Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Fujian, Fu'an and Flowering Teas

We fly to Fuzhou via Kunming, and I get ridiculously excited while waiting at the flight gate to find that there is wifi and one of my email accounts is working. Cue frantic sending of blogs and pictures to my daughter Hannah, who is going to post on my behalf, and also make it look elegant and professional in the process. There's no access to Blogspot, Facebook or Twitter here so I depend on her a lot (thanks Hannah). Ironically I might not be able to send her this blog until right at the end of the trip.

Fujian is a coastal province in the SE of China, and home to an extraordinary range of teas - white teas in Fuding, flowering teas in Fu'an, Tie Guanyin Oolong in Anxi, Lapsang Souchong  and Rock Oolongs in Wuyi. And a number of areas seem to make black teas, including the famous Golden Monkey and rarer Tang Yang Gongfu. So it's a good place to visit and experience all these different types.

The first thing we need to come to terms with is that we will be city-based for much of our time in Fujian. The industry here is much more complicated than Yunnan, and on a much larger scale, with companies involved in growing, processing and marketing their own teas. Some of the final processing is carried out in city warehouses that also contain tasting rooms and sales offices.

We start in Fu'an, the home of flowering teas. You've probably seen them - they start off as small tight green balls, and open out in boiling water releasing strings of delicate flowers. I've never been a great fan of them, being a bit of a grumpy tea purist, but I'm curious to see how they're made. More than anything I want to be satisfied that they're made in good conditions - clean, well lit, no duress, that kind of thing. I've always had a nagging doubt that the delicacy of the work might mean children are involved in some way.

The industry in China is of course well aware of such concerns. Some companies (and this is common to many other sectors) produce glossy brochures with pictures of what they think Western buyers want to see, even if the reality bears no resemblance; it will never be possible to visit the actual factory. It's easy to see why they do this when so many customers are happy to take it at face value and just 'tick the box'. So it's not a surprise to see pictures of people in a spotlessly clean factory, togged up in ridiculous amounts of protective clothing, as if they're making microchips rather than sewing tea and flowers together. We prefer not to go to these places, but to work with people who are much more honest and open, and happy to show us round. This depends completely on the groundwork done by Jennifer Jiang, who has spent a lot of time visiting Fu'an and working out who are the genuine suppliers.

The first stage is tying tea stems into bunches

The bunches must all be the same size

The stems are stripped of leaves but the large white buds remain

The first surprise when we arrive is the age of those doing the work. The first process is tying long thin leaves together in bunches, and none of the women doing this is under 40; some are very much older. The second stage is more delicate, requiring small flowers to be threaded onto cotton and sewn through the bunches of leaves, and the women are probably in their 20s and 30s. They are wearing hats to cover their hair. The rooms are light and spacious, the tables are covered in bits of tea and flowers, and the atmosphere is relaxed. I've been trained as a Social Auditor* and know what signs to look for, but it seems ok. As you would expect, it's piece work, and seems to operate on a kind of flexitime basis - people are free to come and go, and get paid for what they make.

Sweing the flowers through the leaves

Completed sets

A 'flower basket' design

The bunches are folded in on themselves and tied with cotton, then wrapped for drying 

We leave feeling quite positive. I'm not sure it's really changed my option about the teas themselves, but it has removed some concerns (but only about this particular company - others still have big question marks against them in my mind). I'll be happy to buy from here for Fortnum & Mason.

This is one occasion when I won't be open about the details of the company. I think it's important for buyers to take responsibility for their sources, and I don't see why I should make it easy for them. So if you want flowering teas, buy them from people who really know the source - like F&M, or the other people I'm travelling with.

* that sounds a bit pompous, but it's true. I've always been interested in the people aspects of tea, and decided to get properly trained a few years back. It involves being able to get under the surface of what's going on in factories, how people are treated, how to read the signs. I won't bore you with any more detail here.


They like chilli in Yunnan: it brings food to life. This is a slight problem for me.

Chillies at the market

Don't get me wrong, I like a bit of chilli. That is 'a bit' in the genteel English sense, enough so you can taste it and get a lingering tingle on your lips. I tend to avoid the hardcore stuff, especially when I'm travelling, it just doesn't suit me. I know many of you will disapprove, pointing out that I'm missing out on one of the joys of travel to distant exotic lands. You're right of course, but I got very ill on my first trip to India and that experience lingers. And I've never quite embraced the thrill of having my throat ripped out and insides purged. But each to their own.

