Driving through Menghai
The surprising thing about Menghai is that it is pretty much flat. Driving west from Jinghong, one must first ascend Nannuo mountain, before entering the Menghai plateau. The other surprising thing about Menghai is that it’s very populated. Buildings & townships dot the plain. From the highway, you see more vegetable plots & houses than tea farms or factories.
I was here to visit the Menghai Tea Research Institute, which is usually off limits to tourists, but my wife’s teacher in Shanghai had contacted tea friends in Yunnan, and arrangements had been made. We were greeted at the entrance by Mr. Liang Ming Zhi (梁名志), the deputy director of the institute, next to a cute guardhouse fashioned to look like a giant teapot.
World's cutest guard house?
Mr. Liang seemed caught off guard by our visit, as if some unnamed superior had suddenly delegated the task of entertaining the foreign tourists to him.
Given tea’s significance to the Yunnan economy, I was expecting a bustling, state of the art facility. But in reality, the menghai tea institute is a sleepy government outpost, a shadow of its former self. Set within huge grounds on top of a gently sloping hill, the gardens are well maintained, yet eerily absent of people. The many white washed concrete buildings on the grounds attested to an era when hundreds of government employees lived on the grounds.
Statue of Lu Yu outside the main building
Mr. Liang explained the institute was originally founded in 1938, but since the end of the planned economy, the institute has funded itself by selling tea grown on its land. They are in effect, a state owned model farm, producing puer, red & green tea under the institute’s name. Today, they have 120 staff, including 30 pickers, and a research center in Shanghai. One of their big successes in recent years was the development of a new purple bud varietal “Zi Juan” (紫娟) that is particularly effective at lowering blood pressure.
Purple bud varietal “Zi Juan” 紫娟
We entered one of the buildings, which resembled an old school building, filled with silent, empty classrooms. Upstairs, was a large tea room with an assortment of heavy wooden furniture & fading trophies in display cases. A thin layer of dust coated everything, and the thin sunlight entering through the musty windows gave everything the appearance of age. I had the distinct feeling of stepping back in time.
Two middle aged women appeared and began to silently prepare tea. As the electric kettle rumbled & rattled away, I began to ask Mr. Liang questions about the institute’s research work.
Mr. Liang explained shou pu was invented here in the 1970’s, mainly for export to Hongkong and Malaysia, where drinkers were accustomed to a strong storage taste. Whilst farming & cross breeding new strains is their main preoccuptation these days, the institute has also experimented with new processing methods for red tea, and Shou Pu. One recent experiment involved using man made bacteria to improve the pile fermentation process used in Shou Puer production.
In recent years, rising living standards in China have led to a corresponding increase in meat consumption, which Mr. Liang believes is driving demand for Puer as a digestive. I asked where I could find research data on puer’s claimed health benefits. He replied that the French first published research on tuocha’s health benefits in the 70s, followed by the Japanese who discovered it lowered cholesterol & aided digestion. He told me Shanghai Hua Dong University, and Guangzhou’s Jilin university had both carried out domestic studies, but was rather sketchy about where I could find these elusive papers. If any of you readers have come across such research, please do share!
Whilst the English found ancient trees in Assam, India (hence the big-leaf varietal is called “camellia sinensis assamica”), the institute believes the Indian trees descended from Yunnan trees. And there are many counties in Yunnan which claim to be the true origin. According to Mr. Liang, the oldest living tree is in Fengqing, north of Lincang, where there is a 3,000 year old mother tree. I asked Mr. Liang how they determine the age of old trees, without cutting them down. He explained measuring the girth of the trunk & taking core samples is one method, but many of the ancient trees have rotted or empty cores, with new growth growing around the dead core. So tree age is also estimated according to how many generations of villagers have lived there. He gave one example of the Hani tribe who have been living on the mountain for 80 generations, so it is estimated their tea trees are 800 years old.
Due to human propagation & natural adaptation, today there are 47 recorded big leaf varietals and over 1,000 sub varietals. Knowing that China’s food security issues have encouraged the Government to fund genetic engineering of crops, I asked if the institute maintains a seed bank or genetically engineers tea. I was surprised to hear there are too many gene combinations, and big gaps in tea genome mapping. I guess the official answer is “no, but we’re trying!”
Finally the water finished boiling, and we were served the institute’s house brand of 2008 shou pu and a Yunnan green tea called Fo Xiang 佛香 which the institute cross bred from large and small leaf varietals, producing a more concentrated brew than green teas from the north of China.
Fo Xiang 佛香
Fo Xiang 佛香
Mr. Liang elaborated that the institute has maintained a cross breeding program since the 1970s, but it relies on manual pollination by hand. The cross breeding program is not focused on yield increases, but disease & pest resistance. The main disease they are trying to combat is tea blister blight (茶饼病) – a cancer like growth which affects older leaves, especially in high humidity. The biggest pest to tea plants is the small green leaf cicada (小绿叶蝉) which is usually controlled using chemical pesticides, but the institute is trying to develop a varietal with pest deterring sap.
Reminded of my conversation with Mark from Zhi Zheng tea, I asked Mr. Liang if deforestation is leading to climate change that affects Yunnan’s tea. Mr. Liang confirmed that climate change is having an impact, but he didn’t have any data and seemed reluctant to say more on the matter. He did say the institute believes educating farmers on the benefit of organic farming is the key, as it is too impractical to legislate & police every farmer individually.
My final controversial subject for him, was on the rapid growth of terraced plantation tea, known in China as “tai di cha”. Mr. Liang said most tai di cha is grown from cuttings taken from a mother tree. Although plants grown from seed produce better tasting tea, the results are unpredictable, so the institute still advises farmers to propagate from cuttings, which results in consistent buddings & appearance, easier for machine harvesting & processing. They also advise farmers to grow at least 12 non tea trees for every 1 mu of plantation tea, as this biodiversity encourages spiders which reduce the pests. Camphor laurel trees in particular, are a popular choice as their tree oil evaporates into the air, and naturally repel insects.
Our interview over, we took a slow ambling walk around the institute grounds, but were blocked from seeing the tea farm itself, separated by a 2m high concrete wall. Much to our disappointment, we were not allowed to see the experimental plants or the institute’s collection of different varietals, only the purple bud Zi Juan growing outside. However, at one point where the wall dipped into a gully, I did spot 1-2 acres of tai di cha, with no large trees growing inbetween. It seems the institute does not always follow it’s own advice!
A glimpse of plantation tea behind the banana trees
12 non tea trees to every 1 mu (one sixth of an acre)
We bid farewell to our host at the factory gates, ending our official visit with an awkwardly formal photo. Several commemorative & official plaques clung grimly to a rusty metal wall, like medals on an old war veteran. Whilst the glory days for the institute may be in the past, I am very grateful to Mr. Liang for accommodating us & patiently answering my questions, and I thank our Shanghai tea friends & their connections for making this visit possible.
Yours truly, Mr. Liang in the middle, my friend DP on the right
On the road back into Menghai town, we passed some school kids yelling and pointing excitedly at something by the side of the road. We pulled over to take a look, and glimpsed a large snake slithering off into the tea bushes. Our fearless driver Ah-Hong made an effort to locate the snake and herd it back in our direction so we could take photos, but to no avail.
The road through Menghai
Watermelon vendor in Menghai