January 23rd, the first day of the year of the dragon. At 1 pm the streets were still empty. The janitors did a great job, and most of the mess caused by fireworks was already gone.
First sight of the market
I went to the northern tea market, which is only 20 minutes away by bike. I was hoping to talk to some traders about tea and what they do for the Chinese New Year.
Out of maybe 300-400 shops only half a dozen were open. The part of the market that I like the most was simply fenced off. I could see a few people sitting outside playing cards in the sunny weather, but I decided not to bother them.
Instead, I ventured to the western part of the market. The main gate was open, and I saw a few cars parked in the courtyard. I spotted one open shop, but then I looked at the car that was parked outside, and noticed that it was a drug police vehicle. It was so huge that it was blocking most of the shop’s front. Inside there were people sitting at a huge solid-wood tea table – probably relatives or friends catching up and celebrating.
Finally – the right place
I got back on my bike and soon found another place. It was a small tea shop with only a couple of people inside. I asked how come they were open, and the lady said that they live very close and would rather spend the day at the shop, drinking tea and enjoying the awesome weather. Inside, they had a nice selection of shu and sheng pu’er teas of different shapes and ages.
I asked what kind of sheng pu’er they liked themselves, and the man showed me a decent-looking cake. It looked and smelled just fine, so I asked them to brew some of it for me. I also noticed that they had a small collection of organic teas and asked to make some of that too, just to compare the taste and fragrance.
While the lady was preparing the water and the teaware, I found out that they were one of the six shops in Kunming that exclusively sell tea from a big tea factory in south of Yunnan. The tea was soon ready and I gave it a try. The leaves of the organic tea looked greener and nicer than the leaves of the regular pu’er, but they tasted more or less the same. I thought it was odd, considering the huge difference in price.
Organic vs. non-organic
I asked about the requirements for organic teas. It turns out that their organic pu’er grows on the slopes of a series of hills washed by a small river. It is true that they don’t use any nasty chemicals, but it is also true that non-organic teas could be growing in similar conditions. So what really raises the price for organic tea is its limited availability and higher production costs associated with its special treatment and mandatory certification.
When I asked why the organic tea looked greener and had a nicer texture, I was told that it has nothing to with being organic or not. The teas simply came from different trees and locations.
Both organic and non-organic teas shared the same flaw, though – their leaves were not wholesome. I wondered why they weren’t selling any tea in loose form. The lady replied that loose tea loses its taste and fragrance within 6-18 months. Pressed pu’er, however, is able to retain its taste for decades. She showed me pictures of their factory where people were filling large cylindrical bowls with tea and placing them over holes in metal tables that had water boiling underneath. The leaves were steamed much like Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Because the cakes become so dense, they require a special pu’er knife or a thin sharp object to be broken. It causes some inconvenience in handling and makes the leaves look broken and edgy. But for Chinese, quality of tea is valued higher than its appearance.
I really liked talking to the owner and asked her a few more questions. There were some huge cakes of pu’er lined up on the shelves. That was collectable tea pressed into 1kg flat cakes. All that tea came from very old trees (some are hundreds of years old). Depending on the weather and water availability, a tree like that can yield 100-200 kilos of dried tea per year. Because it’s limited edition, this tea is expensive from the beginning, and in ten years its price can go up 10-20 times.
Smoked tea but not lapsang souchong
I have a cake of sheng pu’er at home. It was a gift from a Chinese friend. It tastes strong and slightly bitter, and it smells of smoked salmon. I asked my friend how old it was, and he said he had no idea. Had a bunch of them at home and just drank them. I noticed some tea at their shop that had the same markings on the wrapping. I opened it and recognized the smell right away. My clothes smell like that if I spend too much time by the campfire.
Not surprisingly, the owner also had an explanation for that. It is common for sheng pu’er to smell like that if it’s harvested in autumn. It has something to do with the lack of water, which changes the internal chemistry of the plant, yielding generally stronger tea with that characteristic smell of burnt wood.
Photos from today’s trip to the market