Bitter Tea Journey

This year , apart of the regular places we visit for the business purposes , we decided to explore more of the Bulang mountain. The initial aim was visiting only one or two villages and find some good connection , tea farmer / producer for long term cooperation but it had all turned out bit different way. After couple of hours driving zig zag road up to the mountains , we are arriving into the village called

Mang Ban Zhai

where having a rest in temple. Local monk is hosting us with some sheng puerh he just made couple days ago. Our friend has pointed out funny way : ” we have to try this Shao Lin Gong Fu made puerh! “.

I can’t say I’ve got impressed by the tea but the images at the background got me more. I’ve seen those before in temple of Mang Xin Long village temple . Those paintings are common common for Bulang people temples. The story goes : ” well, I leave it up to your fantasy ” , sure you can figure it out.

After “shao lin” tea we have a lunch and continue to the other village not far from this one . Visiting some local farmer and trying their 2023 sheng as well. It is also properly bitter , as the title of the article suggests , but clean with punchy astringency yet not disturbing dry sensation which we experienced from harvests in lower altitudes and tai di cha. Girls are refusing 2nd cup , I , for educational purposes , sacrificing myself and keep drinking with my buddy.

Switching from Ku Cha ( bitter tea ) to Tian Cha ( sweet tea ) and of course that’s still bitter just with slight sweet note somewhere at the back of the tongue. That was good digestive after heavy farmer’s lunch , yet we finding hard this type of tea to be appealing for our western customers. It’s just way too bitter and the further transformation ( ageing ) would be only the sensible reason for investment, yet we are not completely sure that the asking price is the equivalent value of what comes out of it few years later ( in our Kunming storage ). Will get back to that topic later in this article. Our next stop is :

Pa Dian Zhai

rather a “go through” village, where tea shops are lined up along the passing through road. Not really relaxing place to drink / taste the tea , especially when some heavy trucks are passing by.

I always get fascinated by those long tea tables from single tree cut , which are also quite wide and makes very difficult to serve a cup as you have to seriously lean over the massive trunk. Yet, this one is not the biggest we have seen . The tea tastes quite weird and I suspect the water ( was confirmed later at home when I brewed samples from this farmer ) . This is also very common issue / disadvantage of discovering new places . Farmers use mostly local water which might not be optimal for the tea or in worse case scenario it might not be clean ( normally you wouldn’t expect this in nature place like mountains ). The nearby construction or some small manufacturer might poison the soil and so the water. The tea had some strange kinda soapy plastic and steel taste ( almost like a tap water with plastic bag ) . Despite of that, of course bitter and astringent as expected and samples at home no difference , except that mentioned weird taste.

Checking a tea garden nearby , which makes me wonder if we really had the tea from the same trees. The reason for doubt is that this year is very dry and there was no Gushu harvest in most of the villages yet ( at the time we went to Menghai ) .

The soil is very dry and almost no tips on the trees. Overall situation in Yunnan this year looks very desperate which causes the false claims even more often. The fact that some farmers offering Gushu but by taste , the age of the young trees is very obvious. Let’s say that the dividing line between Gushu and Xiao Shu has shifted for another two steps down πŸ˜‰ Despite of the claims from farmers ( or even some tea vendors who came for tea sourcing ) that although less tea this year, the quality is better , we haven’t got convinced to make some bold investment. As at the previous place , here also have Ku Cha and Tian Cha.

Apparently the left is the Ku Cha ( bitter ) , bright green. The right is the Tian Cha ( sweet tea ) , dark green. Whenever it is a true or false , we can not confirm as we didn’t have a chance participate on processing of such a tea before, but it is on my list to do in future.

From this village we are heading up to the next level of the journey which is more likely educational rather than sourcing one , and that’s because of the price range. As we are doubtful about price=worth value in previous villages , the coming up places are way off our range for sure.

Lao Man E

Very dense constructed village with houses stocked next to each other , and as we expected from such a hyped place ( making money place ) there are no any traditional wooden cottages but full glass-concrete structures with some luxury cars parking at the front of the house.

We are visiting our fiend’s tea farmer and trying their Tian with Ku Cha , which makes me wonder , what is that significant difference which would make me to pay 10x higher price than other villages around? Local LME farmer confirmed my doubts saying : ” trees are same, processing same , all same , just name different ” . Although he was referring / comparing their village with Laobanzhang , but I’ve got the point. With Pa Sha or Mang Ban Zhai , I could scent some flower notes somewhere at the far back in my nose , but with LME I’ve experienced only bitter empty taste. We also took some samples to home and tried again on our water.

Orthodox self proclaimed experienced puer drinkers will probably bury me with negative comments , fair enough. I did have 2014 LME sheng and it was amazing, yet, what makes me not to believe that same way can turn out a tea from other, much cheaper, village? No one at the table there could answer my question , just farmer said: “you have to buy it and see in few years” πŸ˜‰

And as the advanced tea farmers , they are not behind of doing the marketing using the latest tech. The drone is a must , if you want to promote your tea garden these days πŸ˜‰

Lao Ban Zhang

We are skipping the Xin Ban Zhang ( new BZ ) and heading straightaway to the most hyped tea village in Yunnan , the one and only – Laobanzhang.

At the first entrance gate we are getting stopped and checked ( by local security ) for not bringing some other tea into the village. I’m getting out of the car and taking my pockets inside out to show they are completely empty. Young security guys are laughing but their supervisor is not finding it funny at all and giving me the eyebrow.

There is another few minutes drive to the main gate of the village itself. The road is obviously not a mud drive but very clean surrounded by very looked after environment with small tea trees mostly around.

At the main village entrance is where the all fun starts. Luxury cars parking around , as there is already traffic jam inside of the village , and geared up security squad stopping every single visitor asking for invitation confirmation. Yes, that’s right. No visitor can enter to the village unless have personal invitation from the local tea farmer , which is confirmed by simply making a video call trough the Wechat. After passing trough the gate and taking some memorial “show off – we are in Laobanzhang ” pictures ;-DDD , we are joining the cluster jam in village in order to reach the tea farmer who invited us. Similar scenario as in LME in terms of the buildings , just probably another 2 levels up . As we learn later from the farmer , they have it as a competition. If one farmer invests 10 million RMB in reconstructing the house , the neighbor pumps 20 mil in to his property to show Who’s got a bigger Mian Zi . ( means a face – CN cultural thing ) .

Entering the ground floor / processing area of the tea farmer’s house ( apparently around 18 mil CNY house ) we are lucky enough to see one batch is being just made by owner’s mother. I’m seizing an opportunity to give it a try and finishing off the kill green for her. As expected , I’m being recorded from all different angles which makes me bit nervous and more sweating in such already hot day. Old woman shouting at me : ” if you burn it, you will take it ! ” When getting an answer for my question “how much” , I’m sweating even more.

After playing around with hot tea leaves we are getting to the tea table and do some tastings. We start with the 2023 spring Gu Shu. First 3 infusions are rather pleasant and not so bitter as I would expected from the tea which has the bitterness in its domain. Forth stepping starting to reveal the leaves potential and bitterness with astringency slowly coming around along sort of mineral sensation. I’m brewing the tea , serving to my wife with friends and farmer who is sitting next to me . Everybody is sipping their cup, making a smart look with all those high respect comments. I feel like a complete idiot. Are we drinking same tea? asking myself while looking into the cup.

As much as I try to get to the bottom of this taste , slurping my cup hard and long , breathing out through my nose and ears , I can not get the point of what they are talking about. Isn’t it just what we have been drinking in all other villages? Of course I can taste some of the differences , after all the LBZ processing is far more accurate than in other villages, but in taste that doesn’t reflect as that big difference.

At that moment I’m asking myself a question : “who is the customer for such a tea?” Everybody at the table talking about some sheng jing , hui gan, ti gan and such. Sure some of it it’s there , but is it really worth it 16k ( CNY / kg ) ?

And that was ( in my opinion ) just a Xiao Shu , not a Gushu, as farmer claimed. Yet, the excessive bitterness can not be applying for most of the people I guess. Bitter taste suits mostly Yunnan people ( and so the green tea ) . Cantonese or Shanghainese ( potential customers with money ) are more likely into the sweet and would be expected to buy Bing Dao , Jing Mai or some Yiwu . While discussing that topic, some visitor just loading up his SUV with 4 x 15kg boxes he just purchased from the farmer across the road. And we are laughing that he just put the car into the car ( the tea in price of the new car ).

Next one is the 2022 autumn , which is milder and in fact feels like more drinkable than 2023 and has some transformation taste already ( I guess due to the high humidity and heat in the village – house storage ). Probably the most impressive was 200g cake from 2019 spring. In that one I was starting to putting some pieces of the puzzle together. The transformation ( aging ) was much further than it would happen in Kunming of course and the camphor notes ( not the smoky notes! ) were more than pleasantly balanced in the overall bitter-ish background taste. At that stage it all started to make all sense ,yet the question remains the same …is it really worth that asking price ?

The truth is, that last time I’ve sensed such a clean camphor notes was in Da Xue Shan Mengku Rongshi 2006 cake , and it was at their factory in Mengku. Those notes slightly start changing into something slightly different after few years in Kunming ( so those, in my opinion , are present only in some level of humidity environment ). Despite of farmer’s claim that this 2019 cake is also Gushu , I couldn’t get rid of the disturbing dry feeling imprinted in my mouth reminding me small trees or even tai di cha sort of sensation. My friends and farmer trying to convince me that this “astringency” is the part of the value of LBZ , which makes me react on the fact how unfair it is to the other locations where this type of disturbance is counted as a downside and mostly called by vendors Xiao Shu – I do not drink that! πŸ˜‰ With Laobanzhang it’s not only forgiven but even promoted as a Power of the Tea!

I understand that demand creates a hype and offer smaller than demand hypes up the price. Yet , in my believe, no tea should cost such a money and it will be always hype for me. If I’m rich and don’t know what to do with money, there are always many other useful investments ( like Yunnan orphanage or support for homeless people ) where you can donate – help others and boost your ego at the same time.

I understand the farmers selling it but I do not understand people buying it.

After the session we are going to check the tea garden at the village. The one, which is across the road from the Ancient tea garden ( main touristic spot ), is just being harvested by few old local grannies who are surrounded by tourists recording them on video in real time streaming despite restriction / ban of doing so.

Yep, not only LBZ but also in other villages farmers got annoyed by the tea tourism which doesn’t generate money they expected. In LBZ we were told it is banned and another villages we were told that tea farmers no longer are willing cooperate with Tik Tok vendors. Simply because no output from all that hassle ( farmers had to send samples somewhere and hardly ever got any decent order after ) .

The touristic tea tree walk is refreshing in the hot day , for sure and is some way also educational.

The 1st image is Cha Wang tree from which the harvest this year is offered from 350k ( CNY ) , 2nd image is old Cha Wang which is dying and it’s peak time the harvest was sold apparently for 500k ( CNY ) per harvest. Please note , that those money are paid upfront without buyer having any specific number of kilos. This year , as already mentioned , is super dry and the output will be very small.

After this bitter roller coaster I started to more understand how easy is to fake / false claim tea to be from LBZ or LME as in general the taste is quite close to other places around and unless you have an extended drinking experience ( means you are rich and have secure access to that source ) you hardly be able to spot the difference. Their tea trees are not something very different from the rest of the area and it’s only question of time when other farmers improve their processing and probably get some of that hype as well.

And again, of course that self proclaimed experienced puerists would bet with me for difference , yet I do not fall into this Ego Game and purely focusing on the tea it self.

On our Kunming tea market if you say you don’t like Laobanzhang , commonly you will get 2 possible reactions : You either haven’t tried real LBZ yet, or you are not an experienced puerh tea drinker.

This long trip, which started early morning, we ending up visiting our friend’s tea factory not far from Menghai. They have produced something around 6 tons of mao cha, small trees and finding hard to find any buyer. The market seems to be over-saturated , last years of Covid and general economic conditions being dragged behind it , made an impact on many local tea business like this one.

The other issue , as we learn from few sources , the outsiders ( usually Cantonese ) businesses come into play on Menghai tea market. They make a contract with some local small tea producers / farmers / tea business on drop-shipping concept. They live stream on various platforms like Tik Tok and offer very cheap prices for supposedly high quality and high value ( like LBZ for example ) tea. Constantly destroying honest competitors and ruining the market with false believe that such a tea can cost such a low price ( such a phenomenon common in western puer market ).

Let alone the fact that they promise to pay suppliers on monthly basis and usually disappear when comes to the setting up the bill. Something similar we heard in Mang Fei back in the time we went there for tea sourcing.

Zhang Lang

Not very far from Bulang mountain is a Bada mountain which we visit next day and first stop is the Zhang Lang village. Very nice temple not far from the farmer’s shop-house .

Having a few cups of this year’s production then following farmer to the forest to see some trees. Narrow but readable path makes fun to ride even with mine, not off road oriented, bike. I would prefer to walk it but farmer was lazy and proposed to go on wheels.

Also visiting the local Cha Wang.

We did only small part of the tea garden trip there because we arrived quite late afternoon and didn’t plan to stay overnight. This year’s prices for arbor trees were higher due to the limited availability so no wonder that many tea biz people who we met on Bada were primarily asking for xiao shu ( small trees ) .

I’ve also noticed that many farmers have not sold Gushu from last 3 years. Boxes marked up 2020/2021/2022 Gushu which signifies that prices ( their expectation ) is too high and not lined up with current economy situation. It would also worth to point out that from our observation it seem this year are more tourists than actual vendors ( wholesale buyers ) on tea mountains.

From our tea market I know that many of my friends ( tea shops ) didn’t go for tea sourcing this year as they haven’t managed to make enough money. Some of them went but didn’t buy anything because high asking price. Also some believe that market is overheated and not right time to make any investment towards to the puerh. Well, I’ll leave it to the horse, he’s got a bigger head.

Bao Tang Lao Zhai

We are visiting next day. Although the village is not located on Bulang mountain , the tea has some similarities in taste , yet not that bitter and rather more astringent. Except traditionally trying sheng puerh we also get a few cups of black ( Sha Hong ) and white tea. Clean processing and decent tea, yet we haven’t find it that appealing at that moment.

Although the leaves drying next to the road , there were no cars passing by in one hour we were sitting there and having a tea. Of course some dust to be expected in mao cha after all.

Hua Zhu Liang Zi

Is our final destination in that area and quite steep inclination. Also few roads crossing each other made us coming back to the same place we started ( made us run in circle ) even with GPS.

From the first impression , this village is also already tea tourism friendly. Signs on shops , ph. numbers., brands and farmers dressed up for the streaming videos. One is just promoting the tea which is not even from their area but selling it as a bundle with their own production. That’s how hard they try to transform from the tea farmer to the tea vendor ( I mention it in article Choosing Tea Vendor and some extensive explanation for better understanding in The misconception of puer business ) . We randomly stopping by some tea shop with two young brothers and trying their tea .

After drinking their xiao shu and last year gushu, it is clear to me that this tea is primarily for longer term storage. We have 2017 cake from small trees and it does get a decent ageing progress in our Kunming storage.

We are offered to go to see their tea trees and farmer suggests going on motorbikes. Siran is tired and staying in tea shop. I’m taking my moto and following the farmer ( who is on small scooter ) up to the steep hill with very narrow muddy path making me realize this is not a good idea. My over 200kg monster is way to heavy for this and hard to control in sharp turns as it is not even ADV type. Just around 50m away from the actual tea garden in one awkward turn I’m voluntarily putting it down as can’t make it turn and balance same time in such a slow speed ( not enough torque in low rev. ) …and yes, not enough skill πŸ˜‰ lets face it!

Managed to lift it up and ride those few meters to the destination. Their garden is on the slope and belong to three different families. Same issue as for everyone this year, no rain – no tea. The tea trees are not much exposed to the direct sunlight because other , much bigger , trees are around and create partial shading. Very calming nature environment with singing birds and other noise made by insects makes you want to buy tea from here for sure !

On the way back meeting few tea tourists and when going the road trough the village I’m realizing how many shops are around. Some have tourists inside , some making a life streaming , some just chill out and waiting for the customers. So I’m not surprised that prices here are also quite high.

Hua Zhu Liang Zi has the highest elevated tea garden in Yunnan located at 2429.5m alt. I’m not sure it was this one , but the climate difference from Menghai was noticeable.

Ba Gong Li

On the way back to Menghai we are stopping by place called Ba Gong Li , which means 8th kilometer. It is actually not a place but long road 8km from Menghai. There is a sort of tea market situated near to the main road to Jing Hong approximately at the same distance but we decided to visit some producer rather than shops.

Finding one tea factory primarily focusing on shu puerh ( fermentation ) and having a long chat with the owner. Apart of the massive multi ton shu puerh production he also likes to experiment / play around with some small batches. In this bamboo basket has around 100kg of Bing Dao small trees. We asked about significance / major difference in taste and quality in comparison with standard shu puerh production ( pile fermentation ). There is no big difference in taste , he says, and in fact is more hassle with small batch like that as it is much more difficult to control the temperature and humidity than in bigger piles. The difference comes only from used material , as for such a small batch you can use something better or just more expensive like mentioned Bing Dao.

We also share our gathered knowledge on this trip and getting some feedback on it from him. He says that recently booming live streaming from farmers and producers is just undermining the whole concept of tea business as we know. The fact that those farmers offering their products directly to the retail customer means they no longer can do business with wholesale clients.

Nobody want’s to work with supplier who has the wholesale prices all over the internet so those who want to keep the b2b sales have to sell their products for much higher prices . Means those farmers have to sell for much higher retail prices and that’s what is happening right now.

Despite of trying hard , most of them failing to reach the numbers of sales to make it for living. Dancing in front of the tea tree wearing minority dress , which normally they don’t wear because it’s not practical , brewing tea in front of the phone and keep repeating the same words over and over each time new follower joins the stream , that’s something they didn’t expect to do. And in that moment the opportunity for those mentioned Tik Tok sellers was created.

Those Tik Tok vendors are usually not tighten up to one product only ( like doing only tea ) but any stuff can sell without investing money upfront. So mostly they just repeating marketing words and some common stories – claims from the farmers / suppliers without any personal opinion based on their own tea experience.

Before we left Xishuangbanna , the temperatures were reaching up to 38C which is kind of alarming climate change sign. Not really chill out place anymore and only place to hide would be in village on mountains.

Let’s hope that next year will be better in terms of weather and tea production.

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