This lady has a  rather knowing smile

As I mentioned earlier, I had a very pleasant meeting over lunch with Leo Kwan in Hong Kong. Mostly pleasant. During the course of the  meal I was surprised by a lurking chilli and had a bit of a moment. For those of you familiar with the closing scenes of the original (and definitive) version of Total Recall, I found myself on the surface of Mars, frantically writhing and gasping for air as my skull and eyeballs exploded. Quite a spectacle, which I attributed to the sensitivity of my highly developed tasting throatparts.

This bravura performance was however eclipsed in Jinggu when Ken discovered the exact combination of chilli and rice wine that would make his whole body turn purple. This is not expected to happen to locals.

Ken on another day. In fact this colour is just about right

It made sense of Leo's parting comment - "Remember, Yunnan is a dangerous place".

So what exactly is Puer tea?

This is more for those interested in the tea detail, but hopefully also readable enough for anyone with a passing curiosity.

I've spent a week in Yunnan, been up four tea mountains, watched it being made, tasted many samples with a tea master, and I still don't fully understand Puer.
As someone who normally likes to have things clearly defined and contained, this should be frustrating, but in fact it's the opposite. It's fascinating, challenging, liberating - much more an art than a science, and to be appreciated in the same way.
So I can't define Puer, but I can describe what I've seen and tasted. It won't be definitive, and others will have different experiences and opinions.

I first need to explain that the Puer I have experienced on this trip is 'Shengcha". Sheng means raw, uncooked, or alive; cha means tea. Commonly called Raw Puer, in many ways the description 'alive tea' is more appropriate. I'll try to explain why below.

However, for most people outside China their experience of Puer is the cooked (or ripe) version. This is made by creating a large pile of raw Puer, wetting it, covering it and allowing it to ferment. The fermentation process takes around 45 days and converts the greyish-green Raw Puer into dark brown Cooked Puer. It is a skilful process, requiring the tea to be turned regularly to maintain even heat distribution. When the tea is ready, it is usually pressed into cakes, which are slowly dried in a warm room before wrapping in paper. The porous paper allows the cakes to mature, ideally in a cool dry store. A good Cooked Puer has a deep ruby red colour when infused and a rich flavour that starts off quite earthy but becomes sweeter as the tea matures. My first experience of cooked Puer was an inky black, turgid, musty horror, which I now recognise as a short-cut fake version produced for a western market unfamiliar with the real product. Things have moved on a bit since then.
Cooked Puer is produced on a large scale in factories whose names have become famous over the years. The largest and most famous is the Dayi factory in Menghai, whose processes and blend recipes are closely guarded secrets. The factory is closed to visitors. (An interesting aside is that Zhong Xin rents a house in the Dayi factory compound - he has no connection with the company, but conducts his own ripening and pressing experiments in the house).

So we return to Raw Puer. As far as I can tell, the key aspects are that the trees must be on one of the famous Yunnan Tea Mountains, the leaves must come from large leaved trees, and that the final process is sun-drying. What happens in between seems to have some flexibility depending on the region and on the individual tea maker or Tea Master.
This tree is 800 years old
These older leaves are not used to make the tea 

A typical Yunnan mountain village, woks in the foreground
After picking, the leaves are cooled (withered, wilted). The next stage is a short heating and turning process in a wok, resulting in a further softening of the leaf and a partial 'killing' (denaturing) of the enzyme that causes oxidation of the leaf polyphenols. The leaf is then scattered thinly on bamboo trays, turned gently by hand and put out in the sun to dry.
Fresh leaves cooling & wilting
The wok frying process
Leaves drying in the sun 
I'm not sure that this wok stage is always used in the Raw Puer process, but some form of partial leaf cell rupture takes place, even if only by gentle rolling. This cell rupture, together with the sun-drying stage, results in a tea that is unfinished - 'maocha'. This means that there is a partial oxidation of the tea, but that it is also affected by post-oxidation, i.e. it continues to change and develop. Hence the name Shengcha, alive tea. This seems to be connected to the sun-drying process in some way - perhaps the cell structure is more open than when a tea is oven-baked, but that's only a guess on my part.

The process differs from that used for Green, Oolong and Black teas, and makes Raw Puer difficult to classify. I quite like Leo Kwan's category of 'Partially Oxidised Teas', which includes White and Yellow varieties alongside Raw Puer, but others will disagree.

