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July 30, 2021

A month's word cathartics on Pu'er tea

written by Augustus Rushing

It feels like quite a while since I've blog-posted here. And while this may be the case, fortunately I can state that Rivers & Lakes as a whole has not been neglected one bit, and is quite a vibrant source in creating this omission. This year we sourced more tea than last year, expanding our selection, and have been connecting with people over tea both in person and virtually. Separating the wheat from the chaff has been the main focus, as we’ve drank through our unfair share of mediocre tea to finally get at what we’re now proud to offer. That, and documenting and photographing said wheat… Keeping busy.

Instagram, actually, has gotten a lot of my attention recently with writing, and in particular this last month has seen a lot of ink spilled over pu’er. Over the course of about a month, I wrote a handful of lengthy posts that together reads like a a mini-treatise of sorts on the subject. I’ve decided to amalgamate them here. I hope your nerdy brain finds as much relishing as it does rejection.

I’ll put the words down here below, and also try to link the original instagram posts as well:

Resisting confirmation bias in tea drinking (JULY 2ND)

If you travel to the tea mountains, one thing you might hear is that the tea never tastes the same when you drink it away from the mountain it was grown on.

I find this to be true: the water, the air, the brewing vessel, the smells — the ability of the farmer to freak the brew just right — are all finely tuned to one another down to the minutiae, irreplicably.

But also note that the tea will be different away from the mountain because of the same principles that make any tea session around your home or work different than the next.

(Perhaps the water, the air, the smells, the brewing vessels, and your ability to freak the brew from one moment to the next also has shifted) 😶

Think about this cake of sheng pu’er in the third slide. There must be hundreds of leaves that comprise this cake. And even if it is made of leaves from the same mountain, the same village, the same garden, hell even the same tree, there will never exist such a thing as homogeneity and uniformity between sessions.

This is my sixth time drinking this year’s stone village sheng pu’er, and each session has been a gradient different than the last. There are consistent variables: the upfront soft mallow texture, the salivation in the jowls, the slow huigan creeping up the throat around the fifth steep.

But even widdled off of the same cake, the leaves that made it to my pot will have been different than the last session, and I am greeted with another challenge to resist forming preconceptions. Novel flavors, fragrances, feelings, await.

Staying open to what one believes a tea is as it meets the latest version of the self in each moment is important work, especially if you’re a more cognitively informed tea drinker.

Have you experienced a familiar tea as completely different experience?

Why Nannuoshan? (JULY 2ND)

For many in the world of pu’er Nannuo mountain gets overlooked. In a scene of connoisseurs fetishizing hidden discoveries, Nannuoshan represents the mountain too accessible, as it is conveniently located off the highway between the cities Jinghong and Menghai in Xishuangbanna.

Tea tourism is strong there, and it attracts people who want quick selfies with ethnic people and their ancient trees. They leave with souvenir-grade tea designed to suffice superficial tastes, and therefore Nannuo is prone to receiving scoffs from some of the tea community.

But Nannuo also deserves a second look. The Hani people there have a thousand years of experience with these trees and their ability to process and deliver good tea is quite professional compared to other mountains’ peoples. Located between Mengsong and Bulang territories, the terroir characteristics represent a stellar Menghai county experience.

I say let the giftshop teas by the highway dissuade all the highbrow domestic pu’er connoisseurs, and dig deeper into the offerings of this small but spectacular mountain range.

Next post I would like to talk about how we came to discover Dá É and her teas to promote her 2021 teas we just dropped.

The importance of trust and real Pu’er (JULY 4TH)

We all know Pu’er tea is a buyer’s beware market. More than other types of teas, the risks of being ripped off and receiving bunk tea are high because of an industry-wide incentive to make up for a lack of prime supplies to meet a massive and growing demand.

Unscrupulous tea bosses just there to cash in obfuscate true sources and maraud pesticide sprayed plantation teas as gushu cha from famous villages. Read the stats on how much of the pu’er sold in the markets of Guangzhou claim to be Lao Banzhang versus how much LBZ tea is actually produced annually if you want an adequate picture.

So, how do we trust Dá É to deliver us the goods? It started with a relationship not based in business. It was through multiple chance interactions and friendship forming relations that had instilled a sense of mutual goodwill and was thoroughly washed of any ulterior expectation of monetary exchange that we landed an opportunity to visit someone who owned old growth tea trees and could orient us to the area.

This contact was Dá É and she eventually showed us around Nannuoshan, Lao Banzhang, invited us to her friend’s house for a gathering with food, and even her high school reunion! We shared tea and philosophy. My girlfriend and her exchanged sisterhood gifts with literal tears and wishes of good fortune upon sharing recent personal hardships.

We only discussed the event of working together upon our departure. She didn’t know she could take tea to the menghai post office and ship it internationally, so we figured it out together.

Sounds cheesy, but I was told by a tarot card reader before the trip that we would find a fairy godmother on our journey. Once we met Dá É we knew it was true…

We’re proud to share her tea with you. I hope you’ll enjoy.

