Puerh Tea

The Dangers of the Tea Industry. A true story from the jungles of Southwestern China. July 26 2019

We spend a decent amount of time traveling and exploring in the southern half of Yunnan Province in China. We’re looking for the high quality puerh tea that has grown there for hundreds of years. Once you pass the Tropic of Cancer heading South things start changing quickly. The vegetation gets thick. It’s very hot and the humidity is like a second layer of clothing. The wild life gets more diverse. There are large numbers of wild elephants native to the area that roam freely. Earlier this year a road we were planning on using had been closed because wild elephants were attacking the passing cars. 

This is an old area of our planet and the modern world has only just reached most of these remote mountains. The place has it’s own rhythm and energy that is unique. It’s right on the border of Laos, Myanmar/Burma, and Vietnam. The ethnic minorities that live there are given a large amount of autonomy from the Chinese government to live as they always have. They have their own history, culture, language, and religion. In some areas head hunting was only outlawed within the last generation. My wife, Lamu, is a Yunnan native and even still we’ll get to some places where she can’t understand what people are saying. Thankfully there is usually at least one “educated” person in the village who speaks Mandarin Chinese.

This is all to paint the background of this story. These areas are remote and in many cases actual jungles. The tea mountains are relatively high altitude and often quite steep. Getting to the good trees can take a lot of work. Dotted in and around these old tea mountains are villages where the old locals still live and process the teas. We were in one such tea mountain in the Spring of 2018. The mountain is called Hekai. We love the tea from here. Hekai is a relatively unassuming puerh tea growing area that gets dwarfed by the neighboring villages of Lao Ban Zhang and Lao Man’E whose tea has gained international acclaim.

The tea from Hekai is no slouch but all the modern glory goes to Lao Ban Zhang and Lao Man’E whose flavor and aroma experience is unmistakeable. In Hekai there are a handful of villages each with a different personality. We were visiting the Hekai village of Manmai Lao Zhai. This village is right on the top edge of a steep mountain spine deep in the jungle and hours from the nearest big city. Hiking down both sides you are surrounded by incredible old growth trees. We were exploring one of these gardens with our guide.

In remote areas like this, you really need a good guide. Our guide was a local woman we’ve known for years who is incredibly competent. She runs her own tea company and grew up in the jungles of Hekai as a barefoot kid. You don’t often see women in China who run their own tea business. The tea business in China is very masculine. There’s a sort of machismo/gangster aspect to running a tea business and it’s very much an old boys network of sorts. I’m explaining this only to showcase how remarkable our guide is. She is amazing and does it all. She’s constantly exploring the tea mountains, she drives her own truck (highly unusual), she picks the tea, processes the tea, and presses the tea. She is quite capable and a valuable guide.

She’s been in this garden before but it was our first opportunity. At the time, Lamu was about 6 months pregnant and not in the mood for a long hike into the forest. She stayed with our car at the top of the mountain as we began the hike down. It was steep and I was carrying a lot of camera gear so I could capture the experience. It was hot and I was sweating profusely. Straight away I knew this place was different. I still find it hard to describe. It’s something that was felt more than seen. That’s not to diminish the sights though. The view was incredible. As I stood amongst these old growth tea trees on the edge of this mountain, I could see across the valley and into the jungle. It was magical.

Everything felt old. I don’t mean it felt a few decades old or a few centuries old; this place felt like I was walking into a different era. It truly felt like I had stepped into the Jurassic. The plants were unfamiliar and seemingly from a different time. The sounds of the jungly forest were all new to me. We’ve spent a lot of time in old growth tea forest and this was unusual. At one point a giant bird flew overhead and in that moment I couldn’t convince myself it wasn’t a pterodactyl. This was a special place and I was excited to be there.

As we hiked further down the trees, and foliage became denser. Our guide was just 15-20 feet ahead but I was losing sight of her. I stopped to take some pictures and film a little video when I was interrupted by a truly horrifying sound. Our guide was screaming louder than I’ve ever heard anyone scream before. I need to reiterate the respect I have for this woman. She is tougher than nails. She is experienced and capable and truly fearless. I trust her with my life and something has just scared the life out of her.

