In May 2018, we were invited by a French NGO to Phongsaly in Northern Laos in order to assess the state of tea agriculture in Yot Ou district. This is an area bordering China in which the Pu-erh tea trade is thriving. At the end of our trip in Phongsaly, we held a training session in Tong Kua Li Noy village. About thirty farmers from five villages attended. In the morning of the second day, the mayor of Seo Pen village brought 150kg of fresh leaves for the trainees to process. We formed four groups and distributed them between the woks available in the village. They processed tea until the late afternoon while we were moving between the groups to give advice on how to improve processing. The participants did a very good job and the blend of all the batches is fairly consistent.
Seo Pen village is located right at the border with China, a 20 minute motorbike ride will bring you beyond a large mountain ridge and you'll arrive in Gua Feng Zhai in Yiwu Mountain, Xishuangbanna. Seo Pen manages gardens on the eastern part of that big mountain, very big tea trees grow in the forest, only reachable by hours of walking through dirt tracks. In Seo Pen, the farmers started to establish natural tea gardens in the vicinity of their village as early as 2004, when the pu-erh hype started and there was demand for Pu-erh from the other side of the border. These tea gardens now supply Gua Feng Zhai village and the greater Yiwu area to help quench the huge demand in this famous mountain.
These tea gardens are not forest tea, they were established on cleared plots with a low plantation density and a few shade trees. No pesticides and fertilizers are used for their maintenance. The tea seeds were bought in Pu'er but the leaves look similar to what is grown in Yiwu, suggesting it is the same sub-varietal.
This tea is very sweet and has a good thickness, a decent Huigan comes after a couple of brews. It has a herbaceous fragrance and reminds of a walk in a forest. The mouthfeel and sweetness are the strong points of this tea, the fragrance is secondary. No bitterness of any kind can be noticed, and a medium astringency probably due to the young age of the trees comes out after a few infusions. It is a very brewable tea that will keep you busy for an hour.
This tea is a strong indicator that age of the trees doesn't matter as much as soil quality and garden management techniques, despite being only 15 year-old trees, you will be surprised by what this tea can deliver.