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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.