The trees part and I see her emerge thoroughly frightened. Her dark native skin is now pale as the moon. She’s running and still screaming. She’s running right at me yelling the only English she knows “NO GO GLEN!”. At full speed she races past me, up the mountain slope, and I’m left alone. I’m standing there amidst a pile of expensive camera gear I’ve spread around me in preparation. My hands are full and I don’t know what to do. I’m trying to figure out what just happened. What was she so scared of? Should I run too? Is this that point in every horror movie where the audience is screaming “RUN!” and the clueless victim on screen just stands there? My senses were heightened and I was on full alert but I didn’t hear anything or sense any danger myself. I packed up what I had with me and went to go find her.

I found her most of the way up the hill. She was sitting in the grass hyperventilating with her head in her hands. As I approached she jumped at the sound. She was still quite visibly shaken. I couldn’t understand her. My Chinese is pretty poor even when people aren’t scared out of their minds. She was speaking a mile a minute and gesticulating wildly. I had no idea what she was saying.

Thankfully, we were now in cellular range and I called Lamu who nonchalantly said she saw a snake. “Oh, is that all?” I remember thinking. My biggest fear was a wild boar which is a very real possibility. I’m not scared of snakes but I have a deep respect for them. She went on to explain that it was a big snake. How big could it really be though? She said the body was as thick around as my forearm and it was at least 4 meters (13 feet) long. The head was the size of a cat’s head. Ok, yeah that’s a big snake.

She said she wasn’t paying attention because she was gathering wild plants to make dinner for us. She heard a noise and turned around. The snake was right there. It was standing as tall as she was. It was looking her direct in the eye. It was about a foot away. It swayed and made a sound like you’re slowly exhaling a deep breath. That’s when she ran. Can you blame her? After she was able to relay the story, she sat there shaking and repeating the phrase “It took my soul! It took my soul! It took my soul!”.

I’m no snake expert but I know a fair deal. I did earn the Reptile Studies merit badge in the Boy Scouts after all! I knew that in this area there are a few small snakes that are venomous and occasionally a large python/constrictor. I figured she just saw a python. They’re not any real danger to a full sized person. They kill small animals and sometimes little kids. I wasn’t too concerned. I told her I wanted to find it so I could take a picture of it. She was adamant that I not go back down there but I was undeterred. In hindsight I probably should have listened to her…

I just knew it had to be a big constrictor. That’s all it could be right? What else could it be? I got down to where she had seen it. There were tea trees everywhere. It was dense and the grass was high enough to hide a big snake. I was cautious but I proceeded. In a few spots I had to duck down to get through the dense forest. Try as I might I couldn’t find any sign of the snake that had so terrorized her. I got to one area that opened slightly and I hesitated there. It was like I had hit an invisible wall. Something was physically preventing me from going any further. I was overcome with a deep sense of dread. I decided that it was wise to listen to whatever was offering this ethereal warning. I did take the time to photograph the area just in case the snake was there.

As I left and began the long hike up the steep slope of Hekai I was quite disappointed that I hadn’t seen the snake. It was until later that I knew how close I had come to real danger. Just 10 feet away, sitting in a tea tree, was a full size King Cobra just watching me like I was Eve in the Garden of Eden ready to offer me the original temptation.

As we left Hekai I began to question our guide further about what she saw. I downloaded pictures of snakes I knew were local to the area and none were what she saw. She said she had never seen a snake like that in her 43 years of living in Hekai. On a whim I pulled up a photo of a King Cobra to show her and I swear she almost passed out. That was it. That was what she saw. I didn’t think these snakes were common in the area and after a little research I learned that they’re not. However, with rising global temperatures these snakes are making their way north across the border and into Xishuangbanna.

We’ve asked other tea farmers and a few have mentioned seeing one very rarely but they are there. I get goosebumps just thinking about how close I came to one and how close our guide did come. A literal face to face meeting with the largest venomous snake in the world is not one you will soon forget. I’m going to post the pictures I took. It’s not easy to spot the snake but when you see it it is unmistakeable.

There is a King Cobra in this picture. Can you find it?

Here's a big hint!

This is a zoomed in pic of the King Cobra.

