The question is how to find Puerh tea that is rich in minerals. We should know the logic first in order to look for the ideal quality. In Yunnan, there are more than a few thousands types of Pu-erh tea. It is impossible to taste all the tea one by one. It is important for us to set a list of criteria and select the tea accordingly. Please see the following criteria that we always use when we look for quality Pu-erh.
Altitude And Latitude
High altitude is essential not only for Pu-erh, but also for all kinds of tea. With higher elevation, tea trees receive stronger sunshine in daytime, yet the temperature at night is very low. Under such extreme weather condition, tea leaves are able to produce more substance and preserve it because of less consumption at night. Eventually tea gives a very rich flavor and strong in Hou Yun.
Geographically, the South Yunnan is facing Vietnam and Laos. The weather there is as tropical as South East Asia. On the other hand, the weather in South West to West Yunnan is much colder on account of the higher latitude. In general, the gap of temperature between daytime and nighttime is even wider at higher latitudes. However if the latitude is too high, it is too cold at night and not suitable for growing tea.
The Age of Tea Trees
Some places that are situated in South Yunnan such as Bu Lang Shan (布朗山) or Lao Ban Zhang (老班章) exceptionally produce good quality tea. These two areas are not located at highe latitude. The lack of latitude has been made up with the age of tea trees and some other factors. In Yunnan, the age of tree is considered as a very important factor in producing quality Pu-erh Tea. The root grows longer when the age of tree gets older. With longer root, the surface area of roots increased and hence the ability of tree to absorb mineral from the soil is increased.
In Yunnan, the tea tree is classified into 4 different categories as follows.
Literally it is the tea made from the tea garden. In Yunnan the history of garden tea is short. In general, majority of ripe Pu-erh is made from garden tea.
Comparatively, garden tea gives a weak Hon Yun in general, unless the garden is situated at very hgh mountain that is more than 2000m.
Middle age tea bush grown at mountain
Tea tree grows in the mountain and the age of tree is at around 100-300 years old. The tea tree is planted on the slope of the mountain in between wild-grown native trees. The Hou Yun of tea from this category is much stronger than the garden tea in general. It is not only because of longer root, but also thanks to the minerals provided by the fallen leaves from native tree and grass from the native plants growing in surrounding environment. It gives intermediate level of Hou Yun if the altitude of mountain is less than 2000m. For those that are situated more than 2000m, tea gives a very strong Hou Yun.
It is referring to the tea trees that age more than 300 years , and growing on the slope of mountain. Tealeaves harvested from such old tea trees are considered as the best raw material in Yunnan. In fact, Pu-erh tea made of tealeaves of such old trees gives extremely strong Hou Yun. The freshly plucked leaves from those old trees itself gives strong Hou Yun. However the price of these teas tends to be very high.
Due to the limited supply of leaves from old trees, the output is very limited. In any case, old tea tree does not guarantee the best quality. If tea is made from the middle age tree that is grown at very high mountain (>2000m), the quality could be as good as the tea made from those old trees, moreover the price is lower. Both middle age tree and old tree is grown under the organic environment. As they grow in the mountain, the tea trees are treated just like native trees in the mountain.
The last category is called “wild tree”. This is referring to the native tea trees grown deep inside the jungle. I guess you must have seen the Pu-erh tea that labeled as “wild tea” (野生茶). However many of those acclaimed “wild tea” are not the wild tree but ancient tree. People often call it “wild” for the tea planted in the mountain. In Yunnan, this terminology seems to be often applied in the tea market in order to simply attract the customers.
There are genuine wild trees available in Yunnan. They are often seen at higher altitude, more than 2000m inside the mountain of South West Yunnan. The wild tea consists of various types in terms of leaf size, shape and not to mention about the taste and flavor. These varieties are made of natural hybrid. Generally wild tea gives very strong after taste and some extent of bitterness.
The typical identity of wild tea is not the size of leaf, but the length of twig. Since tree grows under the shade in the forest, tree try to grow higher and higher in order to get more sunshine. As the result, the twig of wild tea becomes very long.
Frequency of Plucking
The earliest plucked tea in the season always gives better quality, while the 2nd or 3rd plucked tea cannot be as good as the 1st plucked tea. There is another secret that affects the quality of tea with regard to tea plucking. If a tea tree has been plucked too many times in this year, it will not produce good quality tea leaves in the next coming year. If tea leaves are plucked only once in spring, there is sufficient time for new grown tea leaves to accumulate minerals spending the rest of year. As a result, the Hou Yun of tea which is plucked in following year will be very strong. On the contrary, if a tea tree is plucked too many times in a year, its tea leaves contain less mineral. If tea plucking is continuously carried out throughout early spring, late spring, summer, early autumn and late autumn, the tea tree has to work very hard in order to produce new batch of leaves. Eventually the tea tree is overworked and fewer minerals remain inside.
