One of tea’s very favourite days: a day beset by damp fogs, where ancient cobbled stones meander through the tiered town and everything has the cold sheen of age and wet. A rain is coming in cold drifting sheets hitting the stone homes with repeated wet slaps. In backyards gourds hang swaying in the wind and it is the wind that is creating the movement. No one is stirring and the whole place has a feeling of one that has tucked itself in from weather that it knows all too well. Beyond the tiny tea town, tea bushes and further on – unseen to the eye – tea trees must be enjoying the humidity, basking in its life giving properties. For the senses, the town is all that can be aesthetically asked of a legendary tea region. Yiwu has one of those reputations that nothing but time and tea can give, but reputations amongst the tea obsessed can be taken away as well.
A loose knit cluster of irregular stone homes sits in an almost defensive position being pummeled by the wet from above. Rain, one of tea’s great providers lashes down. The lack of any human activity creates a feeling that the town rests in a kind of serene bubble been kept in a bubble of sorts. The old town is a series of walkways and alleys falling away into a valley. Walking along the slick cobbled stones I imagine the town remaining as a quiet nook for centuries to come. Happily there are no engines humming and only the odd crushed cigarette butt hints that there might be more than just structures here.
Yiwu the area exists more accurately than Yiwu ‘the mountain’, though in tea lore it makes up one of the six famous tea mountains of Yunnan – though its teas are not necessarily any better than any other ‘lesser’ tea mountains – in Southern Yunnan. There was a time when Yiwu tea was hurriedly transported north to Emperors, south into ancient kingdoms and along the daunting Tea Horse Road’s vast length up onto the Tibetan Plateau. While it remains a bastion of Puerh cultivation and quality, for many in the purist sect of tea taking, the area now struggles to retain (or reclaim) its ancient reputation.
I’ve come again to revisit Yiwu, not because of any lasting impression made on a previous visit but exactly because there was no lasting impression…because I’ve been subjected to a few very different experiences with teas from Yiwu – a couple startlingly ambiguous, and only one mouth watering. One experience involved rushing to a tea tasting of Yiwu teas at the last moment. I sat down and had four teas rifled into me that had absolutely no impact on the tongue, the mind or any other part of the senses. To make matters worse there was a chain smoking ‘tea expert’ (who was more salesperson than tea sage) who was talking non-stop for over two hours, seemingly without allowing a single intake of breath to interrupt his sermon. It was in my mind at least an entirely ‘untea’ experience. It ate at my very soul and came close to annihilating any desire to even hear the word Yiwu again. Then, another tea sitting near the Bada Mountains in southern Yunnan a Korean tea buyer shared a little packet of his Yiwu ‘sheng’ (unfermented) Puerh that was staggering in its virtues – a limited harvest from a “specific grower outside of Yiwu town”. These were his words. Whenever I hear these words it goes into the internal translation box and is converted into “I have my own private supplier and it is unlikely you will find them”. With tea is there is often a sharing aspect, but there is also the very human ability to keep good things hidden and it is understood. I have long craved (and been served) teas from areas that remain to a large degree off the tea radar. Affordable, made in small batches and genuine, these teas (and their servers) are what tea is about.
A tea drinker comrade of mine once offered up a bit of ‘democratic tea brilliance’ by saying that “good tea should be easy to find, easy to drink and easy on the wallet”. I heartily subscribe to the view and in my selfish years of taking and tracking tea, I have always been able to sip something of quality in any town, village or kiosk for free or next to nothing.
On a previous trip Yiwu was – as it is now – engulfed in rain and mists. Having had these divergent experiences it has brought me here again to revisit and try and create a better impression of a Yiwu tea – and uncover an accessible tea that isn’t an aged pricey wonder or limited edition.
This time I am here to ensure I do taste something that at least interests the mouth and is available to all. There are (and hopefully will continue to be) always ‘vintage’ teas from a region that are decades old, or from the prized ‘ancient tea trees’ that stun the mouth with their undeniable quality, but these are teas to find through tea channels, through the tea suppliers with an eye (and tongue) for something special; teas where the billfold will be lightened of some significant money. In the odd ecstatic moment these ‘greats’ are discovered by chance. A local once wisely counseled that if a ‘good’ tea is difficult to find in a so-called ‘tea town’ then market forces have taken the town over – which for many tea-inclined people is a sign of death.
Walking along the sagging cobblestones with a friend’s friend – who is himself one of these valued tea connections – there is little to see of anything other than rain. The stones below us were part of a greater tale as they linked up with tea caravan routes (tea horse roads) used to transport tea over the centuries. Caravans of mule and horse carried tea from this wet little corridor into the empires and mountains in brick and cake form. In the late 19th Century new and formal routes were created and expanded through the dense foliage to the town of Puerh itself to quicken the times to get tea to the great market towns. Entire maps were drawn to delineate the tea regions and their access routes. It was also around this time that the native indigenous peoples and their harvesting ways dealt with an influx of Chinese tea merchants whose methods were refined to create more tea faster. Yiwu has long had a name that carried the weight of its tea reputation and tea merchants knew that setting up links – and better yet homes and communities – would ensure a non-stop supply. Today the area of that produces ‘Yiwu’ tea measures about a thousand hectares and produces over 600 tons annually, most of it coming from 700 – 2000 meters.
In the past, ruling classes (and the rulers of the ruling class) would demand – and receive – tributes of tea from Yiwu. From there the masses would eventually hear of it, cementing its value and name.
