Good things take time, they say. And we'll quickly take up that adage now that the long awaited autumn harvested teas from Yunnan have made it to US soils. This project got started — talks, first-time arrangements, artwork conception, etc. — way back in June; I’m now writing this commencement in late December, finally welcoming these cakes in from their long and perilous journey through the bowels of the world’s cargo transit system. Of course the journey actually timelessly began with the lands, the trees, and the people themselves, with a myriad of interconnected events conspiring to flush fresh leaves to be rendered into righteous, spindly, unapologetic, sacrosanct cha. Let's discuss why this curated selection has us so stoked.
Let's start with Spring tea. Undoubtedly, spring tea is the most coveted harvest of the year — the energy stored and then released from winter's dormancy produces a righteous flush of leaves chock full of flavor and chi; the stuff that makes tea so good. A lack of rainfall from the "winter" / dry season climate starves the tea tree to eventually produce a flush with concentrated flavor and a vigorous punch. This factor of rainfall during the monsoon season is also exactly what makes summer tea the least desirable; the water soaked up by the tea trees fuels flushes containing more water, with less flavor and compounds. This summer rainfall also provides an impetus to the trees to continuously flush, one after another, reducing the opportunity to build up reserves of compounds. Over-harvesting leaves (especially older trees during this decade+ long drought) is considered irresponsible — say harvesting over 5 times per year — with some tea farmers ideally resisting harvesting these lower quality yields during the summer and letting them simply contribute to the natural annual growth of the tea tree. Winter tea isn't really a thing.
"Second" spring and late spring harvests are popular on the market, often fetching prices similar to first spring flushes that we personally don't think are fair. The flushes after spring first flush aren't that dissimilar to summer tea: the growth is propelled by the onset of heavy rainfall. Spent already with the first harvest is the energy that was stored from dry season dormancy. Often times in its place, a watered down version of good spring tea.
Enter Autumn tea. Whereas first flush spring harvest commences as the first rains appear, autumn teas are harvested on the other side of the annual rainfall bell curve, as they have waned. If a responsible tea farmer has been resisting harvesting all of the preceding summer flushes, then this autumn flush will have a hearty amount of energy fused into it. Furthermore, this is the time of year when the tea plant will produce flowers, fruits, and seeds, imparting vital chi to all of the new growth at its extremities, including the flush of leaves. Still considered not as strong as first flush spring tea, autumn tea typically won't promote as strong of a fragrance and won't hold up for the legendary amount of infusions that one finds with first flush gushu cha. Yet unlike second and late spring tea, autumn tea can't pretend to pass as pricey good spring tea, and is therefore more affordable, giving us an opportunistic chance at tasting more famous teas whose spring versions may typically prove out of reach, as well as classic affordable gardens at even friendlier rates.
We've sourced five new autumn harvested teas + one ripe tea for this release, and what is immediately the most exciting aspect is that three of the teas come from completely new mountains; new terroirs; new gardens; new sources. Let's get familiar.
A completely new terroir for us, Ban Pen is a village in Menghai county in the greater Bulang mountain area, less than 3 miles from Lao Banzhang, as the crow flies. Often regarded as a substitute for LBZ tea (“the poor man’s Lao Banzhang”), Ban Pen shares a lot of characteristics of LBZ tea and is an incredible exemplar of that strapping, bold, leathery southern Menghai county flavor and chi.
This tea comes through the channels of Mr. Yáng, an Akha ethnicity Lao Banzhang villager, and mutual friend of Dá É's. When Dá É took us to Lao Banzhang, Mr. Yang graciously showed us around the village and the gardens, as well as served us his tea back at his mansion. Mr. Yang owns some of the most prime old growth tea tree gardens in the area, and has become one of the more successful villagers in Lao Banzhang. In 2006, he began to lease old growth trees in Ban Pen Lao Zhai to make and sell tea from this area as well. Though Ban Pen tea has garnered the reputation as the poor man’s LBZ, that just means that though the tea is significantly less expensive than LBZ, it's not actually even approachable to even the common man’s wallet. More agreeable prices around the time of autumn harvest have again opened up an opportunity to enjoy fancier and famous teas that have become less and less attainable over the years.
Noteworthy: because LBZ teas are famous and necessitate such astronomical prices and standards, the production style honed there over the last two decades in many ways represents one of the leading edges of leaf processing acumen in the pu’er world. Mr. Yang and his team treat their Ban Pen leaves the same as LBZ, and therefore the immaculate quality and benchmark skill level is palpable in the brew.
Dá É’s new boyfriend has a grade school era friend in Pasha zhongzhai who tends to old trees named Mr. Cuō. Dá É and her boyfriend were able to make a spring and autumn trip to visit Mr. Cuo this year, each time coming back with fresh leaves that Dá É processed. Upon sampling her spring Pasha tea, we are excited about the viability of this channel moving forward. Pasha is a tea producing mountain area that sits in a triangle with Nannuo and Hekai; south of Nannuo, east of Hekai. It’s less than ten miles as the crow flies from Stone Village of Nannuo, where Dá É grew up. Pasha tea has experienced some fame in recent years as a prime, clean, and remote area producing fantastic Menghai style terroir teas. This is another tea whose steeper price has become more approachable via this autumn iteration. Thickness in the jowls frames a slightly smoky bone broth flavor signature to Pasha, more pronounced in the autumn.
This tea hails from our home base pu’er gardens in Yunnan, Dá É’s old growth arbors in 石头寨 Shítouzhài, AKA Stone Village. The sheng pu that defines good old growth tea for us, and the benchmark of quality to which we compare all other pu’er teas.
