What is Gushu? July 25 2014
If you’re even moderately into puerh tea at all you will eventually come across the term ‘gushu’ (古树). What does it mean? The term is a simple Chinese word meaning “ancient tree”; gu (古) means ancient, and shu (树) means tree. [ ‘shu’ in this case is not the same word as is used for shu/shou/ripe puerh. the sound is similar, but the meaning is different ]. In the world of puerh tea this term is used to describe a product that has been created with leaves picked from tea trees that are ‘ancient’. What does ancient mean? How old does a tree have to be before it is considered ancient? I’ll get to that soon. First take a moment to appreciate the ancient tree in the picture above. This tree is in Bai Ying Shan. The farmer, Mr Shi, is demonstrating that the size of the trunk is too large to get your arms around. This tree is over 20 feet tall and easily older than 500 years old.
I want to talk about why ‘gushu’ is important in the tea world. When you’re drinking tea, do you ever think about what it is that you’re really drinking? Why does tea taste the way it tastes? The simplest answer would be to describe the tea tree as a vehicle to get minerals from the soil into the leaf, then into your cup. You are tasting the earth, in leaf form. The roots of the tree are planted firmly into the soil. The roots absorb water and trace minerals that are in the ground. These nourish the growth in the tree in the form of leaves. Leaves processed from a tea tree 5 years old will taste different than those picked from a tree 500 years old. The older the tree, the deeper the roots, the more connected it is to the flavor source. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the idea.
The overall consensus is that gushu tastes better. That’s not to say that puerh from younger trees is bad, but there is a difference. It is also understood that gushu is more likely to age well. That’s an important consideration of you are buying in bulk now to store for the next 20 years with the intent to age. It’s not as important if you are looking for something that you intend to drink now. If your puerh tea needs are immediate then sample a lot of puerh and buy the one you like. Then enjoy drinking it and don’t worry about what it would have become in the future. Many people worry a great deal about how to properly store puerh tea. There is a large amount of confusion and anger in online forums when this topic is discussed.
If I brewed for you a cup of gushu puerh and puerh from younger trees could you tell the difference? I’m sure that you could. However, it’s more complicated than that. During our travels in Yunnan I was often surprised at the quality of puerh harvested from younger trees. Just because you have old tea trees doesn’t mean you’re going to have better puerh. A great many factors play a role in puerh quality. These include terroir, how tea gardens are maintained, the presence of fertilizers or pesticides/herbicides, the skill of roasting/processing, and when the leaves were picked. Again, if you’re looking for a puerh to drink and enjoy now, buy samples and find one you like, regardless of gushu or not. If you’re like me, my puerh doesn’t sit idle for very long. I have very thirsty teapots.
It is no easy task for a tree to grow into the triple digits of age. It takes patience, care, and more than a little luck. Trees that can be considered gushu have the subtle grace of battle hardened warriors of old. Salty old seadogs with stories to tell and scars to prove them. They’ve withstood the tests of time. Their roots run deep and that foundation gives strength. They’ve seen seasons of drought, and seasons of plenty. They have survived wars, fires, and famine that often took the lives of their human tenders. Through a process of Darwinian natural selection they have emerged the genetic victor. They are of a hearty stock, well adjusted to their soil, and naturally more resilient to insect invaders. This means less of a temptation for farmers to use pesticides or fertilizers. When you drink gushu you’re drinking history. You’re drinking from tea trees planted during the glory days of Imperial China; or earlier.
It takes centuries of care to create these tea trees. Gushu is rare, in limited supply, and certainly demands a higher price in the market. How high of a price? Well if recent trends continue, the sky is the limit. Well processed, spring picked gushu puerh, from famous mountains, this year could fetch prices well into the thousands of dollars USD per pound. Older trees quite literally translate to more money. A lot of the villages we traveled to had quite a few new homes built in the last few years from extra profits made from selling gushu leaves. In Bai Ying Shan large gushu ancient tea trees were everywhere. The farmer we were working with pointed out that the largest house in their village was next to the largest tea tree. He commented simply “Bigger tree, bigger house!”
There is a problem with the term gushu though. I asked earlier how old a tree had to be before it could be considered gushu. Is it 500 years? 200 years? 100 years? Sadly the answer is that nobody knows. In the opaque void of a definitve answer dishonesty thrives. Everyone in the business of marketing puerh has a different definition of gushu. It is largely used as a marketing term. There are no standardizing bodies that outline definitions for puerh terminology. There are no agencies to certify products. Even more, there is no way to enforce unscrupulous sellers from marketing young trees as ‘gushu’. When it comes to marketing puerh in China, anything goes. It’s also possible that factories do put a percentage of legitimate gushu material in a blend. It could be less than 1% and they would feel justified in using the term gushu.
