We've made puerh tea for over ten years in our factory. It was time to try something new. We let the fresh leaves wither for 36 hours before giving a low temperature kill-green, a soft rolling and, finally, a sun-drying.
This is what a 'reddened' puerh tea will taste like. Originally, we made a small batch of it, and since the result was good, we decided to get more leaves from our natural tea gardens and make a full pressing.
Jingmai is located in the South West of Yunnan, not far from the border with Myanmar.
Tea has been cultivated by several ethnic minorities (mainly Dai and Bulang) for at least 1200 years. It is going to become a UNESCO world heritage site for its unique natural environment, tea landscapes and cultural diversity.
Five ethnic groups currently live on the mountain, they all live from making Puerh tea.
There are two types of tea gardens on the mountain:
Ancient tea gardens have been grown for longer than anyone can recall. They were established by cutting the middle stage of the natural forest, leaving the large trees intact to provide shade. The tea trees are tall, you have to climb on some of them in order to harvest their leaves. Some tea trees are hundreds of years old, they have grown a thick trunk which is covered in moss and lichen.
Due to their old age, large size and shaded environment, they grow leaves of superior quality, highly sought-after by the Puerh tea enthusiasts, the so-called ‘Gushu’ tea.
The gardens are harvested four times a year (twice in Spring, twice in Autumn) and are not intensively managed. The weeds are cut twice a year, the soil can be tilled up to once a year and the trees are occasionally trimmed once every couple of years. No pesticide or fertilization is applied.
The natural tea gardens, also known as ‘Shengtai’, are modern plantations established for the most part in the 1990’s. They have an interesting history. Back in the 1950’s, China needed to modernize its agriculture. The tea experts in Yunnan decided to establish modern tea gardens in the style of the Indian tea estate.
Instead of growing in the forest, the tea plants were planted in rows at high density. Pesticide and fertilizer would be used to maximize the yield of these plantations. They would be pruned every year to form a picking table at waist-height, making tea picking faster.
Over the 2000’s, the renaissance of the puerh tea culture in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and then China, restored the value of the ancient tea gardens. The tea enthusiasts didn’t want the cheap plantation tea anymore because of a weak taste and heavy pesticide use.
In 2010, another rural development program aimed at converting the intensive plantations into ecological ‘natural tea gardens’. Four our of five tea trees were cut in order to leave room for the remaining trees to take more space and grow. Pesticide and fertilizer use was banned. The trees would not be so heavily pruned, they were left to grow at 2m high. Shade trees were planted in the gardens. The aim was to bring these plantations closer in design to the ancient tea gardens.
This approach was successful because the demand for this tea increased, while not being as expensive as the ancient garden material, this tea is way better than what was grown in the 90’s.
Da Ping Zhang is a relatively flat area located on top of Jingmai village. Its landcape is unique among the tea gardens in Yunnan.
Covered by a forest where ancient tea gardens were established over a thousand years ago, it is a very peaceful environment with a high biodiversity. The gardens are shaded by massive trees and the soil is covered with a litter of dead leaves, slowly decaying into a healthy layer of organic matter. The soil is naturally sandy and infertile, but the high amount of organic matter helps retain the moisture and nutrients required to sustain tea cultivation.
Da Ping Zhang is noticeably colder than the other areas in Jingmai, you’ll feel it as you enter the gardens. This is due to its geographical features and the large forest which provides shade and generates a high humidity.
The tall tree cover helps protect the gardens from extreme weather events such as hailstorms and frost. This allows the tea trees to grow for hundreds of years under the protection of the forest. As a result, you will find large ancient tea trees along with smaller, more recently planted bushes.
Da Ping Zhang is divided up into a dozen smaller areas with Dai names such as Ai Ban, He Huan or Guang Jing. We separate the gardens according to their Dai name because each of them features a unique taste. Some of them are blended into our Jingmai Gulan, while other batches are pressed into cakes and named after their original garden.
We started making puerh tea in 2011, she established her tea factory on the first floor of the family home. It was a challenge because her family only sold the fresh leaves to other producers before that. We had to learn the skill of processing tea and improve it over the years. It took about six years to arrive to a consistent result.
Our family has three natural tea gardens and two ancient tea gardens. We use those to make our cakes and also source ancient garden leaves from other relatives to complete the production. We produce about 800kg of dry tea every year, usually 500kg in early Spring and 300kg in Autumn.
We improved the factory over the years but keep the tea making traditional. Most of our tea is cooked by hand in two large woks, it gives a better control over the process. Machines have taken over in Jingmai and only ancient garden leaves are processed by hand, yet, we are among a handful of producers on the mountain to keep cooking the cheaper natural garden leaves in the wok, it is more work but the increase in quality is worth it.
On top of Puerh tea, we also like to make white teas in late Spring and Summer, as well as experimental batches of black tea and others.
All the tea is processed by the two of us (Yubai and William). This is a lot of work during the harvest season!