Obviously we’ve become completely enamored with this garden. We’ve worked hard to make sure we can get material from this area. We released some Autumn material last year, but have been super excited about the chance to get tea from this garden this year. We actually pre ordered the entire garden this Spring. It’s not a big garden and doesn’t produce a whole lot, but the material from here is spectacular. Sadly, this year with the drought we got far less than we had expected and it made the material a lot more expensive.

We pressed what we have as a new tea called “Danger Zone”. We commissioned a piece of custom, and very fitting, artwork from Pacific NorthWest artist Jake Knapp @knappuer ) and we absolutely love it! We pressed this material into 100g cakes with the hopes that as many people as possible can try it. It’s not cheap material but it is so worth it! You can check out the cakes here:

https://crimsonlotustea.com/products/2019-spring-danger-zone-100g-cake-sheng-raw-puerh-tea-free-shipping

Drink tea with us in the Danger Zone!


Try 3 one-of-a-kind shou puerh teas! April 30 2019

We have 3 very special teas to share with you. We are really excited about these.

Follow our Adventures in Yunnan, China for 3 months! April 27 2019

This is our 6th tour of Yunnan. We will be here for 3 months. We will be living and working here full time until the middle of July. Just like previous years we will be photographing and documenting our travels and adventures. We are very active on Instagram so be sure to follow us there: https://www.instagram.com/crimsonlotustea .

We will also be filming short educational videos while we're here and posting them as we can. You can check out all of our videos here: https://www.youtube.com/crimsonlotustea

2019 Goals

Our main goals for a trip like this are 3 fold. We want to ensure quality of existing teas from existing farmer relationships, we want to grow new relationships as we find new tea and tea farmers, and finally we want to show you the amazing places that these teas come from.

New Tea and Teaware

As we release new products we will post them here: https://crimsonlotustea.com/collections/new-products We have a lot of great things lined up!

 

 


How to make Tibetan Butter Tea February 06 2019

In the highlands of Tibet sheng puerh tea is brewed strong and mixed with yak butter. This is an ancient tradition that is essential to survival for those living at high altitude. Butter tea is a fascinating cultural beverage that you can try to make at home! You'll need some Xiaguan Holy Flame Sheng Puerh Tea and a quality grass fed cow butter like Kerrygold. Sure it's not yak butter but Lamu swears it's about 90% close.

Watch the video below to learn how butter tea is made in Tibet.


Our Wood Fired Teaware Collection June 06 2018

Wood fired teaware is amazing, beautiful, and rare. Explore our collection of the finest wood fired Huaning, Jianshui, and Jianzhan teaware.

Who we are, and what we do June 03 2017

We put this video together to talk about who we are as individuals, how we met, how we started this company, and our passion for tea. Please check it out!

 


Tea, Culture, Art, and Science Fiction Podcast March 09 2017

We had a virtual tea tasting with Barry Donnelly who hosts the Hot Leaf Juice podcast. We drank our 2016 Space Girls sheng puerh tea blend together and chatted about tea, culture, art, and science fiction. Stasia Burrington, the artist featured on our Space Girls bricks was there as well. It was an awesome time and well worth a listen!

Hot Leaf Juice: Puerh Tea in a Dystopian Cyberpunk Future with Glen Bowers and Stasia Burrington


Puerh tea that is out of this world! December 17 2016

If you are looking for an out of this world puerh tea experience then get on board the next flight to the "Puerh Yunniverse". In 2015 we introduced our "Planet Jingmai" single serving puerh tea dragon ball to wide acclaim. This year we expanded the reaches of our "Puerh Yunniverse" with 4 new planets for you to discover. The province of Yunnan offers a remarkable diversity of experience for puerh tea. The terroir of each mountain creates a unique adventure. With our planetary tea we sought to source teas that were simultaneously unique and offered an excellent example of what is capable at those tea mountains.

With the exception of "The Dark Planet", which is a proprietary blend of Menghai area puerh material, each planet is a single origin and unblended to create a profile that matches what that mountain can offer. The new planets are "Planet Yiwu", "Planet Bangwei", "Planet Baiying, and "The Dark Planet"."