(Slide 2 is Dá É speaking Hani to her Lao Banzhang friend Mr. Yang when we were visiting him about what aspects to look for in the tea soup).

Good pu’er tea and Huigan (What’s actually happening) (JULY 7TH)

回甘 Huí gān translates to returning sweet and is the quality of having sweetness return to your palate after drinking good pu’er tea.

This is an important concept and experience to familiarize yourself with to enhance your ability to assess a tea using just tactile senses.

There are bitter actions within the tea soup that upon sipping will astringe the mucous membrane tissues of the tongue and palate and render them slightly puckered and dry.

Simultaneously, if the tea is rich in minerals enough (often correlating to the age of the tree and the original ecology), there will occur a chemistry of surface tension within the tea soup that will feel more active and stimulating to the tissues. You can experience this during the time the tea is actively in your mouth.

Once swallowed, the subsequent air that you breathe will hit these freshly dried tissues of the palate and a kind of brisk fresh action will stimulate them — this cooling action can be experienced often as mintiness to some. Have you experienced this?

As your mouth naturally resalivates it can be experienced as a charming sweetness.

This is also sometimes referred to as a kind of retro-olfaction (tasting and smelling the breath that comes from within). Some say it’s like lighting a stick of good incense from within your Dan Tian (丹田) or line going through your torso.

To summarize, this version of retro olfaction is accentuated by the surface tension (amount of minerals / age of tree) in the tea soup + the actions of astringency (catechins / bitter agents) on the tongue and palate that allow for the after breath to feel cooling and minty on the naked tissue as well as prompting resalivation to be experienced as an additional sweetness.

At least this is the way I’ve come to think about it.

Why we only source pu’er from its origin (JULY 10TH)

There’s a large scene of pu’er sippers that seek out aged examples of sheng pu’er stored a certain way in a certain bioregion, originally blended by one factory or another, purveyed by a certain tea master.

Forays into this world can be a tantalizing and rewarding quest to the curious and resourced connoisseur, however wrought it is with inherent risk of purchasing counterfeit teas.

We discussed the importance of trust in sourcing pu’er tea in this buyer’s beware market in a previous post, and within this frame I would posit that the more aged a tea is when you first encounter it, of course the further away from its genesis it’s traveled, therefore the more difficult it becomes to hold it to standards regarding ecology (elevation, farming practices, legitimacy of origin accuracy, tree age), processing techniques, what the farmer experienced, and other details about the story of the leaves.

You may also notice that when shopping these teas, the primary information retained about the leaves will likely just be fragments of branding details that have cascaded down through the multiple hands it has been through to get to that moment. The information will focus on the most recent topsoil of info — only the human level — and traceability to its original point of when, where, and how it was born from the earth can often be lost.

One of the values we hold is the connection with nature through the fascinating and rich ethnobotanical lens of tea. We’ve found that getting as close as we can to its origin and the people immediately surrounding it is paramount in securing quality tea. And whether you’re a more cognitive truth-hound tea drinker whose experience is enhanced by its story, or you’re one to drop deep into the experiential qualities of the sip with or without the cognitive digest, the quality of the tea will speak to you.

When we go to source pu’er we don’t want to focus on branding or tea masters. We want to set the stage for the user’s very own experience with a good tea, allowing them to form their own opinions by shortening the distance between them and the tea’s origin as much as possible and keeping important data points intact.

And honestly it all starts with an unaged well-produced pu’er that comes from clean and fecund ecological conditions.

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New School Pu’er, part I (JULY 13TH)

As discussed in our previous post, acquiring good pu’er — whether aged or unaged — starts with leaves from a clean and fecund ecology that a skilled producer renders into young raw pu’er. Here I’d like to discuss how these values play into the modern market.

The last two decades have put unprecedented attention and money into all aspects of the pu’er scene, from growing + harvesting, to production technique, to marketing, to aging.

The economy and what the Chinese government will allow has also shifted, giving way to more small farmer-producers becoming intimately involved with all aspects of their teas rather than relegated to selling raw materials to state owned factories.

Whereas the methodology in the factories’ heyday involved blending various regions and mountains’ tea together formulaicly, the recent transition to a smaller farmer-producer paradigm has granted us more nuanced insight and opportunity to tasting distinct terroirs and single origins.

For a growing sect of the pu’er market, the emphasis has excitedly microscoped down to the level of the mountain, the village, the producer techniques, the garden, hell even to the level of specific individual trees (and yes expensive single tree pu’er is available as 单株 “dān zhū”)

I was discussing this recently with @do_shrimps_go_to_heaven the prospect that this new school will give way to more variation and hopefully exceptional quality examples of aged pu’er as time progresses. That we may be on the precipice of discovering that our fascination with and procurement of niche, quality young sheng may graduate to surprising aged teas that we couldn’t have anticipated having only tried aged factory teas that have somehow survived years in a domestic market of voracious connoisseur appetites.

However enticing & promising this seems, there’s one very interesting emerging trend that could completely remove all possibility of this prospect. Next post we’ll discuss.