Raw Puer maocha is greyish in colour, twisted and wiry in appearance. The infused tea is a pale greenish-gold colour, and the flavour is a combination of early astringency followed by sweetness and aroma, and in the best teas a thick mouthfeel and cooling finish in the throat. It needs to be infused many times, each infusion lasting no more more than 30 seconds or so. When tasting with the experts I was unable to appreciate all the subtleties of this but enough to get a basic understanding. What is clear is that old trees and individual varieties give a particularly fine flavour, and that the making process has a big impact on the taste. 

On our last day in Yunnan we tasted maocha from wild tea trees, which we all agreed was in a different league from anything else we had tasted. The fact that the farmer walked for five hours up into the mountain to pick the tea, and that it was for family consumption and not for sale, tells its own story.

Tasting the Wild Tree maocha tea with Zhong Xin
This is only the beginning of the process for Raw Puer. It needs to be stored and matured for several years, preferably in the form of pressed cakes. During this time the tea undergoes a secondary ageing process involving natural microbial activity. The conditions in which the cakes are stored are critical to development of flavour and texture during ageing.

The pressing is done in factories, and the finished product carries the factory name rather than the source of the maocha: in most cases it is blended, as the quantities from individual farmers are too small for a pressing batch. I can see that there could be a demand for cakes pressed from specific maocha, probably supplied by a Tea Master, if capacity can be made available to accommodate this.

A variety of Puer cakes

Wrapped and ready for storage

So that's my take on Raw Puer. It's not widely available in the UK, but Fortnum & Mason have a small selection. A wider range is available from those nice people at Canton Tea.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Showdown in old Jinggu Town

We're in Yunnan during the Water Splashing festival. This is a four day holiday for the Dai Minority, celebrating their deliverance from the Demon King by twelve brave women. In gratitude the local people splashed water over them to wash the blood off their clothes.

The Dai are elegant people, and dress in bright and colourful clothes. the women dress particularly stylishly on festival days. We were asked if we would like to experience the festival, and were keen to do so. My expectation as a foreign visitor was to have water gently flicked over me by the graceful fingertips of women in traditional costume. Not exactly.

Ready for Water Splashing

We arrived in Jinggu town to find families in the streets tooled up with all manner of water fighting weaponry - buckets, water bombs, water pistols, turbo-charged back pack water guns. In the street, on balconies, on roofs. And of course when we arrived we immediately became VERY popular. Three of us ended up walking down the street like gunslingers, outnumbered several hundred to one. Word soon got around, and attacks were often accompanied by cheerful shouts of "Pleased to meet you!!". I don't think I have ever been so wet.

In the end we needed to retreat and were offered sanctuary in the back yard of a restaurant, where we sat in the sun and gradually dried out. As per usual I attracted some attention, with one old gentleman fascinated by my general size and particularly my tummy, revealed in all its glory when I had to strip off my shirt. He demonstrated his general disapproval by flicking his hand at me with the index and little fingers pointing outwards, in a "down with the kids" kind of way. I'm sure it was a bit ruder than that. Despite this minor irritation, it was a happy time sitting with the family and sharing some food. And the gentleman and I shared some of his rice wine.

Nothing about tea in this post, but it's all part of being over here and will linger in the memory. We should definitely have a Water Splashing Day at home.

White Bud, Purple Bud, Zhong Xin again

We travel from Menghai to Jinggu in an old bus secured as a last minute replacement for the two taxis we had booked, which obviously got better offers - everywhere is very busy because it is a local festival. The bus is quite slow and the journey takes us 8 hours.

We meet Mr. Yi, who owns a factory that processes local green leaf and also presses unfinished tea (maocha) into Puer cakes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Transport up the Mountain

We taste a selection of his teas, including a cake made from 2012 Yue Gwang Bai, one of the main teas on my list. Yue Gwang Bai - Moonlight White - is made from the leaves and buds of the Big White Bud variety, rolled and dried slowly in the cool of the night. It is partially oxidised but not baked, with combination of oolong and black tea flavours. It has an aroma reminiscent of fruit cake. This is not a tea for the purist, but I like everything about it - the name, the appearance, the aroma, the taste - and it has been very popular at Fortnum & Mason. The big disappointment was being here a little too early for the 2013 harvest, and only being able to taste a pressed 2012 cake, which doesn't develop the flavour and aroma of the loose version.