This tea has what compels and mystifies the tea drinker about old growth sheng pu: it's not necessarily the surface flavors of the tea that one seeks to appreciate and playfully deconstruct; it's a deeper pheromonal essence that straddles the perception line between flavor, mouthfeel, and qi. All delivered with charming balance and character: invigorating as well as grounding + nourishing, soft as well as strong, punchy yet resilient. With this 100 gram presentation we wanted to offer the most economically approachable gushu experience. Great tea doesn’t have to be expensive (read that again).
This is our first white tea offering outside of Fujian. Like many tea producers in the pu’er mountains, Dá É makes moonlight white style bai cha, or 月光白 yuè guāng bái. The style typically looks like: a plucking grade of one bud + two-three leaves, the tea is set out to wither for several days, experiencing a range of oxidation between the leaves of various thicknesses. Since the leaves are withered through the night, people have given it the name Moonlight white. The likeness of the shiny white hairs contrasted against the darker, more heavily oxidized lower leaves in the tea cake — resembling the shine of the moon against the night sky — is another hypothesis for the origin of the namesake of this style of tea. The tea liquor pours relatively darker, more oxidized compared to more delicate Fujianese var. sinensis cultivars. The longer withering + drying step necessitated by the sub-tropical Xishuangbanna climate without drying ovens allows for some of the more enzyme-rich lower leaves to oxidize more fully, adding complexity to the brew as well as versatility to how it can be brewed. Gong fu or boil it, as you would a shou mei.
Back in early September, when the tea trees of Nannuo began to flower, Dá É went out to collect and dry these flowers for tea. A flower tea that folks will often press into cakes by themselves, we decided with Dá É to experiment by putting a small amount of these blossoms into each of these moonlight white cakes for an additional florality and apt expression of fall time. Thick, aromatic, and most agreeably smooth, this tea is good to drink now, yet like other white teas that can be aged, this tea is still teeming with enzymes that will transform the experience and complexify over the next few years.
This tea and the flowers comes from her old growth trees in 石头寨 Shítou zhài AKA Stone Village (leaves harvested in late september / early october).
When we received the sad news the crowd favorite Nannuo Yun ripe from Dá É had been drank out of existence forever, it prompted us to investigate the higher end ripe teas available within our networks. We eventually arrived at this rich bud-heavy ripe tea from Dá É’s friend in Bada from western Xishuangbanna, from the small village of 曼迈 Mànmài near the Myanmar border. Even though Manmai isn’t in the Bulang mountains, Manmai is a Bulang minority village, like Mangjing near Jingmai as well as nearby Zhanglang of Bada.
Mao cha was made from spring shengtai material in 2012 by Dá É’s friend Nán Hé from her family gardens. After aging for 6 years, Nán Hé entrusted the leaves to be fermented by her contacts at the Tianming tea factory in Menghai. They named this 2018 production 拾年 Shí nián; pressed and wrapped in 2019. With notes of chicory, cacao husk, and subdued plum, this is a shou chock full of the keeps-on-giving thickness that smooths and soothes. Pleased to have more corners of Xishuangbanna represented and a solid shou for all the fellow ripe heads out there.
Bai Hua Tan
This long-awaited production was to be an exciting high-end addition to our catalog featuring the remote region of Bai Hua Tan, a state-owned tea area above the Tongqinghe river in Mengla County, near the Laos border. Despite extensive vetting, sampling, and an in-person relationship built and tended to, the tea that finally arrived to us is not something we would readily drink, let alone be proud to stand behind and serve, so we are therefore eating the cost of this tea and not passing on the burden to our community of tea drinkers.
Yep, we're not releasing it.
Without proselytizing about brand commitment to quality (too much), we would rather this omission serve as a reminder to ourselves to not grow too quickly; that a sourcing project like this is only as good as the relationships and trust it has built intimately with their growers and producers, and we are naturally unable to grow in certain directions with what we can source until we can return to Asia to make new in-person relations and continue to tighten existing ones: 关系
It's a damn shame because this tea was the most expensive per gram out of this bunch, and as a business boot-strapped from the ground up with a very very minimal amount of start-up capital, this impedes our ability to source as much tea as we'd like moving into 2022. The decision didn't come lightly, and we had several trusted friends try the tea to mixed reviews, with one of them excited to suggest the tea's improvement via proper pumidor storage. It ultimately came down to our tastes and preferences tuned to the values of this project, and unfortunately this tea isn't one we can stand behind.
It also stands are a reminder and theme that is central to this company: Rivers & Lakes is a transliteration of the word 江湖 Jiānghú, a archetypal liminal underworld, unruled, unregulated. You've got to hone yourself to be in this arena, and you won't always win.
This season's artwork was inspired by the notion of terroir. Yet with an added dimension: what kinds of creatures and entities share these territories, these mountains, these streams, these valleys and rivers, jungles, and gardens with the tea trees? This region's land literally gave rise to not only the evolution of Tea, but also inextricable other genera and species, connected as a moving mosaic traveling through time, its expression in ways some would call magic, others science. It was decided to express this added dimension not with other flora, but with fauna. The artwork features several animals found in these jungles, some of them incredibly rare and endangered. Animals of Xishuangbanna is the theme, and here are those that are featured:
Rosy Kirby of Lost Mountain Prints was commissioned to render some hand drawings of these animals. Thank you Rosy and Matt for doing such a fantastic job!
Questions? Have any comments you'd like to share? We'd love to hear. Drop a comment below fam.