Banzhang

It is commonly remarked that Yiwu is like the queen of puerh tea, while Banzhang is the king. The soft rounded character of Yiwu is contrasted by the intensely strong, bitter flavour and powerful chaqi of Banzhang. Due to the high demand and subsequent sky high prices (up to 1800RMB/US$260 per kg) of Banzhang tea in recent years, it’s unlikely that the vast majority of Banzhang tea on the market is actually pure.

With the myth surrounding Banzhang, this was the place I was most excited to be able to go to on this trip and it was as we were driving for 2 hours up possibly the worst track I’ve ever driven on that I had time to contemplate the different terrains and contrasting flavours of each area. Just like the teas, compared with the smooth bus ride right into Yiwu village, there’s nothing smooth about Banzhang – it’s rugged and hard, not for the casual sightseer. You really have got to want to go to this place.

Road to Banzhang

Time and time again we winced and felt bad for our kind driver as he scraped the bottom of his van across another rock or ridge, realising why he’d said that it was pretty much impossible to get to Lao Banzhang without a 4×4.

Suddenly the road forked, we stopped for a brief rest from the boneshaking track and viewed the scenery. We were greeted by a sign informing us of our choice… left road Lao (Old) Banzhang and to the right Xin (New) Banzhang.

Left road - Lao (Old) Banzhang, to the right - Xin (New) Banzhang

It seems that up until around 1940 these villagers lived as one community and split up to farm an adjacent mountain, creating a new village and transplanting some tea trees from the old village.

Since we were to call in on one of Erduo’s friends later for lunch in Xin Banzhang, we took the left track and continued our negotiation of the hazardous track to Lao Banzhang.

Upon arriving at the town I was surprised to find a barrier in the way with some men sitting in a hut. As we pulled up they got up and peered through the windows, checking the floor of the car where we were sitting and peering into the back. Due to the crazy heights that the price for Banzhang tea has reached in recent years and the lucrative potential for selling tea from other places as ‘Banzhang’, the villagers have placed a ban on bringing other tea into the village. This goes some way towards ensuring that the tea within Lao Banzhang village is actually from Lao Banzhang, although I’m sure there’s bound to be other ways for someone with a strong wish to smuggle tea into the village.

Lao Banzhang

We pulled up into the centre of the village and took a walk around. It seems that a Hong Kong company had bought all the maocha from the second spring picking, and every farmer collectively had agreed to sell only to them. If we wanted to buy any maocha we had to do it at the one official tea trading post in the town, and could only buy a few kilograms if we wanted any at all. This was fine by me, even at the current price which is 1/2 – 1/3 of last years price, this is still expensive tea at US$90 per kg.

Tea trading - Lao Banzhang

We sat and tasted, wishing as we encountered the bitter Banzhang tea that we’d eaten something before.

This tea was bitter, too bitter even for Banzhang. Upon inquiring, we were told that because of the exceptionally heavy rain this Spring, the second picking all possessed this harsh flavour. Luckily there were a few kilos of the first Spring picking available for us to taste. This was much better. Still possessing the strong Banzhang ku [bitterness], this was much less harsh and more aromatic, with a lasting huigan [pleasant aftertaste]. “We’ll take some of this, but just a kilo each”.

Our tea was weighed out and we left, with a couple of shopping bags filled with maocha. We had a brief look around the village, before hurredly getting back in the car, on our way towards lunch to fill our aching stomachs.

Our venue for lunch was at Erduo’s friend’s house in Xin [New] Banzhang. Back onto the track!

Road down from Lao Banzhang

Luckily when we reached the junction to Xin Banzhang the road became (comparitively) more smooth, and the few remaining miles to Xin Banzhang were much more comfortable. Before ariving at the village, as with Lao Banzhang, there was the standard barrier and scrutiny of the contents of our car to prevent tea smuggling. Luckily they seemed uninterested with the few kilograms of maocha we’d picked up in Lao Banzhang – presumably they’re really only interested in someone bringing sackfulls of tea into the village

Xin Banzhang

First before lunch, we had some more tea. Luckily the Xin Banzhang tea was much less bitter and more easy for our aching stomachs.

Tasting tea in Xin Banzhang

P1000670

Lunch was a pleasure, a feast of tasty dishes, followed by yet more tea. Having already spend more than we could afford on Lao Banzhang maocha, we declined the offer to be able to purchase some Xin Banzhang maocha, but upon our leaving, we were each presented with a plastic bag stuffed full of maocha anyway. Such kindness.