"Planet Jingmai" is in the "Lancang System" of the "Simao Galaxy"

This is the one that started it all. This is a remarkably smooth, full bodied, floral experience with deep honey notes. Composed entirely of Jingmai old tree material from 2014 these never disappoint.

"Planet Baiying" is in the "Fengqing System" of the "Lincang Galaxy"

This tea is very mellow with a relaxing energy. It has a heavy body with vegetal / beany notes. The big tree material was picked and processed in Spring of 2015, aged in Baiying Shan for a year, and then pressed in the Spring of 2016. 

"Planet Yiwu" is in the "Mengla System" of the "Xishuangbanna Galaxy"

It's easy to see why Yiwu is considered the queen of puerh. A rich and sweet experience awaits you on the floral surface of Planet Yiwu. This arbor tree material was picked, processed, and pressed in the Spring of 2016. 

"Planet Bangwei" is in the "Lancang System" of the "Simao Galaxy".

It was an unexpected delight to discover this material this year. This tea is floral and fruity with pronounced sweetness and a balanced bitterness.

"The Dark Planet" is in the "Menghai System" of the "Simao Galaxy".

This mysterious planet is composed nearly entirely of buds. It brews clean and sweet with a pleasant earthiness.

 

It's dangerous to go alone! Take a Space Girl.


Exploring the deep reaches of the "Puerh Yunniverse" is a true adventure. We recommend taking a guide and we have just the girls to do it. Our 2016 "Space Girls" are Molly, Yvonne, Ursula, and Kato. 

These four Space Girls have travelled the far reaches of the puerh Yunniverse and returned to tell their tales. They have known adventure and seen places that few would believe. Heavily compressed, sealed in carbonite, and in deep hibernation 4 Space Girls are ready for the final journey into your teapot.

For this special product we teamed up with the amazing and talented Seattle local artist Stasia Burrington. Her work has always impressed us and we are excited to be working with her. The artwork on these 4 bricks of tea are excerpts from her 2014 "Cosmonauts" watercolor series. Take the time to explore her amazing artwork: http://www.stasiaburrington.com/

This tea is a multi mountain sheng puerh blend we crafted in the Spring of 2016. This tea is soft and sweet, but aggressive if pushed too far. What else would you expect from a Space Girl? Like the rings of Saturn fruity and floral notes surround this tea.

Weighing in at 100 grams each brick of Space Girls contains identical tea while the wrappers are unique. 

Explore the Puerh Yunniverse

Check out our Puerh Yunniverse Exploration Pack. You get one of each of our Planetary Teas and a Space Girl to guide your journey!


A guide to choosing a puerh tea that you'll love November 18 2015

Puerh is still something new for most tea drinkers in America. The choices can be pretty overwhelming. Puerh is an incredibly complex tea with a history spanning a millennia and a half. We often get asked how to choose a puerh tea for the first time. It can be a daunting experience. However, with a little guidance you can make a choice that will satisfy both your curiosity and your palate.

One of the most important things to realize about puerh is that puerh is not a single tea. There is no one puerh tea experience. The scope of flavors and aroma possible is probably as broad as all other teas combined. Each of the following variables adds an order of magnitude to the complexity:

  • tea tree varietal
  • tea tree age (young plantation trees or ancient trees older than America)
  • region / terroir
  • farm / soil management
  • season of picking (Spring / Summer / Fall)
  • plucking standard / leaf grade
  • roasting method (wok temperature / length of roasting)
  • rolling method (hand rolled versus machine rolled)
  • drying method (sun dried versus air dried)
  • cake compression (loose versus tight)
  • storage methods (humid versus dry)
  • length of storage

That's a lot to keep track of and I don't intend to confuse you. I mean to highlight the rich depth of exploration possible within puerh tea. In your search for amazing puerh remember two things; you will not love ALL puerh, and there IS a puerh tea out there that you will love. Experimentation and exploration is key.

I'm often asked to recommend puerh to new drinkers. I respond first with a question. "What do you like to drink now? What beverages do you currently like and why?" Depending on the answer I can guide one to a puerh they will like with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

 

"I like to drink green tea"

If you like to drink green tea you should start out exploring young sheng (raw) puerh. Young sheng puerh means puerh 6-10 years old or younger. Anything picked in the last few years qualifies as young puerh. A reputable vendor of puerh will be able to tell you what kind of puerh they sell and how old it is. If anyone ever sells you just "puerh" and has no more info about it you should walk away. It is highly likely that is not going to be a pleasurable experience.