This is why we made such an effort to visit as many tea gardens as we did. We wanted to see the trees the tea was coming from with our own eyes. We wanted to meet the farmers producing them. Each farmer we met had different terminology for their trees. The terms were words like big tree (dashu - 大树), small tree (xiaoshu - 小树), bush tree (taidi - 台地), old tree (laoshu - 老树), wild tree (yeshu - 野树), ecological tree (shengtai - 生态), arbor tree (qiaomu - 乔木), and ancient tree. We politely recorded each farmers description of their product and then saw for ourselves what their tea gardens consisted of. Sometimes we found them under describing their trees, and other times they were over describing them. You can’t know unless you’re there though. Also, for the most part, the farmers don’t care what you do with the tea after you pay them and leave. They’re simple people and marketing is not their concern.
Take this tea for example. This is a 2006 shou puerh from the Puer Special Tea Factory. Right on the label it claims this is ‘gushu’. We were told this shou puerh came from trees over 500 years old. We made a point of visiting this tea factory and their tea garden outside Ninger, north of Pu’er City in Yunnan. They had large tea gardens but all of their trees were around 50-80 years old. We asked them why they use the term gushu. They told us that everyone does it. Is their puerh bad? Not at all, it’s actually really good! We’ve been drinking it for a year now and it’s very enjoyable. That factory has good skill and very clean facilities. They make a great product. It’s just not what they market it as.
Gushu is a term of recent popularity. 20 years ago people didn’t realize gushu was something to be commoditized. Large factories, like Menghai, only graded leaf by size. Grade 0 to 9; buds to large leaves. Tea from old trees and young trees alike were mixed in to blended products. Gushu wasn’t seen as any more valuable than other tea trees. What happened was that low end consumer level tea ended up having high end gushu material in it. Now we know the value of those teas, and their current price reflects that. Nowadays, those same products from the same factories is of a lower quality because they no longer lump gushu into those blends. People now know that gushu is better.
Why isn’t there more gushu shou puerh? I wondered this as we explored the Kunming tea markets and talked to the vendors there. We wanted to find some good examples of gushu shou puerh. As we learned more about the particulars of creating shou puerh it became clear why finding gushu shou puerh is so difficult. Creating shou puerh takes A LOT of base material. You need multiple tons of processed sheng puerh leaf just to get the shou puerh process started. That’s thousands of kilograms! The process will take as long as three months. This is a risky procedure. If you mess it up you’ve created a few tons of nasty smelling garbage.
This is why you rarely find artisanal shou puerh made by individual farmer families in small batches. They would likely need to use all the leaf their village produces in an entire season just to get the process started. They would be without profit that entire time. It’s too risky, and most farmers need that money sooner rather than later. This is where the larger players enter the picture. Big shop owners and larger factories buy leaf in bulk and can prospect a little making shou puerh. They will use large quantities of young tea garden leaf because it is more economical. Gushu leaves in the current market are too valuable to risk on using in shou puerh. One would need more than a hint of insanity to risk making shou puerh with gushu leaves in modern times.
Mr Fang of Gu MIng Xiang has just that level of insanity. He’s been in the tea business for many years now and has been quite successful. He intently wanted to mimic the old glory days of shou puerh that contained real gushu leaves. In 2012 he had access to enough gushu material and decided to do just that. He joked with us that all his friends told him he was stupid. He didn’t care. It was his leaf and he’d do what he wanted to with it. His gamble paid off. The shou puerh he made is simply amazing. I would rank it right up there with Menghai’s Golden Need White Lotus products. It’s good, it’s really good. Unlike some shou puerh producers who end the process after just a couple weeks he had this product perfecting for the full 3 months. It really shows. It’s still young but is ready to be drunk right now.
We knew we had to bring some of this back to sell. We only lucked into meeting Mr Fang at the tail end of our buying trip. We did not have much of our buying budget left. We bought all we could. This stuff is exceptional! Mr Fang knew the value of what he had to offer and we were not able to negotiate much of a discount at the volume we were asking for. We bought it anyway. He is convinced that this product will get better with age like the 90’s Menghai products he was trying to mimic. We never met a vendor who was so certain of their product that they would guarantee it by offering to buy it back at market value any time in the future if we were disappointed. That says a lot.
Our supply of this has finally arrived. Mr Fang decided to compress this puerh into massive 2 kilogram bricks shaped like a loaf of bread. I’ve seen many interesting shapes of compressed puerh, but most are novelties not intended for consumption. This is a unique product all around. We have this for sale on our site in 250g pouches. We break the brick apart and keep the chunks as whole as possible. We also sell 25 gram samples here. You should at least try a sample of this shou puerh. It’s very special, rare, and unique in the puerh tea world. With the rising price of raw gushu material you won’t find anyone crazy enough to make this in the future.
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014tai di