But for now, would you agree that the new school, single origin focused pu’ers have the potential to become the best examples of aged tea we’ve seen? Or is the regional blending of leaves from trees of various ages the best way to achieve a balanced tea more suitable for longevity?

New School Pu’er, part II (JULY 17TH)

Last post we discussed the prospect that the new wave of origin-focused, small batch sheng pu of the last 10-15 years could lead us to some of best examples of aged pu’er that we’ve ever experienced. And that the values of the market at large have evolved, and with a bit of patience and stewardship of a collection, the long term benefits may be of an unprecedented and sensational caliber.

But raw pu’er drinkers have began enjoying their teas younger and younger, finding and eventually craving a narcotic green hit from fresh big leaf Yunnan sheng pu — 青味 qīng wèi

While drinking pu’er relatively young is common + traditional in the tea mountains, this trend in consumers is somewhat new and merits a look at how it has shaped production techniques.

Interestingly, the modification of certain production techniques to support the trend towards young sheng consumption may be the very thing that threatens the tea’s ability to be aged well, or at all.

The most critical & defining step in making pu’er is the partial kill green process, 杀青 shāqīng. Whereas enzymes within the leaf are completely deactivated by a high heat, thorough pan-frying in green tea + oolong production, pu’er tea is exposed to an abbreviated version of this step: lower heat and often a shorter amount of time exposed to the wok.

As we know by tasting green tea and jade oolongs, a thorough kill green process achieved by high heat + sustained exposure renders the buds and leaves fragrant, vegetal, & deliciously nutty, yet will produce a tea whose shelf life is ephemeral. No enzymes there to oxidize the leaves and add layered complexity + sweetness in the years following, just an immediate fresh taste bound to fade.

In efforts to appeal to new school drinkers that will drink unaged pu’er, some producers have increased the temperature of their shaqing woks, deactivating enzymes important to the aging process to add more immediate zest, not unlike green tea and oolong.

Sometimes referred to green pu’er or even oolongpu, these teas and their sippers represent a new diversification in an already split arena of pu’er heads.

Despite how nostalgic and timeless pu’er seems to be, the production techniques are still being updated and hammered out, and the trend towards greener pu’er doesn’t need to be maligned, just merely acknowledged for what it is. Yet tea producers and sellers have a difficult time acknowledging these things when multiple selling points are being juggled — “good now AND good later.”

Our personal aim is to seek out teas that are processed in the refined and influential style of Yiwu teas. An area known for producing prestigious teas bound for a market that will enjoy the tea throughout its life — yet especially prize its ageability at investment levels — The greater Yiwu area has become a hotbed for nuanced innovation that mustn’t radically depart from the values that we know of good sheng pu. The production style is a sure bet.

More on greener pu’er and how to spot it next post. But for now, what are your thoughts? Do you prefer greener pu’er and immediate consumption? Or pu’er designed and destined for ageability?

New School Pu’er, part III (JULY 22ND)

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see original IG post for visual guide

Last post we discussed how recent trends in drinking sheng pu’er younger and unaged have began to influence how tea producers process their leaves, and how this could significantly impact the ageability of the new school of post-factory-blending; of niche farmer-producer-origin-terroir-focused teas.

Some producers are experimenting by specifically catering to the newest palates on the scene, those that for various reasons have developed their love of pu’er by way of the intoxicating green cruciferous edge of unaged sheng pu’er.

They’ve done this — either intentionally or unwittingly — by raising the temperature of the wok during the partial sha-qing phase, one of the most critical and defining steps of making pu’er tea. Compare this to green tea or oolong processing where sha-qing temperatures are generally higher and sustained for a longer time. This renders the immediate experience of the leaves as a bit more fragrant, nutty, textured, and robust, yet for an ephemeral window of time.

A partial sha-qing with a lower temperature deactivates only some of the enzymes responsible for oxidation, leaving a portion of them alive. These enzymes are dried within the leaves and will slowly oxidize, transforming the tea and its user experience, potentially sending it on a multi-decade trajectory of complexifying, often with the addition of significant market valuation.

Here for the sake of example, I’ve documented a vertical session with sample teas I received from two producers. One processed their leaves with a lower sha-qing wok temperature, the other with a higher temp. The differences are interesting. Neither of these teas are carried by Rivers & Lakes Tea.

We should cite the market trends as the reason behind these differing techniques, and it should be noted that the tea on the left side is a tea from Yiwu. Teas in this area are by and large designed to cater towards a connoisseur market that ravenously covets this terroir for its ageability. Not only this, the tea culture in this area is so internally competitive that their processing approach is more defined and consistent compared to other pu’er regions. See our blog Yiwu part I & II for more on this region’s tea culture.

If you are enjoying your tea young and appreciate greener processing without the option for long term aging, you have succeeded — nothing wrong here. Though if you were expecting a longer term time traveling companion (or if it was marketed as such) you may be let down after a number of years.

Our personal goal is to advocate for more transparency and education as to respect and appreciate tea and its people more deeply. We believe assessing leaves and tuning your senses to the experience takes precedence above marketing as the best way to inform yourself about a tea.

Please share your experience with these diverging trends. Which is your preference?

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