Young sheng puerh is biologically similar to green tea. A lot of the highlights you get from green tea are in young sheng puerh. When sheng puerh is young it has not yet gone through all the micro-biological changes that are present in sheng puerh aged a few decades or more. The flavor profile can vary from vegetal to floral to fruity. It will brew light in color but be rich in flavor. It may be bitter and astringent but should balance that with a sweetness. I sometimes describe it as green tea plus. It will be like a really rich green tea that just keeps giving. You should be able to steep the same leaves over 10 times.

Some good examples of young sheng puerh we sell are:

  • 2014 Bulang "Tribute Tea"
    • A blend of 8 villages from the Bulang mountains. This tea will start slightly smoky and bitter but evolve into a vegetal / floral sweetness.
  • 2016 "Hidden Song"
    • This is a thick bodied tea with a vegetal / beany experience. It brews with strong aromas and a savory umami notes.
  • 2015 "Gu Ming Xiang Bing"
    • A blend of two contrasting tea mountains this puerh is both delicate and harsh at the same time. Light and floral or strong and bitter all depend on how you brew it.
  • 2016 "Space Girls"
    • This tea is a multi mountain sheng puerh blend we crafted in the Spring of 2016. This tea is soft and sweet, but aggressive if pushed too far.

 

"I like to drink oolongs"

Oolong tea is also a pretty complex category. If you like drinking oolongs you're probably already familiar with tea exploration and are willing to dive headfirst into exploring puerh. Here's a few teas to think about:

  • 2014 "Planet Jingmai"
    • Crisp and floral with strong honey aroma. Long lasting aftertaste. Can brew bitter and astringent with heavy steepings.
  • 2005 Changtai "Top of the Clouds"
    • This is a very complex tea that was humid stored for a decade in Guangdong. It has depth of flavor and aroma with very present apricot notes.

     

    "I like to drink coffee"

    This was me before I discovered puerh for the first time. I was passionately into coffee. I was on a coffee journey searching for the perfect cup and perfect brew. It was a journey I enjoyed greatly until I found puerh tea. The things I liked the most about coffee I find in shou (ripe) puerh. It is emotionally similar to coffee. The flavors and aroma are not the same, but the emotion is there. Shou puerh starts off life as sheng puerh. Then it goes through a careful process of heat and humidity manipulation to accelerate the natural aging process. The process can take 1-3 months depending on the desired outcome. The processes utilized are very tricky to master. If you mess it up you can literally create stinking garbage. If you get it right though it can be amazing. In many cases the exact methods are considered intellectual property of the companies that have perfected them. It would be similar to the recipe for Coca-Cola. Shou puerh is a relatively new category of tea. The methods were only invented in the 1970's.

    Shou puerh brews up dark and thick with intriguing aromas. The aromas can be woodsy, earthy, mineraly; and hopefully not fishy. Imagine a walk through the forest right after a rain. The flavors can be harder to nail down but will be similar to the aroma with more depth. You can sometimes find choclate or malty notes. Shou puerh will be smoother than young sheng puerh. It will be noticeably less bitter and astringent but may have those characters hiding in the layers. Shou puerh is mellow and easy to drink. It's a perfect pick-me-up on cold, dark, wet winter mornings.

    Some of our more popular shou puerhs are:

    • 2017 "Nannuo Mini Mushrooms"
      • These little mushroom shaped shou puerh teas are packed with rich aroma and flavor. They brew BLACK with an aroma like a spiced dark rum.
    • 2015 "That's No Moon"
      • This is a bud heavy puerh that starts off thick and dark and quickly becomes sweet and mellow in later steepings. Definitely a daily drinker.
    • 2012 Bulang Gushu
      • This is a heavy hitter with depth. The rich aroma and thick mouthfeel presents a smooth, layered, multi-dimensional experience with sweet flavors of chocolate and molasses and a hint of nutmeg spice.
    • 2000 "Old Warrior" 
      • This is an amazing shou puerh with deep depth of flavor and aroma experience. While not exactly 'coffee-ish' it is definitely worth experiencing.

