On the way to Xishuangbanna mountains for autumn tea we decided to stop by in Meng Hai , the town famous for shu / shou ( ripe / fermented / black / cooked ) pu-erh tea.
There are few tea markets around the town and many shops scattered randomly in the center. Big or small companies ,all sell shu cha in different forms ( loose / pressed ) or qualities.
You hardly find a tea boss being local person , mostly they are from Guandong, Hunan , Sechuan …etc. People who came with some investment and business mind set. Simply said : the money which local people don’t have ( actually need to say : didn’t have ) and idea how to run tea business ( that is also rapidly changing , as you can see the prices of mao cha ) .
We are going trough the shops one by one and trying their shu pu. First day we struggle to find any drinkable and we are not even started to talk about the price. Obviously all shops are loaded with fresh shu from Ba Gong Li ( means 8km )….name of the place which is 8km from Menghai . The place where it all happens ( fermentation , processing , pressing ,wrapping …etc ) . As the tea is very new it’s full of “dui wei” – the unpleasant odor of fermentation.
To choose right one , you need to be able smell it out and taste it out which tea will loose this “dui wei” in some time in dry storage. Most of the teas taste is influenced by this not welcomed scent which might not fade away within next few years and Kunming dry storage is a certainly good way to accelerate this process .
One of the factor of much lower quality of shu pu in past few years is the increased demand.
Particularly last two years ( 2015-2017 ) the rocketing prices of mao cha made many tea businessmen and tea companies focusing more on shu cha which consequently put more load on shu processing companies. As they have higher demand but same capacity , to please the customer ( actually to make more money ) , the speeding up the fermentation time for each batch.
Why they all make more shu pu-erh than sheng? Simple answer. It cheaper. The tea leafs taste is mostly influenced by fermentation so in certain price range products it doesn’t really matter what kind of material ( type of tree or origin ) you use. Mostly its a mix of cheap bush tea leafs.
As we know, different mixtures with same fermentation can give different taste ( different tea leafs have different reaction on fermentation. ) and so the same tea leafs with different fermentation ( time, temp. moister, way and intervals of tossing fermenting leafs ) .
The whole point is that very good shu pu-erh made from arbor trees now or in past few years would be logically very expensive. There are some arbor shu pu around, mostly which don’t sell well in sheng pu-erh estate , but you can get much better shu pu made from bush tea.
Firstly , just because bigger range to choose from and mixtures to match your taste buds and secondly , the shu pu-erh masters have much bigger experience to ferment bush tea leafs , since much more orders are with this type.
Other think you can spot out in Menghai is that there are no many old shu pu around. One reason is , they are just sold out.
The other is , they get mold after few years because of excessive humidity.
One tea boss told us he stores his teas in 7th floor to avoid high moisture. Whatever it works or not , we don’t know , yet his teas had a strong wet notes. As in already fermented tea its hard to estimate the age ( few years difference ) of course you can see various dates on package. This is normal practice even in Kunming. I’ve seen some Hunan tea boss buying 2016 shu and wrapping it with 2006 year emphasizing that wrapping paper and print design must to look old.
Of course this is extreme difference and you would be able to even smell it out ( if you are familiar with old shu pu ) , but the factors like different storage ,fermentation and tea leafs makes it all more complicated and difficult to guess right age and therefore more speculating space for local tea businessmen.
And that’s on what basically Chinese tea business is build on. Age , origin and type of tea tree. The last is the actual flavor. People who have no clue can buy shu pu-erh Lao Ban Zhan – gu shu for 30CNY big 357g cake and think how good deal they got without knowing that in last mentioned years nobody would waste any old tea tree material to “downgrade” it by fermentation not even mentioning the actual price.
Second day I’m already tired of drinking all that wet earthy tea which makes me even more convinced that focusing on small private producers ( small batch shu pu-erh ) production , was a right choice.
Bad quality shows up also a way which normal consumer wouldn’t suspect. Shu pu in orange or mandarin, recently very popular , very good seller.
Reason? Of course , good idea, but this has been around ages ago.
Price – Taste
You can stuff almost “anything” into this fruit because original flavor of tea inside gets mostly covered by orange taste. So cheap material + claiming expensive labor ( very varies ) = high profit.
We try brew the tea without the fruit first, simply braking it and steep many time to make sure there is no mentioned “garbage” inside.
Since my wife has a fermentation master in family I leave choice on her. She patiently going trough the stinky bags and trying one by one. I’m just sitting quietly, sipping my tea and making smart face expression:-)
Third day we finally selected few teas for our shop which are ready to drink now or will be good in few months when “young shu pu-erh scent” will fade away.