Looking around me, it seems hard to conjure up a town that has carried its fame forward. My soaked tea colleague beside me tells how fame often destroys the very quality it was founded upon and how in his opinion the lesser-known town of nearby Yibang has retained more quality generally in their teas.
“When a tea town gets a name for itself, demand goes up and when demand goes up quality often becomes of secondary importance”. As he speaks he simply nods amid the driving wet from above as if acknowledging this truth to himself. I like these words as they cut through some of the hype – good teas need good soil, competent growers and good production methods. The cosmetics and at-times bizarre descriptives don’t matter if the mouth isn’t happy. Names, vintages and verbose monologues cannot hide a bad tea and shouldn’t.
This tea colleague has joined me to show me, to direct me to a place here in Yiwu where a tradition of doing teas is alive and well, albeit in limited amounts. A family has kept the tradition of creating their own small batches of tea in the “right way” (his words). He shares my soft skepticism of Yiwu’s general harvests and goes a step further by offering up a reason why.
“In many areas there are quotas where families or growers must produce a minimum monthly or yearly yield – quality isn’t the priority – to continue to be allowed to produce tea”. During the ‘Puerh-tea crisis’ of 2007-2009 there was a run on Puerh teas with prices seemingly incapable of dropping. People mortgaged houses and borrowed heavily to invest in Puerh tea. During that time harvests were upped to the extent that the tea crops themselves never had time to recover as they were being overharvested to supply the tea bubble. Another aspect that has affected the region is the introduction of the smaller Camellia sinensis sinensis with the end game being to produce greater amounts of tea that can claim the ‘Yiwu’ moniker.
We come to a little end home, which has a wooden railing in front, where mules and horses were once tied to wait for their tea and merchants. It bends under its own old weight sighing in the rain – as lonely looking as the town itself. The home is narrow and the entire building is on a slight slant as if burdened or pushed by a lifetime of billowing rains. A wooden door as forlorn and wet as everything else in town is closed and even the knock seems sullen.
A young man already bent by long hours of toil pulls the door open. The room has a single light bulb that hangs wavering off to a side spraying out a dismal yellow light. A small TV is on and in the corner an old woman sits with a blanket around he waist. She nods her head and nothing more. We are led through to the tea ‘station’ where tea is being prepared. Leaves are being fried, having the last bits of humidity and moisture eliminated. The young man – our host – races furtively off with eyes on the frying tea to retrieve cups of hot water. He arrives with a thermos and two glasses, which dance with steam trails. His hands, which are stained dark with the potent tannins of his work, find three little sandwich-sized bags that are proffered up to us. He isn’t a natural host and no sweet words ooze out of him; he is a tea maker and it warms the heart to be near someone who’s life work and play is tea. Some words are spoken and only one bag is kept, perhaps only 40 grams of the desiccated beauty. In this form, here and now with tea in its simplest most unadulterated form is something both prehistoric and potent.
We are sitting on tiny stools (that seem everywhere within the world of tea) in a tight clearing a meter from the ‘tea stove’ – a basic but solid flute of brick that creates a single intense shoot of flame that heats a great tea pan. Within the pan which is almost a meter in diameter green leaves brim over the edge. Above us a simple roof keeps the rain at bay. The silvery wet light around us peers in and in the small yard five or six wide tea pans lie upside down in the rain like metal turtles. Two young women take care of the process, churning the tea leaves wearing tea-stained cotton gloves. The leaves are not allowed to rest for more than a second, being stirred in a non-stop ritual that hypnotizes. There is almost a feeling that we have intruded…but I would rather be a nuisance here and watch something real than a feted teahouse being served murky teas.
Our young host pours out two cups of water and tells us simply, almost apologetically, that the tea that we are being served is a big hit with middlemen who sell to Korean and Singaporeans.
He races off to the left of us to spread out the ‘withered’ tea leaves which steam in their reduced state, appearing much like spinach when it loses its bulk. Tea’s labor intensity is on full display.
Without any fuss my compatriot drops two pinches of tea into my awaiting cup. “At least it is spring water”, he says simply. The leaves are rinsed once and then more water is added. The first slurps seem potent and then it gets smooth and stays smooth with the mouth keeping some residual taste. Here in these cheap whitish cups there isn’t the benefit (or distraction) of small cups and tools – it is about the tea, the water and the mouth.
When I ask where it is from, my sipping partner gives me the answer that comes with many of the classic teas “gao shan” – high mountain. The leaves are not the giant leaves but rather they unravel as middle-sized full leaves with full stems intact. Some of the leaves are imperfect in shape but this only means that this particular batch won’t be ‘dressed up’ for the market-place which demands so much that is aesthetic.
Our second full cup has now tapered down and the vegetal blasts never come, nor does any astringency but the taste is vital and strong and still that calming smoothness. After multiple cups there doesn’t seem to be any discernable change or decrease in strength and the color remains clean and true.
One of the girls tending the successive tea piles being fried up, looks over to us at one point and asks what the verdict on the tea is. In answer, I ask how much I can horde away with, and she simply nods and tells us that it is a “very good tea” and nothing more. Later we are told that the price is far from expensive but that the quantities of that particular tea are only around 80 kg’s per year…it isn’t one of their big sellers. When I ask what is their big seller, there is a moment of endearing hesitation as the young man tells us “the teas that we can sell most of, which isn’t always a ‘great’ tea”.
Walking out I want to stay and sit and of course take in more tea. My tea partner tells me that it is time to go and that our kind hosts must work…yes, the work of tea.