     

    "I like to drink red tea / black tea"

    Black teas differ greatly by region. It's a little harder to find a one to one comparison between black teas and puerh. Ailao Shan is a mountain in Yunnan whose characteristic is very much like a floral black tea for me. You'll need to experiment. If you like floral black teas look for a younger sheng puerh from Jingmai or Yiwu. If you're into the maltier / bolder black tea flavors we might not have something to match your palate at this time.

    Give these a try:

    • 2014 Planet Jingmai
      • Crisp and floral with strong honey aroma. Long lasting aftertaste. Can brew bitter and astringent with heavy steepings.
    • 2015 "Gu Ming Xiang Bing"
      • This is blended with Yiwu material and can be very floral and light. Brew quickly with a higher water to leaf ratio. With heavy steepings or a high leaf to water ratio it will reveal an intense bitterness that comes from the Bulang leaves blended in.

     

    Experimentation and Exploration

    As I mentioned above experimentation and exploration are key. Nearly all the teas we sell are sold in sample sizes. Buy a few samples of the different puerhs that intrigue you and start brewing with them. We encourage people to have a tea journal. Think of it like a science project. Write down the details of aroma and flavor and how they change over the multiple steepings. Keep track of how many grams of leaf you use to how many milliliters of water. Track brewing temperature and steeping times. Experiment with the variables. Brew long and brew short. You'll quickly find what works for you. If something doesn't taste right when you brew it try brewing it different next time. If you find a way to brew that you like you're doing it right.

    • What is Puerh? Three Tea Educational Tasting Set 
      • If you're just getting started we sell a puerh starter set. It includes samples of shou puerh, young sheng puerh, and aged sheng puerh. It's a perfect way to get a snapshot picture of the flavor and aroma experience possible within puerh.
    • Puerh Yunniverse Exploration Pack
      • This is an affordable sheng puerh tea tasting set. It includes 1 brick of "Space Girls" and 1 of each of our planetary tea balls.

    Can't Decide?

    We sell sample packs that take out all the guess work! These are discounted collections of puerh tea samples that are a great way to try it all!

     

     


      Puerh Education: Grade of Leaf January 15 2015

      When a system is too complex it is hard to fully understand the underlying pieces. Why does Dayi, or other companies, use the recipe they use for their classic puerh cakes? Why do they add more lower leaf grades to some recipes and more higher leaf grades to other recipes? To answer these questions and begin to understand puerh we need to remove extraneous variables. Tasting different blended puerhs will only cause more confusion unless you can remove variables and focus on small changes. With the CPTR research cakes I saw a unique opportunity. I could remove many variables and focus solely on how leaf grade changed the tea. With these cakes the variables of region, farm, production method, tree age, processing methods, and post processing storage methods were all identical and therefore cancelled each other out. Focus can be given to the grade of leaf.

      What is Huang Pian? September 05 2014

      She pauses her diligent hunt for just a moment to lift the entire mat up into the air in one swift motion that momentarily suspends each leaf in front of her face. As the leaves fall back into place she begins a rhythmic circular motion that spreads the leaf across the woven surface. The mat back on the ground she begins the hunt again. She is looking for broken leaves, yellow leaves, leaves that didn’t roll tightly, and leaves that are too big. These she sets aside in a special pile. These aren’t pretty leaves; they’re runts. The market doesn’t want these leaves. They have ‘standards’. These leaves are called ‘lao huang pian’, or just ‘huang pian’.

      Tea pets are the perfect companions on your tea journey! August 26 2014

      Quietly I sat in the dark back corner of Hidden Peak Teahouse in downtown Santa Cruz. I was in deep appreciation of the thick black brew at my fingertips and was inwardly reflecting on how I had arrived at this place and time. My only companion a fat frog made out of clay who persistently stared up at me. What did he want? Those soulful eyes unsuccessful in hiding deep desire. Whatever words he would have spoken were obscured by the large coin held tightly in his mouth. It was obvious what he wanted though. Tea. This frog was a tea pet, and he was thirsty. Pouring it over his head I shared some of my puerh; momentarily sating his never ending thirst.