Next morning we are off up the mountain on the lookout for special trees, accompanied by Zhong Xin, who has joined us for the rest of the Yunnan trip. It turns out that not only is he a 29 year old tea master, he also has five apprentices - four in Yunnan and one across the border in Burma. I discover that I bought a Raw Puer made by him in  2011 from Yako village on Bulang Mountain, a far away part of Yunnan. I had no idea at the time but clearly I have a very discerning palate indeed. He has every right to be a bit smug and superior, and he does have the Philip Oakey** floppy fringe and pout, but he is genuinely impressive guy. He tells us that he is entirely self-taught and simply went up into the mountains to learn his craft. It's a slightly unlikely story but we are very happy to believe it.

We are looking especially for the Big White Bud variety - Da Bai Hao. This is not quite as easy as we expected, but eventually we find one amongst a hundreds of other old trees in an area that had been abandoned for years because it is so remote. A local farmer had cut down a lot of less valuable trees, letting the light in and discovering the valued Big White Bud amongst the ones remaining. It was quite exciting to find it, but the actual appearance is rather underwhelming. All this changes when the tea is made, as the long buds turn white and look beautiful, particularly when pressed into a cake, which looks like a glowing moon.

Da Bai Hao - 'Big White Bud'

White Bud cake

We also find the rare Purple Bud variety, a mutation apparently caused by the strong sunlight. In fact it's not very purple, just a few leaves on an otherwise green leaved tree. The made tea is however a dark glossy purple, and looks attractive in a pressed cake. This is a tea that needs to mature for several years, as the early taste is rather thin and bitter. Jennifer set aside some cakes for us last year and we expect them to be ready by around 2015. It's a different way of buying tea.

Purple Bud Tea

Just as we were leaving, Zhong Xin appeared clutching a sprig of three leaves with a variegated pattern that no-one had seen before. How he found them amongst hundreds of trees is a mystery, but he is a bit different. Maybe it will turn out to be a new variety, who knows. One final comment about Zhong Xin. He is happy to share his knowledge, theories and techniques with anyone - there is no hint of keeping things close to his chest. You can't help liking and admiring him.

We decide to walk down to the main road rather than using the pickup. It's a steep path down through woodland, and a good experience. Warm though, and by the time we get to the bottom we're rather hot and dusty and in need of a shower. Not much chance of that. Please see "Showdown in Old Jinggu Town".

** Those of you born after 1965 look away now. Philip Oakey headed up The Human League in the 1980s. For many this was music's lost decade, but for those of us courting and dressing up to go dancing in Faces Nightclub at Five Ways in Birmingham it was a magical time. Viz. the 12" extended remix of "The Sound of the Crowd". Dress to impress, look moody. Fabulous.

Zhong Xin

Philip Oakey

Tea Mountains, Ancient Trees and Young Tea Masters

Yunnan is tea's genetic home, its spiritual home and its cultural home. All the tea plants in the world can trace their ancestry to the mountain forests where SW China meets Vietnam, Laos, Burma & India. It's the only part of the world where tea is indigenous, and there are still productive trees that are over 800 years old.

800 year-old tree
There are many tea mountains in Yunnan,each with its own 'terroir' and local tea trees: even trees of the same botanical variety show subtle differences depending in where they grow. It's a case of driving as far as roads allow, walking to a village and from there into the mountain to find the ancient trees. These gnarled and twisted solitary trees with their large dark leaves are a far cry from the yellow-green carpets of cloned bushes in tea plantations, and when climbing up through the forests there is a sense of encountering something ancient, almost magical.

Walking on the Mountain

Trees on the Mountain

The leaves from these ancient trees are used to create the mysterious tea that is Puer ( or Pu-erh). For many people (myself included until a few years ago), Puer means a dark turgid tea with a taste of mouldy wet leaves, accompanied by the vague hope that it might be healthy in some way. This is a tragedy. Puer in its raw (as opposed to cooked or ripened) form is a light & complex taste adventure, with flavours that develop as the tea matures. In fact, the word translated as "raw" - Shengcha - can also mean "alive tea", which is a perfect description. I'll do a separate entry on how Puer is made so that you don't need to plough through the detail here, suffice it to say that the chemistry of the leaves and the making process result in a unique type of tea, and Puer is categorised as distinct from all other teas.

