

Old Arbor Puer Tea Picking
Old arbor Puer tea in Lincang on the cusp of being pickable – March 26th, 2016

The older trees sprout forth much later in the season than younger tea trees. Old arbor Puer is ready to be plucked in late March at the earliest. Weather fluctuations aside, the earliest I have ever seen old arbor Puer tea ready to be plucked is in the March 20’s. In the images above and below, you can see an image taken on March 26th in Lincang. Some of the tea in this area was ready to be plucked, but only a small amount (the image above). Other trees were just past budding and still need several days before being picked. (the image below) Keep in mind, most Puer tea is not plucked as two leaves and bud. The farmers are waiting for an adequate amount of stem length and a third, fourth, and fifth leaf (huangpian). A mere bud is not enough.

Puer Tea Buds on the Tree
Emerging buds from a Puer tree in Lincang, March 26th 2016

It should also be noted that this is just one example, on one mountain in Lincang. As of the writing of this article (March 31st, China time), the old arbor Yiwu teas that are used in Last Thoughts are still not ready to be picked. Last year, they were ready in early April. It’s not a set time, but rather observing the trees and the weather until the farmer determines that the tea is ready, just as one would do with apples, tomatoes, or lettuce.

How does Altitude Affect the Tea Harvest?

Altitude also affects the harvest time, as temperatures are cooler in higher altitudes. As nearly all of the tea that is considered to be highly desirable Puer tea in Yunnan is grown on tall mountains, that means cooler weather and later harvesting. Some of the teas in Yunnan that are grown in low altitude areas producing tea used for green teas, black teas, white teas, and lower quality Puer teas will almost always be ready at least a month before the older growth teas that are in the mountains at altitudes above 1000m (or in some cases even nearing 2000m). This means a wide array of timing for spring teas, but old arbor teas are never ready for spring picking in January and February. Only small bush teas are ready for spring picking so early in the year and are still dependent on the weather.

Are there Earlier Harvests than Spring?

Farmers have increasingly felt pressure to pick tea year round in Yunnan. Much of this is directed by greed of vendors or short term financial needs of farmers, rather than what is best for the tea plants or the long term integrity of Puer. If you closely followed Yunnan weather last winter, you would have seen some images like the one below of ice covered tea trees and snow in Yunnan. Even in Guangzhou, we had snow that was noted as the first snow on record in 60 years. Nothing quite like seeing elder folks on the streets in awe of the snow. Some of my friends parents had never seen snow before! Suffice it to say that the winter temperatures and snow were some of the harshest weather that China has seen in recorded history. Most villages in Yunnan can scarcely recollect the last time winter weather was so brutal.

Regardless of the 2015/2016 winter months harshness, even in a mild winter, picking tea during the winter months is seen by many to be unethical. Think of an old arbor tea tree as if it were a person. If there was an old person who was lifting weights, it could be a very good thing. A bit of strenuous exercise can help to make a person strong. However, our bodies need rest days in order for our muscles to recuperate and rebuild. Any doctor would advise an elder person that exercising is good, but they’d also recommend the proper pace and adequate rest.

Ice covered tea
Ice covering the landscape in Nannuo mountain during the winter

When we pick tea leaves, we are stressing (or exercising!) a tea tree. Removing a trees leaves means removing nutrients as well as one of its sources of energy via photosynthesis. The spring and autumn tea pickings are a stress that most any tea tree can handle, even a picking in the summer months if the rain and weather allow. Summer picking is controversial in many circles, but in recent years, the additional inclusion of winter tea picking is making it a full four seasons of stress on the old trees. First, before any further commentary, I will be the first to acknowledge that tea farmers are just people like you and me, and they need to earn a living. However, the revenues from spring, summer, and fall from high quality trees will net them a much larger long term income if they allow the trees to rest during winter. From the standpoint of a vendor, many would consider it unethical to participate in picking/buying/selling winter Puer tea from old arbor trees. The continuous stress on the trees will eventually diminish the quality of the farmers product and their best natural resource for only a marginal short term financial gain. A shortsighted plan at best.

Couple this constant stress of four seasons of picking with weather like we saw last winter and it is the equivalent of making a seventy year old man hit the gym seven days a week with a broken hip. The only old arbor tea that was available to be picked in January, February, and almost all of March in 2016 was from old trees that have been covered in ice and beaten down by snow. After a tree manages to survive a hundred years and a harsh winter, having its leaves plucked seems like a cruel reward. Hardly the sort of tea that is optimal for drinking, and in my view, it would be a mistake to encourage the production of such tea. It’s selling out the future health of tea trees for short term financial gains. Just like our bodies, tea trees must be cared for and rested to stay healthy and continue to provide us with tea for years to come.

When are Summer and Autumn teas Plucked?

Summer and Autumn pickings are the most weather sensitive times for Puer. Their picking time can vary wildly depending on the whims of the rain and sunshine. Summer tea has been picked with increasing frequency as Puer has boomed, but it does not produce a very high quality result when compared to teas from the spring and autumn. The water content in the leaf is usually very high due to the rain of the summer months. However, where there is money to be made and a brief pause in the rain, tea will be picked. In my view, it is more ethical to pick summer tea, as the tree is lush and resource rich during the summer, as opposed to being in a dormant state during winter. That being said, summer tea is usually not very good, and the price reflects that.

Autumn tea buds
Autumn buds emerging on October 1st 2015

Autumn tea is picked around late September or early October. Again, this is weather dependent. The summer rains have to stop and have several days of consistent sunshine in order to result in quality autumn tea. The more sunshine filled days that you can string together, the better the quality of the tea. Again, this has to do with reducing heavy water content in the leaf and coaxing out fresh growth. Some years, this means autumn tea is excellent. Some years, the tea is worse if the weather chooses not to cooperate. Fall tea is usually considered to be the best quality tea after spring, with summer following, and winter bringing up the rear.

Regardless of seasons and tree ages, the best judge of character for any tea is still the same. Do you enjoy it? Does the price fit your budget? If you can answer yes to those two questions, the dates, ages, and stories all melt away and all that is left if you and a cup of Puer to engage with.

See you all after Spring tea with an update on the state of the Puer nation.

Thank you to my friends in Lincang and Nannuo for allowing me to use the first three pictures – much appreciated!

 

 

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.