Ancient Puerh Tea Garden in Mengsong
We’ve been in Yunnan for the past couple of weeks & been travelling to a few different mountains, drinking some teas, chatting to folk and trying to get a feeling for the situation this spring. Each year the tea market seems a little stranger than before, but this year it seems to have taken a seismic jump in strangeness. The tea price has shot up pretty much everywhere. The famous areas are commanding ever more insane prices, and there seem to be more and more people travelling to the tea mountains… both tea tourists, who drive to the mountains and bring back a few kg of tea as a souvenir and businessmen, new to tea, but intent on making a lot of money. Both of these types of people drive up the price. The tourists have travelled to the mountains and don’t want to leave empty-handed, and the businessmen, hungry for profits who want some ‘Lao Banzhang’ or ‘Bingdao’ no matter what the price (or quality it seems!).
Picking ancient tea trees in Mangzhi
While in Menghai last week, we bumped into a farmer from Lao Banzhang we’ve known since 2010. We stayed in his house in 2011 and, despite not buying their tea, we’ve always found him friendly and surprisingly frank about village life there. When we met him, he was in Menghai for a couple of days – he said to escape the hecticness of the village. From his account, there is a fairly constant stream of 4×4’s turning up to buy tea. He estimated that many families in the village have a daily turnover of around £200,000 at the moment. How accurate or not this is, I don’t know, but if it’s anywhere remotely approaching that, there’s a serious amount of money going through that small village.
When we asked him if he thought the situation in Lao Banzhang was sustainable, he conceded that it probably wasn’t, though at the moment he’d invested in property in Menghai and Lijiang and had saved quite a bit of money. He said that if the demand for Lao Banzhang tea were to crash tomorrow, he’d still have enough for the next couple of generations of his family to live comfortably. He lamented the loss of much of the community spirit in the village though – before everyone became cash rich there was a tight-knit community, who’d work together and help each other. Now, outside of each immediate family group, there is less cooperation and if you need help with something from your neighbours you’ll often be expected to pay them some money.
Fresh buds in Mengsong
We made a couple of trips to some mountains that were new to us, mostly for the purposes of taking some video and documenting the production process of puerh. We visited some lovely unspoilt tea gardens in Mengsong, deep in a protected forest area with very old trees growing naturally. The trees were just beginning to sprout buds, so there hadn’t been much tea produced from this garden yet this spring, but the little we did try was excellent. I have high hopes for this tea garden & hopefully we’ll be able to press some tea from there this Spring. We also visited Gedeng and Mangzhi, where I hadn’t been before.
Tea Garden & processing in Mengsong
Elsewhere, it’s been a bit of a difficult time. It seems more and more forest is being burnt and cleared for rubber and bananas at lower elevations. Higher in the mountains, in the tea gardens, the signs of agrochemicals are everywhere – whether obvious from just looking at the tea garden, or from tasting the produced tea. Since they were so pervasive in the teas we tried last year, it’s difficult to tell whether their use is increasing or not.
Cleared hillsides, now planted only with rubber trees
We have also been noticing many tea gardens where the soil has been turned. This allows the farmers to control the weeds effectively & encourages the tea trees to sprout more buds, but at the expense of the thickness and richness of the tea leaves. It also risks harming the tea tree in the long term through regular disturbance of the beneficial bacteria within the rhizosphere. When we asked one farmer in Mangzhi about this though she replied that whether the tea is rich or not is an issue for the tea drinkers – her job is just to grow the leaves. When the price is reasonably fixed and the teas all sell whether they are excellent or not, it’s easy to see things from her point of view.
Tea Garden in Gedeng – The soil has been turned & the ancient trees look dull, weak and overpicked
Reflecting on my own writings and experiences in the tea mountains & wonder if I’m overly pessimistic or critical. Plenty of other visitors to the mountains seem to have lovely experiences & find good tea everywhere. Maybe we have different expectations, or maybe I’ve become jaded in the short few years we’ve been making tea, but I find it difficult to have much to be hopeful about. There are still good tea gardens in places and an overwhelming majority of lovely & very kind people in the mountains. I think perhaps a lack of education about the dangers of agrochemicals, influence from visiting outsiders, a sudden influx of newfound wealth and accompanying temptations doesn’t bode well for many of the tea regions. I often wonder how long we’ll be able to find pure puerh tea for.