We start from a base in Menghai, from where we visit Nannuo and Hekai Tea mountains. The pattern is the same - walk to a village, meet a tea farmer at his house, taste tea, visit the trees, taste tea, share a meal, watch the making process, taste tea. Leaving aside the tea aspects (which I find fascinating but don't necessarily expect others to), the experience of sharing a meal in a tiny house high up a mountain is unforgettable. Rice, wild vegetables, spices, perhaps some meat, shared with the family. And seated round a low table on tiny low stools, the cause of much hilarity in my case. I have one picture that just says "who the hell let this giant into my house?", which I'll add to the post when I get back.
Physical giant maybe, but certainly not a tea giant. Some of you will have gathered that I have been a tea taster and buyer for over 30 years. This really ought to count for something, but not out here. My first visit to China in 2002 was like opening a window in a dull stuffy room and letting in sunlight and fresh air. it's the same each time I visit, with the bizarre feeling of knowing less than I did before - I find myself having to strip back what I thought I knew and to start again. It's not so much that I don't have knowledge, more that it's the wrong kind of knowledge. In fact, most of what I learnt in the first 25 years is utterly irrelevant here. Even the way if preparing and tasting tea is different. So I feel a bit exposed.

Cooking Lunch

"Who the hell let this giant into my house?"

We spent the last two days with Zhong Xin, a Xi Fu, or Tea Master. He travels round Yunnan finding the best leaves and turning them into exquisite teas. He has developed his own techniques from scratch and is experimenting all the time. He is a bit of a legend, and attracts people to watch when he is making tea. Oh, and he's 29. TWENTY NINE. Same age as Jennifer Jiang, and to see them together riffing about tea making is something special. We had to leave them to it last night as we wanted to eat before going to bed.
My strategy in these circumstances? I try to avoid the conversation about my tea career, in case it goes something like this:

"How long have you been in tea?"
"Oh, about 34 years"
"That's a long time"
"it is, yes"
"So how come you don't know anything then?"

Tea Master Zhong Xin

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Hong Kong, Yunnan and Canton

April 2013, and I'm back in China for another 3 weeks of learning and discovery. This year I am in Yunnan and Fujian provinces, looking at Puer, White tea, Lapsang, Tie Guanyin, Rock Oolongs and flowering teas. The purpose of the trip is to visit farmers who supply these teas to Fortnum & Mason, learn more about them and discover new and unusual teas along the way.

I'll try to describe the teas in the various blog entries without getting too technical. If you've read previous entries you'll realise that this isn't so much a blog for tea experts, but more for those interested in my travels and experiences in search of Interesting and rare teas. For those of you who want more tea information there are plenty of sources out there, albeit of variable accuracy. I'll go on to mention two specifically, but "please note that other websites and blogs are available".

En route to China I spent a day in Hong Kong and caught up with one of my tea heroes, Leo Kwan. I first met Leo in London in 2001, when he was promoting his Ming Cha brand via a tea bar in Selfridges. It was he who first opened my eyes to the beauty and complexity of fine Oolongs, and his depth of knowledge, warmth and openness made a big impression on me - the idea that the whole point of having knowledge is to share it, not to keep it hidden away. Leo now has a web resource designed to be a forum for sharing information and opinions about tea, and I recommend it to anyone who would like to go a little deeper:

I'm travelling with Jennifer Jiang & husband Ken as before, but also with Jen and Ali from the Canton Tea Company. Jen founded the company six years ago and heads it up from London, but its base is in Bristol, where I met them briefly just over a year ago. Nice people. It always adds an extra dimension to travel with other tea enthusiasts, particularly when we share the same views about quality, authenticity and engaging direct with artisan farmers. Canton is a fine company and another good resource:

For part of the time we will also be accompanied by Martin, a freelance filmmaker who is putting together something called  "Secrets of the Tea Masters", in partnership with Canton Tea but also in cooperation with Fortnum & Mason. This is of course not about me but the Chinese tea masters, featuring Jennifer Jiang. I might get to appear in the background every so often if that doesn't spoil the scenery.

As was the case last year, the itinerary is flexible and all I really know for certain is that I am due to arrive at Xishuangbanna airport in SW Yunnan late on Thursday April 11th. I've been to Yunnan once before, and remember it at a wild and beautiful place. I'm sure it won't disappoint.