March 22nd, 2013
Long Bian Sheng stoked the fire under the the long brick oven, adding small pieces of wood and blowing on them to get them lit. While he waited for it the oven to heat, he shook out a large sack full of freshly-picked tea leaves, scattering them on the shed’s concrete floor, then gathered the leaves up again by the armful and tossed them into the air to free each leaf from the rest so that they wouldn’t stick together or crease and brown. As they fell through the air, the tea leaves perfumed the interior of the wood and concrete shack with a bright, almost floral fragrance.
When Mr. Long had determined that the oven was hot enough (a decision he made simply by putting his hand into the hot air circulating within it), he turned on a motor, and suddenly the metal tube in the interior of the oven began to spin. Handful by handful, Mr. Long began feeding the tea leaves into the tube, where they spun and rolled, giving off a bit of steam, before they emerged on the other end of the oven and fell to the floor, very hot and slightly wilted.
As Mr. Long continued to load more tea into the oven, his oldest son, Long Sheng Da, came in to take charge of the growing pile of already cooked leaves. Gathering them by the armful, he scattered them across the floor in the thinnest layer possible to allow them to cool on the cold concrete for a few minutes, then swept them back up into a pile and repeated the process with the next batch of leaves that had accumulated at the end of the oven.
When the Longs finished toasting and cooling the tea, they used a second motorized machine to spin and press the leaves along the top of a metal plate with thick, curving ridges on it, which gently massaged the leaves, pressing out more of their moisture and twisting them into long spirals. When they were done, the tea leaves were set on a tray to dry overnight. In the morning, they’d continue drying in the sun, and eventually they’d be pressed into the dense, inch-thick cakes that would identify them as pu’er* tea.
Everyone in Yunnan drinks pu’er. It’s as ubiquitous as coffee in New York or milk tea in Hong Kong. Sit down at any restaurant, and if you don’t specify what kind of tea you’d like, it’s quite likely that you’ll end up with a pot of weak pu’er. Of course, you might not know that that’s what you’re drinking. In the US we only really know one form of pu’er, shou (熟) or “ripe” pu’er, the dark, aged version of the tea that has oxidized over many years and has a deep, almost black color in the cup and a strong, sometimes funky flavor. But in Yunnan, people are just as likely to drink sheng (生) or “raw” pu’er. This is the same tea, processed in the same way and pressed into the same hard cakes but drunk soon after it is processed, before it has had a chance to oxidize. Essentially, it’s just a type of green tea, and that’s what it tastes like.
All pu’er tea is grown in Xishuangbanna, the tropical, mountainous prefecture that forms Yunnan’s southernmost tip and borders Laos and Burma. The name of the tea actually comes from a prefecture just north of Xishuangbanna, from the city of Pu’er (sometimes also known as Simao), where the tea was originally weighed, sold, and shipped to the the rest of the country. But it is on the tall mountains of Xishuangbanna that tea leaves grow into the long, thin shape that distinguishes pu’er and takes on its characteristic flavors.
Mr. Long and his sons make their tea in the Akha village of Ban Po Lao Zhai on Nannuo mountain (南糯山), one of the prefecture’s twelve famous tea mountains. They pick tea leaves in the morning, in the jungle near their home where tea trees have been planted for hundreds of years, some scattered randomly across the hillside and some lined up in neat little rows. Then in the afternoon they toast it, as we’d seen them do, and process it into cakes of sheng cha, or raw tea. On the afternoon we visited, back in July, Mr. Long’s younger son, Long Sheng Er, poured us cups of that spring’s just-processed sheng cha. It had a light yellow color, with an almost greenish hue to it, and a bright, grassy flavor. All the tea the Longs sell starts out this way, and buyers or collectors buy it by the tong (筒), a package of seven pu’er cakes usually wrapped up in dried banana tree bark, and drink it raw or let it age for years—sometime for decades—until it becomes black from oxidization and turns into shou cha, or ripe tea. The Longs’ most expensive teas, those made from the leaves of the mountain’s famous 800-year-old tree, are purchased in advance by wealthy buyers in Hong Kong, but their other teas are available at their tiny tasting room, and before we left the mountain Josh splurged on a tong of tea for us to age and enjoy in years to come.
*Note: The traditional spelling for this tea, “puerh” or “pu’erh,” with an “h” is a vestige of the way the name was romanized by the Wade-Giles system of romanization in the mid-19th Century. Because Wade-Giles is no longer in widespread use and I (like most current Chinese speakers) use the pinyin romanization in all of my writing, I choose to use the spelling “pu’er” (which is also the correct romanization for the town of Pu’er, from which the name of the tea is derived).
Photos: Georgia Freedman, Josh Wand (5)