Spring 2021, first flush
Natural tea gardens
Medium-high bitterness, light body, strong Huigan and Chaqi
Lao Man E is located in Bulang Shan area, in the South-West of Xishuangbanna. It is well known for having the largest ancient tea gardens in the area, it is also the most populated village in Bulang Shan.
In the 1990s and on, the villagers established new gardens in unused plots around their villages. Most of them were planted after 2004, when high quality pu-erh tea demand increased exponentially. These gardens are commonly called Shengtai, or natural tea gardens. This is because they are managed in the same way as the ancient tea gardens. In Lao Man E, it means only a soil till once a year as well as the occasional pruning to keep the trees at a harvesteable height. No fertilizer or pesticides are applied in the tea gardens.
The higher tea price allowed them to expand the gardens. They wanted to produce more tea but couldn't increase the yield in the ancient tea gardens, they had to keep the same method as before to guarantee quality. Therefore the only way is either increasing the plantation density in the ancient tea gardens, either extending the surfaces if land is available.
The second option was the easiest one for them because they had a lot of land available around the village, they used it before to plant upland rice and corn to feed themselves. They didn't need to grow cereals for their own subsistence, from the early 2000's on, they could live solely on the tea money.
Planting new gardens is a long term investment, you won't get much return before five years, and it's quite some work at the start. What surprised us when visiting Lao Man E is the gardens have relatively tall and thick tea trees. They don't look like 15-20 year-old trees. The faster growth is probably due to the low altitude and good soil fertility compared to other tea mountains; the varietal used in Lao Man E, which has very big leaves, seems to grow fast as well.
The fame of Lao Man E started with bitter tea. They have two varietals of tea trees growing in the ancient gardens: sweet and bitter tea. Interestingly, the sweet tea is more in demand than the bitter tea. When they established the Shengtai gardens, they decided to plant a mix of the sweet and the bitter varietal.
Compared to the Gushu sweet tea version, this one has a more long-lasting bitterness, which could be due to the presence of more bitter tea in the blend. Do not forget the impact of tree age on the taste of tea. While often overemphasized on the pu-erh tea market, it does have an impact. Small trees give a tea with less overall power and endurance. you could also find less complexity in the fragrance, a lighter Chaqi and Huigan.
Yet, Lao Man E is a powerful terroir, and even though the trees are young, they pack more punch than other Bulang teas. You could say this tea is a milder version of the Gushu, while retaining the same personality.
For more talks on Lao Man E, you can check this interview of Ai Xiang Nan, the producer of this tea: