Coming back from the holiday in Europe we decided to take a direct train form Hong Kong to Wu Zhou , the place known for Liu Bao production. Not that we would be primary aiming for this type of tea , but the personal interest and curiosity lead us to the tea sourcing journey out of the our ( Yunnan ) province for a very first time.
It takes quite a long time ( almost an hour ) to get by taxi from the train station to the hotel we booked just near to the tea market , which is the place to plan the search and absorb the knowledge of the product we know very little about.
My wife , as Yunnan people , is not really fan of the wet stored tea in general so the Liu Bao is definitely not her cup of tea. The most part of drinking is done by me…by pleasure.
The place with tea shops is really small and probably can not be even call the tea market ( around 20 shops in total ). There is an another place on other side of the city ( which is bigger ) but also very few shops actually are open there. Just visiting one shop and getting very brief introduction about the processing , storing and of course the price range ,which surprises us the most. Probably because we comparing it with Yunnan bush tea ( tai di cha ) prices. At the first moment we think it’s just a tourist price so not really bothering with negotiating and rather asking more “technical” questions.
Although we know how messy ( speak of the legitimacy ) the puerh market is , yet I asked the vendor what age range of liu bao is in general available on this market. He dropped down his head and looking into the cup with smile , saying: “ you don’t ask about the age here “ . “Focus on the taste and price ,rather than the age “ , he continues. “If you chase the old liu bao , you more likely end up spending lots of money and buying some fake. If you after some very old stuff , there is very little almost to non here. Mostly it’s just that vendors claim whatever they feel like you want to hear.
Next day we have a car taking us to the Liu Bao Zhen. Although there is a bus going there, we decided to hire a car. The bus goes there only 2 times a day and quite long time. With car we manage to make it 1.5hr there. And mainly , being able to get back at the same day ( the bus stays there over night ) .
The 1st stop is at the tourist – visitor center which charges 10 yuan for entrance and basically it is only a tea shop of the small local village producer who managed to cultivate tea garden with apparently 100y old tea trees with some tea plantations around. The other construction works of wooden building was in progress. I was curious why entrance fee to the tea shop and worker explained to us that tourists just come , drink free tea ,make a noise and chill out there quite long without giving a chance other people enjoy and buy some tea. Basically the owner is trying to limit / filter out some people coming in , which makes me feel , here really must be a business.
The prices are confirming that, as the 150g of 2019 year of tai di cha is sold for the price as good stuff from the real woods ( Gushu ) in Yunnan. The taste is not bad, remind me some Ai Lao Shan puerh we had time ago , yet the value ( in our opinion of course ) is far from the selling price and the company doesn’t support the wholesale, only the agent concept ( annual minimum purchase contract based ).
We are continuing further down the road into the actual Liu Bao village , which looks rather confusing in matter of “ The one and only “ . The village by which is the Tea named , we were expecting much more tourism friendly and developed place with shops, workshops , restaurants and hotels. Probably around 20 shops in total of which half was closed ( maybe there is only some season for the tourism ? )
In anyhow , no any normal ( and we are not picky ) restaurant , just few classical dirty smudgy small places selling noodles. We had nice luo si fen ,yet still can’t get my head around what happened here. Looks like there is some construction along the river bank for some walk or view points but in overall the village gives me an impression of the abandoned tourism project.
Checking up from those shops which are open and finding out that vendors ( those we visited ) are not even tea farmers but just local folks who are trying their luck with tea business. One of them, for example, 5 years ago was a pig farmer but found out it’s not too profitable business and too much work.
After asking the prices of his tea , I understand his point 😉
Other guy who runs a noodle shop also has his tea shop with pressing equipment and offering us to visit for cup of his tea after lunch. I’m not finding anything interesting in taste and asking prices just out of the curiosity to get some ideas about the market here. We are also trying a fresh made tea which is used for further processing to make a liu bao in order to understand the taste transformation. Tea reminds me in taste something between the Hui Long green tea and Jiao Gu Lan tea with kinda of fried or fermented soy beans ( used to put into the Yunnan noodles ).
Same as with puerh tea , liubao also has sheng and shu concept
1 ) sheng – the fresh leaves are processed with kill green on lower temperatures to keep the enzyme activity more intensive. Then tea is pressed into the bamboo baskets ( various size ,but could be like 5 – 15kg ) and stored in the basement where high temperatures and humidity will do the rest for many years to come.
2) shu – started from 1962 and became a template for the Menghai shu puerh as we know nowdays. This tea goes trough the the pile fermentation ( various levels – light / medium / dark ) before being pressed into the basket and put in basement. We also heard that kill green processing for such a tea is on higher temp. range , so it is almost like a green tea.
On the way back we are getting a monsoon rain ,the way that wipers on window can’t keep up. Purely out of curiosity I’m asking the driver to bring us to the Three Cranes Tea factory where I sneaked out trough the security somehow and managed get an attention some office workers who were surprised to see some outsider ,let alone the foreigner. I was interested to see the production and of course I’m being refused ( well, we got a luck in Xia Guan years ago ) and forwarded to the some managers on phone call , leaded to their tourist showroom shop with small exhibition of their old and new production. Of course, the prices are off the reality ( again, only our opinion ) as it is common with many puerh tea factories in Yunnan as well. The reasons I explain in article Choosing tea ( 2. Factory Tea and Private Production Tea )
Other , quite popular , product is Chong Shi Cha. It’s basically a worm’s excrement after they eating the old Liu Bao tea leaves. We have seen farmers or even some shops having those baskets in the storage as there is not much work need to be done. Just put leaves into the bamboo basket with some worms and they do the job. Then simply strained through the bamboo strainer.
It might seem to be quite disgusting for the western culture ,yet this type of tea is also produced by larger tea factories ( so it’s not just some farmer’s experimental stuff ) . It can be brewed through the strainer or put in small tea bag. I use to mix it with some other liu bao as the chong shi cha gives to it extra sweetness. Not big amount needed to achieve rich tea.
Going back tho the tea market and browsing trough the other tea shops. The prices are more like same in other shops and we are having a theory that the reason for the high range ( more than we would expected by comparing with Yunnan ) is because the overall annual output is much lower than Yunnan. In following tea shop we are learning bit more details behind the prices.
Apparently before 2015 the prices were more regular , folks friendly but then thanks to Three Cranes company who by help of the Da Yi marketing department and supported by local gov. managed hyped the marked to the astronomical numbers.
Back then , many new vendors came into the game with that of course and so the demand for more tea. That caused , as expected , two major things. Importing tea ( mao cha ) from other provinces , like Yunnan , Fujian or even Laos, so some of the tea might be basically the wet stored sheng puerh or shu puerh rather than puer Liubao material. In fact, some vendors even sell the classical Menghai gong ting / 1st grade shu puerh as some aged Liu Bao to people who are obviously not experienced with tea at all.
The other thing is , and that is common for Yunnan as well, many new players obviously couldn’t get some aged stuff , yet no time to wait for their new tea to be aged as rent has to be paid now , the shu liu bao has been produced in much bigger scale , so probably 90% of the market is filled with shu , rather than sheng ( yet , of course , some vendors claim their shu as being a genuine very old sheng ).
It is very obvious already by color of the tea soup which is which if compare the young stuff, but if having some old sheng and light fermented young shu , you have to drink it side by side to learn what is it that taste note which reveals the shu.
Overall the market in that matter is really “ as they please “ since most of the vendors are ok with telling you any story leading to the purchase. And they will probably have their own karma explanation for doing so. Should you want to bother with age authenticity to get to the very bottom of this , you probably will find easier to start make your own tea from scratch. For learning to taste and recognize age by taste , in my opinion , the best is the big factory tea . They have standard – stable processing , blending and storage from which you might be able to catch some sequence / pattern of ageing. With private batches – every batch might be different , every storage ( level of transformation ) might be different even from the same batch in same storage as the basket from far corner might get more / less heat-humidity than basket at the front near the door..etc.
For example : We got sheng from 2009 and it has darker brewed color ( also tastes more aged ) than 2007 , we got from someone else. As the 2009 leaf went to some longer oxidation when making the initial mao cha for the following ” basketing “.
Around 2015 the tea biz was booming, mainly Cantonese ( lot’s of money ) were passing by. Two serving tea tables were running continuously from 10 am till 11 pm without proper break for lunch , the tea vendor recalling his memories from the good times. When Covid started , the bubble burst , and haven’t manage to recover again. Some restrictions for tourist buses in city ( parking not possible even at the hotel for drop off tourists unless special designated place which is very expensive to rent ) are not helping overall situation either.
Looking around at the buildings and general city vibe , doesn’t give us any impression of good economy here but rather like forgotten city ( apart of the regular concept of developers building high and narrow apartment building ).
Next day we are visiting new tea factory of one guy who has been producing liu bao since 90’s and this is his new manufacture ( as the old one was not suitable anymore to keep up with new standards ). It was used only once so far ,so the floor still pretty much clean yet. We learn a lot’s of wisdom from the master , especially the material and processing part, expanding the possibilities / options of the final product.
I wouldn’t call our selves being experts on liu bao by all means now , but this visit was truly enlightening and made me to rewrite some of the descriptions ( as I always do with other products when I learn new info related ) of our liu bao we are offering from the previous sources.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the liubao is a personal hobby of mine rather than business concept for our shop ( as we primary focus on our Yunnan province ) , so we purchased just some of in taste interesting shengs and one price friendlier ( decent daily drinker ) shu , for the moment.
Since Kunming environment is not suitable for long storage of previously high humidity stored tea ( more I write about in article Storage ) we haven’t purchased a huge amount , yet managed to get a wholesale price for shu and one sheng . The 2009 sheng is in very limited quantity so has only one price anyway. Also very interesting one from Laos tea leaves ( in which case might be disputable if it can be called genuine Liubao ) made by mentioned old master in his brand new tea factory.
Should any of those meet success , we will be happy to repeat the journey with already geared up some knowledge and search for more.