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Yunnan, birthplace of tea

Yunnan Province (云南省) has a long and important history as part of modern China. The oldest known hominid fossil in China (Yuanmou Man, around 1.7 million years old) was found in Yunnan. The Nanzhao (南詔) and Dali (大理國) kingdoms centered in Yunnan were two of the largest and most important political entities in southeast Asia from the 7th to 13th centuries CE. Yunnan is culturally and biologically the most diverse province of China. The headwaters of the Pearl and Hong rivers are in Yunnan. Despite being very mountainous and having only about 5% arable land area, Yunnan is the largest producer of tobacco, coffee and mushrooms in China. Yunnan is also the birthplace of tea cultivation.

The tea produced in Yunnan is mostly of the Camellia sinensis var. assamica variety which originated as a species varietal in the geographical area which is now southwestern Yunnan and northeastern Burma[1]Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is cultivated in most tea-growing areas of China, Formosa, Japan, Korea and the Darjeeling region of India, is not widely grown in Yunnan. Tea is also traditionally produced in Yunnan from a different species entirely: Camellia taliensis, also known as Yunnan big-leaf or wild tea, which is largely uncultivated and found in southern Yunnan in and around Pu’er County.

Historically, tea was produced in Yunnan to be used as tribute to the Shang and Zhou dynasties as early as 1000 BCE. At this time, tea was consumed as a medicine, and prepared in a similar way to Himalayan Yak Butter tea with herbs, salt and oil. Ground or leaf tea was compressed into bricks and wrapped for transport. About 1000 CE, tea began to be traded over the mountains to Tibet and Bengal along the Tea Horse Road through Sichuan and Yunnan. Tribute tea was sent directly to be traded for horses to be used in the Chinese empire’s many wars. It has been theorized that recognition of the natural fermentation that occurred in tea bricks during the long trading journeys is how modern pu’er tea came to be developed. Because of this trading activity, tea bricks and cakes were commonly used as currency, and Pu’er City became a rich tea-trading area. The tea tribute was formalized about 700 CE during the Tang Dynasty, by which time tea cultivation had spread throughout China. Officials were dispatched to oversee tea production and methodologies were updated and standardized to produce good product.

Yunnan continues to produce white and pu’er teas in cake form to this day. In the mid 20th century, black and green loose-leaf tea production was introduced into the area and Yunnan quickly became the largest black tea producer in China. 

Dianhong (滇紅 or Yunnan red – Dian is the common Chinese abbreviation for Yunnan from Dian Lake near Kunming) is produced from Menghai Big Leaf Yunnan Assamica plants and has orange-colored downy trichomes (tea “hair”) that indicate high quality picking and production. Each of the trichomes has a concentrated bead of tea “juice” at its base that adds vivaciousness and flavor to the end product.

Dianlu (滇绿 or Yunnan green) is produced from the Qun Ti Zhong cultivar in Simao, near Pu’er City. Green tea production is relatively recent in Yunnan and often made by tribal people to give them a unique competitive advantage. Our offering is organically certified from bushes planted in the 1960s by the Wa tribal people. The tea is wonderfully sweet and has a deep and flavorful aftertaste.

Bai Ya Bao (白芽胞 or white bud) is produced from Yunnan Big-Leaf Camellia taliensis flower buds which have not yet opened picked in late winter. These differ from Camellia sinensis buds in that they have five locules on the bud instead of three. These buds are processed as white tea. The flavor is sweet, floral and spicy like Fujian silver needles with more pronounced characteristics.

Bai Mu Dan (白牡丹or white peony) is good quality white tea famously produced in Fujian Province. Our Yunnan Old Tree Aged White Tea is produced from Yunnan Big-Leaf Camellia taliensis leaves. The tea is processed into white tea then steamed and caked before aging. The aging process mellows the already pleasant tea and removes any astringency while bringing out big deep flavors.

[1] It is confusingly theorized that there may be another distinct variety of Camellia sinensis var. assamica which originated in the area that is now western Yunnan. Even more confusing is that the Camellia sinensis var. assamica that grows in Yunnan is genetically distinct from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica that grows in Assam, India after which the varietal is named.

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The Basics of Tea

There is nothing as enjoyable to me as sharing a great tea with my family and friends. I find that the ritual of sharing tea with others encompasses more than just a beverage but also an opportunity to slow down and reflect. So when I hear from someone that they don’t like tea, I feel confident that it is because they have never had really good tea. I am not talking about Lipton or anything in a bag — although that was my first introduction as well. Through this blog, I want to share what I have found through the years and many pots of experience.

Start with Good Tea

What is most critical is the tea itself. This is much more important than what pot you use or temperature and steeping time. There are many categories of tea. They all come from one plant — Camellia Sinensis. Whether they are white, green, oolong, black or pu-erh is dependent on the processing — more on that in a later blog.

Chemistry of Tea.

Almost all of the tea produced in the world is machine harvested and machine processed as CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl). Quick chemistry lesson — the greater the surface area, the quicker a product oxidizes or gets stale. Think about spices in your cupboard, when you use ground powder instead of leaves or freshly ground pepper or seeds, they quickly lose their flavor. The same goes for tea leaves. The CTC machine produces tiny chopped up leaves called fannings and what is left in the machine after processing is called dust. These two grades of tea are what make up most commercial tea bags. As a result, these teas will steep quickly but will soon lose nuances and flavors. However, tannins that produce bitterness are also more easily extracted during steeping due to the smaller size and greater surface area.

What we do.

At Zerama Tea, we sell orthodox tea (that is the full leaf — frequently, the unopened flower bud and two leaves). When you brew our teas, you will usually be able to unroll the steeped tea to reveal an actual leaf. Although many are handpicked, orthodox teas do not need to be handpicked. Japanese-grown teas are almost always harvested with the use of machines. Because of this, these teas — even though they are high quality — will frequently leave a dusty residue in your cup. Because of this, you will usually use lower temperatures and shorter steeping times with these teas to avoid bitterness.

So let’s talk about flavors.

For centuries, tea masters have scented teas with fruits and flowers. I admit that I love a cup of Jasmine Pearls. Unfortunately, all too often the flavorings added to teas are used to disguise an inferior quality of tea.

Many teas are described as having honey or buttery flavors. These characteristics can be produced naturally as a result of the variety of the cultivar and the area and method in which it is grown. In certain regions, the plants are developed to mimic certain fruit and floral flavors and aromas. The Phoenix or Dan Cong oolongs are a great example of this. The harvesting time also plays a factor in the flavor. The natural sugars within the plants that are harvested in early spring produce a rich buttery or creamy quality. And honey-like flavors are actually produced by enzymes that the plants produce as a defense mechanism to pests such as aphids or jassids.

So as you can see, there are so many factors that contribute to the flavor profiles of teas. There are teas that are naturally fruity, floral, and herbaceous. The styles are so diverse that to make a blanket statement against all teas demonstrates the limited exposure one has had to good quality products. Through this series of blogs, I hope to demystify teas and encourage you to try something new. Whether it is a tea variety or a brewing style that you may not have been aware of, there is always something new to learn and to taste!