Mark serving tea in Zhi Zheng's shop in Jing Hong tea market
An Englishman in Jing Hong
Mark Turner is one of the few foreigners who calls Jing Hong home. He is the British half of Zhi Zheng tea, a producer of organic, hand-made, ancient tree puer. Zhu Ge, his business partner, is a white haired Beijinger with connections in the entertainment industry.
Zhu Ge serving tea at Zhi Zheng's maocha processing facility on Nannuo
Freshly made maocha being laid out to sun dry
Zhi Zheng recently set up their own maocha processing facility on Nannuo shan, to better control the quality of maocha production by buying fresh leaves directly from farmers & hiring an experienced technician to hand-fry the leaves to perfection. It also functions as a guest house for their VIP customers, a colourful bunch of tea enthusiasts who scour the nearby villages in hunt of the best leaves. We visited their guesthouse in Nannuo and met some of Zhi Zheng’s Beijing customers who had driven for 3 days from Beijing, just to buy direct from Zhi Zheng’s network of local farmers.
Picking the 2011 spring flush on Nannuo mountain
Mark spent many years studying Taoism in Malaysia and has lived in Jinghong for 5 years. He has lived through the construction boom and seen the climate change as farmers clear land and switch to new, more profitable, crops. Yunnan is basically one big crumple zone for the Himalayas crashing into Asia, with huge variations in elevation creating a variety of climates along its mountain ranges. This is why Yunnan has the highest bio diversity & ethnic diversity in China. Unfortunately, as the rainforest in the lower lying regions has been cut back and replaced with bananas & rubber, there is reduced mist & rainfall for the tea trees higher up the mountains.
Garbage surrounding a sign which says "do not throw garbage here"
The tea farmers are not entirely innocent victims. As Puer has risen in popularity, farmers have cleared forest & even cut down some of their ancient tea trees to make way for new homes & higher density, higher yield plantations, boosted with fertilizer and pesticides. It is a familiar lament, but Mark brought it home with another troubling indicator closer to home – that you can’t find monkeys on Nannuo mountain anymore. Worse still, some farmers are cutting their trees in half to encourage regrowth & make them easier to harvest. I personally saw many trees that fit this description in Yiwu, where many of the bushes grow out of 300 year old tree stumps. For those interested in reading more about environmental changes impacting Yunnan’s tea trees, Andrew Stein, a Fullbright scholar who blogs for Wild China is well worth following.
Elderly tea picker on Nannuo Shan
Back in town, we visited Zhi Zheng’s cosy shop in the heart of Jing Hong’s tea market. Mark served us two of Zhi Zheng’s teas, refusing to tell us anything about them, until we had drank & formed our own opinion. The tea tasted great but I couldn’t place them. I discovered the tea I liked best was actually Zhi Zheng’s 2010 Bulang Autumn Charm (秋韵 "Qiu Yun" RMB 390), which was the 3rd time in recent tastings that I had preferred the Autumn harvest over the Spring. Very interesting…
A beautiful cake for sale in Zhi Zheng's store in Jing Hong
Mark explained Autumn maocha prices now set the price for the following spring, and can be more expensive than the previous Spring. 2011 spring prices for Bulang maocha ranged from RMB 400-800/kg, depending on the village. Nannuo used to be much cheaper, but because it is only 30min drive from JingHong, its gets more tourists than Yiwu or Bulang. The tourists buy directly from the farmers, and have driven prices up from RMB 240 to 400/kg. So expect prices for gu shu to continue to go up, especially with the new Jing Hong airport opening soon, allowing more flights in. All the more reason to stock up now!
In this semi-autonomous region, I was fascinated to hear how land is inherited & apportioned by the village head. Typically a family might have 3-4 patches of land on different parts of the mountain, making it hard to keep watch around the clock. One can only imagine the system of village justice used to identify thieves & punish them. Mark told me many of the farmers have hand made guns for hunting, I guess these weapons are equally good at dissuading tea poachers!
Freshly picked leaves being brought into the village for processing
I asked Mark about the rumors of maocha being smuggled in from cheaper, neighbouring regions, in order to sell it at a profit in higher priced villages like Lao Ban Zhang. Mark said the supply chain can only be truly transparent if you live with the farmers and pick & process the tea with them. There are very few producers who do this, as it severely restricts the number of regions you can cover in a given season. So ultimately, a lot of maocha is still bought on trust, and your ability to taste pure gushu maocha from those blended with younger trees. Ever the philosopher, Mark asked us “Does it really matter where it’s from? The real question is the tea any good?”
Does a name like “Bulang” really guarantee a consistent, characteristic flavor profile? Bulang mountain consists of many smaller peaks, and trees from different parts of the mountain, can have very different flavor, influenced by genetic mutation, soil, sunlight & shade. Even trees 3-6m apart can produce dramatically different flavors. So how can you tell if what you are buying is the real deal? You need to train your palate & build strong relationships with your suppliers.
Fresh Nannuo maocha
The farmer’s technique in turning fresh leaves into sundried maocha is another critical influence. Not only must the trees be good, but the farmer must also be highly skilled in hand-frying & kneading fresh leaves into maocha. It’s easy to over fry the leaves, which produces a burnt cabbage taste, says Mark. Hopefully they don’t over harvest their trees too, as unhealthy stressed teas produce weaker tea. Lastly, the density of the pressed tea affects oxidation & how it ages, which is why if you compare an aged maocha to an aged cake made from the same batch of material, it will taste different.
A lot of the tea we had drank so far in Bana had been underwhelming compared to what we had drunk in Kunming. Mark’s view is Bana stored teas have suppressed xiang qi (fragrance) compared to Kunming, perhaps because the humid climate in Bana doesn’t allow the tea aroma to fully open up. When tea is moved from Bana to another city, the climatic change in storage will again affect the tea. Resting the tea for 1 month will allow it to acclimatize before drinking.
We headed across the road to a Thai restaurant for lunch, where Mark surprised me with some new facts about shou pu production. Whereas single mountain gu shu is highly prized among sheng afficianiados, Mark says good shou pu requires a variety of material from different mountains otherwise the tea tastes flat. He also told us shou cha is made in 1 tonne batches, and that the pile loses weight during the process, which is why good material (ie. gu shu) is rarely “wasted” in making shou cha, as it will shrink and sell for a lower price.
Mark's water container & serving gourd
I learnt a lot from Mark. He was very open & generous with sharing his knowledge. If you are ever in Jing Hong, the Zhi Zheng store is well worth a visit. I particularly like how their still water is stored in an earthenware pot, and scooped out by hand, using a large gourd. Mark has experimented with many different kinds of water, and recommends water from a volcanic source. Of all the branded mineral waters, he recommends Volvic for its neutral pH. Avoid alkaline water, which makes the tea tastes more astringent.
Zhi Zheng's new guesthouse / maocha factory on Nannuo
The toilets have some creative flair!
Yours truly, doing some tree climbing on Nannuo's steep slopes