P1000276

P1000277

And so, after a brief look around the village, back into the van to begin our journey back home. Pretty much the end of our tea trip and a pleasant end to a very special week.

  • Anonymous

    May be foolish questions but…

    What kind of tea do tea farming folk drink regularly?

    Do you get asked questions when you visit? (…and what are they…?)

    Evocative images.

    Lethargus

  • nada

    Not foolish questions at all.

    Mostly they seem to drink the huang pian [yellowed leaves] which are picked out from the maocha before pressing the bings. These are sweet and smooth tasting and a perfect accompaniment to a meal. For the tiny sum of 5RMB (<40p), one could buy a bing made from these leaves. I picked one up for occasional drinking.

    Sometimes they’ll brew up some of their maocha (although it was remarked by a friend of the farmers that this rarely happens when it’s just him visiting!)

    Their method of brewing is very causal – select one very large tin mug, throw in a handful of leaves, pour in some boiling water and pour off tea as and when required, paying little attention to how long it is left to steep. Surprisingly it tasted great!

    For testing their maocha, and when they had time to make some extra effort, everyone seemed to have a tea table and chipped gaiwan available somewhere in their house.

    As for questions, they seemed interested to know how I’d come across puerh tea, do many westerners drink Chinese tea, do we really add milk and sugar to our tea, how much tea is sold in the tea market in Kunming, could I bring some samples of their tea to shops in Kunming, what’s my job, do I like China etc. etc. etc.

    nada.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks.

    The question regarding the milk and sugar in tea made me smile.

    Are the huang pian bings commercially available? They sound nice/interesting.

    Lethargus

  • nada

    I guess probably not generally available to the western/internet ordering world, but if you’d like one, maybe send me an email and I’ll bring one to Glasgow for you when I’m there next

  • Bill

    What an adventure. Living archeology! You are definitely correct about the price of Lao Banzhang Maocha. Last year I purchased some Mengyang Guoyan beengs claiming to be made of Autumn harvest Lao BanZhang just under $50 USD a beeng. I will be lucky if the beeng is predomiantely LB. After tasting and this particular tea for sometime, I don’t believe that it is.

    Prices are crazy! I am just happy that price of mao cha is starting to decline.

  • nada

    Hi Bill,

    I’m in a similar situation with my 2005 Gu Hwa [Autumn leaves] Mengyang Guoyan ‘Lao Banzhang’ bings I’ve got sitting at home in Ireland.

    These also cost me around $50. I’m unsure how much of a mark-up is generally applied my the factory, wholeseller and retail seller, but I guess the cost of the maocha can’t be much more than a third of this price ($16.6). The bings are 400g, so if we multiply this out it leaves us with maocha costing around $41/kg.

    Given that a) 2005 seems to be just before the huge price increase in puerh and b) Gu Hwa leaves are cheaper than spring, it seems possible that there may at least be a fair amount of true Lao Banzhang leaves in these bings.

    Of course there’s no way I can know any of this for sure, so I guess we just come to a point where we have to judge the tea on it’s own merits. I’m happy to say I enjoy drinking this tea, ‘lao banzhang’ or not.

    It seems sad that there needs to be this level of deception in the market – wouldn’t it be great is manufacturers just said ‘It’s 10% Lao Banzhang and 90% taidicha’. I gotta stop dreaming!

  • Anonymous

    greetings to you first

    did a search on 12 gents, and found this site i like it a lot
    your teatable is lovely. if i may ask do you live in kunming now or is your stay limited, i’d like to go there some day too. I’ve been buying from yunnan sourcing, but want to know the price of a 12 gentlemen beeng, one that you’d drink, can i buy one from you?

  • nada

    Dear Anonymous,

    I’ve just left Kunming and am on my way to Taiwan for a few weeks before returning to the UK.

    I ended up buying more 12 gents bings than I can possibly drink myself so, if you’d like one, send me an email at blazingnada [at] gmail & I can forward you one when I reach the UK.

    nada.

  • nada

    (the regular price of their 2007 Yiwu, which I think is one of their best, is US$62, but i ended up getting it a little cheaper – maybe we can discuss offline)

  • Brett

    Hi Nada,
    Beautiful tea blog. I love the pictures of Yunnan and dream of going on my own tea trek to this region!

    Cheers,
    Brett in Seattle