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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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New teas for Spring ’21

Update May 7: Everything has arrived and we’re working to add them to the catalog!

Here at Zerama Tea HQ, we’re excited that warmer weather has begun to appear. Spring means rain and flowers and spinach and cabbage and lettuce and… TEA! Early pluckings have already begun in Yunnan, and the Qing Ming Festival will be happening soon which means that the Spring tea harvest will begin in earnest.

Photo of early tea harvest in Yunnan, China, 2021.
Early tea harvest in Yunnan

We’re thrilled to bring in some new-to-us Chinese tea varieties this year:

Photo of part of the baking process for Liu An Gua Pian tea.

Liu An Gua Pian comes from Jinzhai Town, Lu’An City, Anhui Province. This tea is a single-leaf pluck (unlike most of our Chinese teas which consist of the entire flush, which is the unopened flower bud and its two accompanying leaves) of the Qishangzhong cultivar of Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis. It goes through a complex process of pan-frying (shaqing – the “kill green” process of stopping enzymatic activity in green teas) and charcoal baking in giant bamboo baskets to produce a uniquely visually appealing, sweet and mellow tea.

Our Tai Ping Hou Kui comes from Houkeng (猴坑) village in the Huangshan District (formerly Taiping County) of Anhui Province. This tea is made from full grown leaves of the Shidacha tea cultivar rather than the tender early flush. After pan-frying to stop enzymatic activity in the tea, the leaves are laid out on plates and pressed and flattened under sheets of cotton cloth. The tea is then baked over charcoal and packed in baskets with bamboo-leaf lining. This rare tea has a luscious aroma of orchids and a long-lingering flavor.

We will be featuring Premium grades of Da Hong Pao and Tie Guan Yin for the new year, as well as returning our popular Meng Ding Gan Lu to stock (finally! we’ve missed it). Also arriving: Old Bush Yunnan Black Tea (Lao Cong Dian Hong), Jasmine Snowflake Tea from Guangxi, 200-gram cakes of Aged Yunnan Wild White Tea, Organic Yunnan Green Tea (which you can see being picked in the first photo in this article), and for the smoky-tea lovers out there: high-grade Lapsang Souchong from the place of its origin – Tong Mu village, Wuyi County, Zhejiang.

We expect to have stock in hand by late April and we will be putting up placeholder pages with preliminary pricing over the next few days. We’ll also be getting restocks of teas from Japan, Taiwan, India and Colombia over the next couple of months.

Paula and I sincerely appreciate your patronage of our little establishment. We’re starting to be able to poke our heads out of our hidey-hole and with luck we’ll be having demos and tea gatherings here in KC again soon. We hope that your year is warm and wonderful! Take care of each other out there!