This problem becomes noticeable especially when the tea becomes popular in the market. Back in 2006-2007, the Pu-erh tea has reached its peak. The market demand of Pu-erh was dramatically increased. No sooner had the farmer produced Pu-erh than it was sold at once. In previous days, tea had been plucked twice a year on an average. However during 2006 to 2007, tea leaves were plucked throughout the whole year. As a result, the tea that was produced in 2008 has less Hou Yun.
The red soil is suitable for tea. It is basically the same as “red clay” that is rich in iron oxide. Although Yunnan is rich in red soil, certain places have soil that is particularly rich in iron. Wu Liang Shan and Lao Ban Zhang are well-known for their red soil. Tea produced in those areas is relatively good quality.
In addition to the red soil factor, there is one more important factor. In the mountain, the fallen leaves from the native trees accumulate on the ground. These dry leave also carry a lot of minerals. As time goes by, the fallen leaves will be decomposed by microorganism. When rain falls, the remains of decomposed leaves soaked by rain water and will eventually blend into the soil. Tea tree will intake extra minerals and at faster speed. Because of this reason, mountain tea always gives better Hou Yun compared to garden tea, unless the garden tea is planted at extremely high altitude.
Just like wine, the quality of tea varies a lot depending on the year of production. For green tea and green oolong tea, we have to drink it within a year since we cannot preserve the tea. As for Pu-erh, we can store it as long as we wish. Hence it is meaningful to know which year is the “quality year” so that you can purchase and stock up a little more tea that is produced in a good year.
Basically the slower the growing speed, the better the quality it becomes. In other word, if a tea tree grows slower, its tea leaves have a better chance to accumulate minerals and organic substances than to consume it for growing purpose. Tea tree grows at night, while flavor and taste is produced in daytime. Tea can keep producing flavor and taste as long as sufficient sunshine is given in daytime regardless of it is growing or not. Growing means consuming. Quality of tea becomes better if the tree grows at slower speed. The same theory is applied to the fruits. The taste of fruit plucked in a rainy day is very thin and less sweet. It is not because sweetness is washed away. It is because the tree consumed its sweetness from the fruit since tree grows faster during rainy days.
In general, the dry and sunny weather is ideal for producing good quality tea. Tea trees absorb a lot of sunshine and conduct photosynthesis. In dry weather, the temperature at night tends to be very low due to radioactive cooling phenomenon. In addition, the semi-draught weather also provides less rain. As a result, tea tree grows slower.
If there is more rain in the spring, the quality of tea will not be good. Tea tree grows faster when sufficient water is provided. With faster growing speed, the taste of tea gets thinner and less Hou Yun.
Yunnan is one of the provinces in China. But its area is even bigger than Japan. The weather in Yunnan is not uniform and varies in different areas. The Southern part of Yunnan is much influenced by the weather of South East Asia, while South West and West Yunnan is affected by continental weather. Because of this reason, we cannot conclude which year is the best for all Yunnan teas. The quality year for each manufacturing area is different. For example, Xishuang Banna was hit by serious drought in 2010. The total output of tea produced in this year is reduced to 1/3 of production in a normal year. Subsequently, the lower output brings up the overall quality of tea although the price of tea increased.
Both Factory and Farmer Produce Pu-erh Tea
Pu-erh is mass-produced in the factories and also in small scale by individual farmer using traditional method. Farmers processed tea from their own gardens at the mountain. Their quality is precisely representing the tea grown in their mountain and seldom they carried out blending with tea from other areas. If we want to look for quality tea in Yunnan, we need to control the origin of tea tree. Only the farmers can supply Pu-erh tea from a homogeneous origin. In particular, to obtain tea made from very old trees, it is necessary to obtain teas produced from farmers.
On the other hand, factories have big plants and many employees. Their objective is to sell tea by large quantity in order to pay for high fixed cost. Some factories also occupy tea gardens in the mountain that may have old trees or situated at higher altitude. However, they do not classify and segregate the quality of raw material according to the precise origin of the tree or the mountain, but to mix all the materials collected from all over the places, in order to even out the quality. Factories are concerned about sustaining a consistent quality of tea that they produced. Their mission is to sell in quantity in order to survive. Under such circumstances, the quality of Pu-erh tea produced by big factories tends to be averaged out. It is indeed possible to get upper-intermediate quality from the factories. But it is very difficult to get high-end quality from the factories.