One of the first facts I was told upon arriving at Lao Banzhang yesterday was that there are around 500 people in Lao Banzhang and over 1000 dogs! They’re everywhere. Apparently people don’t take care of a lot of them, they just scavenge and somehow survive off meagre scraps.
Having arrived in comfort this time – being invited and driven there by one of the managers of Chen Shen tea company, I proceeded to inquire after a few more facts… “Is it true you bought the rights to Lao Banzhang tea and that all the farmers have to sell they tea through you?”… ” (paraphrased)… well it was last year, but then we figured that even with our security around the village, the villagers were still sneaking tea in and trying to sell it to us. We had some difficult situations, since we’d agreed to buy their Lao Banzhang tea. So this year we decided to change things a bit. The farmers can bring their tea to us to buy, then if we don’t like it or don’t want it, they can sell it privately elsewhere.”
Renting the mountain for 30 years sounded like a strange thing when I first heard of it, and it seemed even stranger when I went to Lao Banzhang last year and saw the security checkpoints as you entered and left the village, and the one place you could buy tea – only straight from the company. I found out a bit more about the pricing this time – the factory bought it from the farmers for 400RMB/kg and sold it for 600RMB/kg. So everyone made quite a bit of money – the farmers and the factory. And everyone became richer and richer, the farmers and the factory. The wealth here is obvious compared to other villages I’ve been to. Many houses have new roofs, expensive 4×4 jeeps sit in front of many, and walking into the village leader’s huge house it was obvious that some extensive renovations and decorations had taken place in the last couple of years.
As we entered, we were greeted by a group of people inside – some from Chen Shen, one guy who worked for CNNP, the leader of the village and some others. They were in the process of brewing up tea from various little bags of maocha on the table. There was to be a tea competition in Nannuo in a few weeks, and they were trying to select the best Banzhang tea to enter in the competition. I sat down and tasted. All were amazing, some more than others, but all very good. Strong, with a bitterness that quickly turned to sweetness in the mouth – it’s easy to see why Banzhang grew to have the reputation it has.
Some more tea drinking, some lunch (managing to escape the ubiquitous drinking of Bai Jiu (a strong rice/corn alcohol) that seems to accompany many meals in villages), and then on to see some of the old trees that surround Lao Banzhang village. These were huge, bigger than many I’d seen in other places. Bigger than most I’d seen in Nannuo. I’d not had a chance to see these trees last time I’d visited and was glad to be able to see some of these trees for myself.
Then it was on to some farmer’s houses to taste some tea. The factory hadn’t started selling tea yet this year, so any purchases had to be directly from the farmers. This was the point, as seems common when cash starts to get involved, when things became a little messy. With buying from the factory, there is some guarantee, but when buying directly from the farmers there is no guarantee. There’s no reputation to uphold and no reason not to switch their expensive Lao Banzhang maocha from lesser quality maocha from other places. And so it turned out to be as we tasted maocha after maocha in different houses. The tea was good, even old growth tea, but the banzhang flavour was muted as if a little banzhang had been mixed with tea from other places.
I hadn’t planned to buy much for myself, maybe a kilogram or two, but a friend had asked me to make 3 tongs of Lao Banzhang for him. Something didn’t feel right, so I walked away with only a small handful of the competition maocha that I’d been given. A little disappointed, but feeling that there’s tea in less famous mountains that is as good as Banzhang tea, but without the same price tag and without the same incentive for dishonesty. With the factory setting the price high for their tea, and with farmers now selling privately too, I think Banzhang tea is destined to become messier and messier.
A very interesting day. Mulling it over in my mind on the bus ride back to Jinghong from Menghai, I was glad I’d gone – a little disappointed in the approach they had, but very interesting. Actually one of the nicest parts of the day was sharing the journey with two unexpected companions – an editor from Wushing who was going there to interview one of the factory managers and a celadon potter from Taipei who was along for the ride.