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October 9, 2020

Yiwu Part I: At a Glance

written by Augustus Rushing

易武 Yiwu is one of the main towns in Mengla county, the most eastern county in the prefecture Xishuangbanna, bordering Laos in Southern Yunnan. It has a long history of Pu’er production, having been cherished as a source for imperial court tea by government officials, and stands as one of the main origin points of the ancient tea horse road. The Ancient tea horse road or chá mǎ gǔ dào 茶马古道 was a part of the southwestern complex of the Silk Road and hosted the travel and exchange of trade commodities such as tea, salt, and tibetan ponies for a thousand years. Tea originating from Yiwu would travel thousands of miles and earn Yunnan teas such acclaim that neighboring countries would later reject British colony tea when given the offer.

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tea transporters on the 茶马古道, a trade route which necessitated the advent of pressed and aged tea

Confusingly, Yiwu can refer to not only this central town (with teas from there often labelled Yiwu Zhengshan 易武正山 “truly from the mountain”) but it can also broadly refer to the original Six Great Tea Mountains, sometimes referred to Greater Yiwu 易武地区. These mountains include Youle, Manzhuan, Mangzhi, Yibang, Yiwu, and Gedeng, and all lie east of the Lancang River, contained within the prefecture Xishuangbanna. Perhaps the jury is still out on why exactly this is (more on this in part ii), but it is generally agreed that teas from the greater Yiwu area taste softer and more expansive, have a distinctive fragrance, and can develop a truly remarkable sweetness with age. To me when they are tasted young (made within the last 2 years or so), they have a particular mild melon rind flavor that will later transform into the signature sweetness as the leaves oxidize with time and good storage.

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Bart at the entrance of Yiwu town, 2019

One of the most profound experiences of “terroir” I’ve had was when in a matter of 4 days we traveled to explore and taste teas in Nannuoshan, Lao Banzhang, and in Yiwu town. The Nannuo and Banzhang teas are model representatives of the “Menghai” taste (Like Yiwu, Menghai is a central hub yet can also refer to a greater territory around it), that to me, typically deliver a crunchy, leathery, vegetal punch, with more of a bold and focused interaction with the palate. Having become intimately acquainted with the Menghai terroir during the previous days, the first righteous sips of well-aged and stored Yiwu Zhengshan tea by the He family were mind-blowing. The difference was night and day. I will never forget the lingering smolder of cane sugar on the inner jowls as our palates were caressed by infusions of thick, smooth, and elegant sheng cha.

So what exactly is it that makes such a marked difference in the taste of Yiwu teas? Talk to the farmers and tea producers of Yiwu and they will tell you ecology, ecology, ecology. Yiwu is pretty remote, on the precipice of northern Lao territory, a winding bus ride into the jungle from the more central Jinghong. When you make it to Yiwu town, you get the sense you’ve made it to one of the more remote arenas in your journey. In the acclaimed book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, author Jinghong Zhang reports that the soil pH east of the Lancang River — the greater Yiwu area — is more acidic, whereas the soils west of the Lancang tend to be slightly more alkaline. We know that Camellia sinensis does well in acidic soil (I’m thinking of Wuyi Yancha growing out of those epic post-volcanic acidic cliffs). In fact it is in part because of tea’s unique ability to inhabit and even thrive in the less-than-optimal conditions of the acidic well-draining slopes and crags of the world that humans have allowed, tended to, and exalted these plants. Throughout recent history, even when the value of tea dropped below that of other cash crops’, many people opted to leave their tea plants in the ground, perhaps because other crops were better suited for other environments not as gruff and wouldn’t require as much disruption and subsequent amendment and landscaping.

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Of course, factors such as the genetics of the shrubs and trees that have sprung forth in coevolution with the land in addition to the refined processing techniques of the people of Yiwu all serve as contributions to the distinction that is the Yiwu cup experience. And for those that don't mind a bit of speculation, in Part II I lay out of some hypothetical thoughts about some additional contributing factors to the famous Yiwu flavor...

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