Belle and I are now back in Shanghai, together with 700 cakes of 2013 Spring puer that we made in Yunnan. This year's design theme is Warriors VS Scholars, which was inspired by a roadtrip I shared with my friend & fellow adventurer Evan Villarubia. Evan spent a year riding his bike through every province in China, and accompanied me on my 2012 Lincang sourcing trip. Evan is from Louisiana but as a Chinese major & professional translator, his mandarin is competition-winning... I'll admit, even much better than mine! Evan and I were the first foreigners to visit some of those remote farms & factories in Yongde, and upon seeing my white translator, the village heads, party chiefs, and factory owners decided I must be some kind of important international tea-buyer, so we enjoyed red carpet hospitality wherever we went. Thankfully Evan is not only a good drinker, he's also read most of the Chinese classics. On the long bus ride from Lincang to Yongde, he regaled me with tales of warrior monks, noble bandits and romantic poets. And the concept of Warriors versus Scholars was born.
We decided to use warriors for the more baqi teas from Lao Man E, Gua Feng Zhai etc, and scholars for the sweeter, more floral teas, eg. Yiwu, Jingmai. It's up to you to decide if the pen is mightier than the sword.
Mu Lan (warrior) VS Li Bai (scholar)
Here at Tea Urchin, we love to involve our friends & family and create more meaning in everything we do. From Miles' birthday cake, to my sister Elaine Su-Hui's artwork, we like to make things personal. So this year, Evan and I concepted the wrappers, my dad was enlisted to write the Chinese calligraphy for each warrior & scholar's name, and for the third year running, our friend Yue Chen provided the beautiful illustrations.
My personal favorite of the series is our Lao Man E, which features Lu Zhi Shen 鲁智深, otherwise known as "the flowery monk" for the tattoos which covered his body. Lu Zhishen was famous for being incredibly strong but rough, a terrible drunk who got into trouble but later redeemed himself. Which perfectly fits the character of our Lao Man E don't you agree? Especially this year, as we've blended bitter & sweet leaves together, giving the tea more kick, making it more "ba qi" 霸气 as we say in Chinese.
Before starting our tea business, Belle and I could not have imagined that 99% of our pu-erh customers would be male. But that's how it is, and this year's wrappers were designed with you in mind. So if you thought our manga designs last year were too cute and not manly enough... well you should have no such complaint now ;)
The beginning of this year's Spring harvest in Yunnan was marred by heavy rain in Yiwu, which washed out the first batch of early spring material. A related hailstorm in Bulang, damaged the first flush so badly, some farmers reported losing 80% of their expected early spring yield. But then the weather got better, and the teas from the first 2 weeks of April were fantastic, with clear skies, strong sunlight, and the occasional overnight sprinkle. But the tea growers life is ruled by the vicissitudes of weather. As the first flush ended, and the second flush failed to come, farmers were soon praying for rain. In the end, they got too much again, and the tail end of the season was ruined by heavy rain brought about by Cyclone Nargis in neighboring Myanmar.
We were lucky to get enough tea for our pressings during the period of good weather, and whilst we were there, everyday was sunny & dry.
One of our best finds of the season was in Baotang where the trees are large & ancient, and growing in biodiverse, organic gardens.
On the positive side, rising tea prices have improved the life of the farmers dramatically. More and more are living in concrete two storey houses now. In Lao Ban Zhang, a family can make $150,000 US dollars in un-taxed profit a year, and many have bought a second home in Menghai. They are also investing in better equipment, such as these expensive bronze woks that spread the heat out better, burning less leaves.
Our friend Caroline, who runs the The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, and two of her colleagues, joined us for a tour around the backcountry of Yibang. We found some incredibly tasty tea growing inside the forest there, and around Manzhuan, which we will revisit in the near future. Currently, the dirt track from Xiangming up to Yibang is shockingly bad, but it's being resurfaced & cobblestoned, and with greater access, the prices will be going up in the coming years. Stock up on your Yibang now.
A week later, Paul, aka twodog from white2tea, and Peter from Pu-erh.sk joined me on an exploratory trip up into the lesser known villages of Bulang.
When we entered Mannuo village we found many large, ancient trees growing in & around the village, with some of the largest leaves I've ever seen.
Dysentery is a terrible thing to have when you're forced to eat strange spicy foods, drink raw maocha all day, and the nearest clinic is over an hour's drive away. In villages without electricity, or toilets, it's a nightmare to clamber out of a smoke filled hut in the middle of the night, and make your way into the forest to dig a hole. The last thing Peter needed was for our tiny, valiant breadvan to break down, which of course it did...
Jokes aside, the three of us endured some hard travel for just a few kilograms of tea, most of which is going into a private pressing to commemorate our joint expedition. If you're lucky, we just might share some samples with you!
The superb forest tea that Belle and I picked up on this trip, has now been blended and made into a very tasty cake that has all the hallmark Bulang bitterness, but with a complex mid-range and a delectable top note of sweetness. We chose old trees growing in forest near the Myanmar border, and you can definitely taste that forest spirit in this tea. Whereas there's been extensive logging and land clearing on the Chinese side of the border, the Burmese side is completely covered in virgin forest, and that creates breathtaking clouds of mist, that rise up the mountain each morning. Hand-processing in the remote villages of Bulang is not as good as Yiwu but we've ensured a clean, bright taste, without any burnt or smoky flavors. We even deliberately left some huangpian in there, because it enhances the thickness & sweetness. Each cake has been carefully wrapped in hand-made Dai paper, hand printed in New York by my sister Elaine Su-Hui. The colorful splashes are inspired by the ceremonial headdress worn by Bulang women.