Tea Origins: Yunnan Province

by Jason on June 6, 2012

in Chinese

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Just as Yunnan Province claims a vast diversity of flora, fauna, and ethnic peoples, it also serves as home to a rich range of ancient and newer teas.

1971 Map Yunnan

Within its 150,000 square miles, pu’er teas have been home at home there for centuries. In the past 100 years, award-winning black teas, or dian hong (滇红), have been produced in addition to green and white teas. But the diversity does not end there. Pu’er teas are a world onto themselves because of the distinctions in location and processing.

1. Location. Pu’er aficionados have layers of information to sort through in pu’er appreciation. First, there are the 16 administrative regions of Yunnan province. Of those, 2 are more frequently referenced: Lincang (临沧, northernmost purple tea leaf on map) and Xishuangbanna (西双版纳). These contain the ancient, famed trees that can be over 1,500 years old. Of course, most are much younger. After zooming in on the region, mountains take significant focus. Xishuangbanna (map: southernmost purple tea leaf) is home to Bulang mountain and the Old and New Banzhang villages nearby. Then you get thrown a few curveballs. There are six famous mountains historically associated with pu’er production as influenced by Zhuge Liang about 1,800 years ago. But these are not necessarily the same as the more modern six famous mountains. The place called “Pu’er” is not the same as the relatively recently renamed Pu’er City.

2. Processor. Once you have sifted through the minutiae of where the tea grew, you can then begin to sort out production. Some companies are more well-known, like Menghai, Haiwan, and Douji.

3. Recipe. But wait, there are more choices and complications. Are you looking for sheng (生) or shu (熟) pu’er? What recipe do you want? Recipes refer to the combination of leaves pressed into a cake, brick or other form. Recipes take their names from the year they were originally created/used. Those recipes can then be applied to different batches of tea leaves. The result is that a 2005 tea can have leaves harvested between 2003 to 2005 with differences in grades or batches used. Leaves of various harvest time during those years (and therefore exposed to the “composting” effects for various durations) are pressed together to create a 2005 cake.

The result is an astounding range of pu’er teas. The connoisseur will find joy in learning to distinguish and appreciate the variety. Many hope the strengths of those teas continue to appreciate as the tea ages.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim May 26, 2013 at 21:28

I just recently came across this site and find it quite informative, so thank you for sharing your expertise. Is there a rule of thumb to which teas require a rinse prior to infusion? Also, what is the best way to store pressed Puer cakes?

Jason May 28, 2013 at 10:55

Hi Kim, Thanks for the questions and encouragement.

For the rinse, I only occasionally rinse wulongs and pu’ers. Rinsing wulongs helps the leaves open or loosen faster so that steepings get fuller in character. Some experts will argue that rinsing wulongs (especially aged, more precious wulongs) in this way is a waste as it implies you are throwing away a potentially rewarding layer of the tea’s character. I may rinse pu’ers if I believe there is a safe but undesired amount of mold on the dry leaf. In short, it all depends.

As for pu’er storage, I defer to more expert opinions. Here are three sources I consider valuable:

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