Dai ladies hand roll mini balls of Shou (cooked) Puerh in a small village factory on the outskirts of Menghai in southern Yunnan. Tea has always been (even in its laborious harvesting and production) something very much communal in rich indigenous regions of southwest China.
An old friend of Jeff’s, Mei, a Menghai teashop owner used to have lots of thoughts and opinions on the teas coming from the Bulang Mountain region of Lao Ma Er, and few, if any, were any good. Lao Ma Er itself was long a kind of remote station seen as the back of nowhere, with suspect teas and growers. The area was known for smuggling routes into Myanmar and its derelict ancient tea trees. The dark days of the suspicions may not be entirely gone, but the teas certainly have come up in quality and consistency. During the summer monsoon season the entire area has been a chore simply getting to and the residents were for a time known (like many) for trying to pawn off medium-aged tea bush harvests, as old tree offerings. The Bulang locals weren’t the only ones trying this and for years, they simply tried to cash in on the ever-increasing need and prices for old leaf trees.
Leave taking on a purplish hue in the hot summer, near Lao Ma Er.
Nearby, the famed tea regions of Banzhang, Bang Pun, and He Kai have been the main draws coming the harvest seasons and now it seems that Lao Ma Er’s teas are making their own little name for themselves, stepping out of the shadows.
The wonderful stone press method for compressing cakes. Dried leaves are steamed, wrapped in cloth and compressed and left for a time to form. While this compressing can be done by machine, the preferred method is by hand.
The local Bulang with their deep forest dwellings have always had, like so many other remote regions, great raw materials, but tea buyers and drinkers like Mei have not really taken the area’s offerings seriously until recent years. This present offering, a smooth flavoured cooked Puerh with a tiny little ‘hit’ of edge to it, comes from younger bushes, 25-40 years old at 1500 metres. This present offering is a summer 2016 harvest.
To hit the beautiful hills of the Bulang Mountains and Lao Ma Er, one must pass through the flatlands and valleys of the Dai first. While the Dai are the dominant minority of the region of Xishuangbanna, the Lahu, Hani, Bulang, and Wa are considered the true hill people.
Teas around the world are often picked, withered, rolled (either by machine or by hand), and dried (again, either with machines or by more hand-friendly methods like pan frying). The rolling of leaves has long been the little spark that breaks the cell walls allowing the elements within the leaf to be released and aid in creating a specific ‘taste’ or flavor note. With Puerhs from smaller gardens, the withering is done, but instead of the rolling happening first, the leaves are thrown into pan fryers and only after this rolled and kneaded by hand. Then, the leaves are sorted and separated, spread out on rattan matts or trays and sun/shade dried. Puerh in its small village, small yield formats remains a remarkably simple undertaking from start to finish.
Some fresh leaves as a pan frying goes on in the background with an angled wok.
One of the mainstays of a lot of the Bulang teas, whether they be cooked ‘shou’s’ or raw ‘sheng’s’, is that little tinge of astringent strength. The Bulang are considered one of the original tea peoples of southern Yunnan and their forest retreats are found throughout the Yunnan-Laos-Myanmar borderlands.
Bulang people have long used the tea leaf as a poultice for surface wounds and extensively in ceremonies, and in some cases preferring to consume the leaves themselves with rice after having been boiled.
We wish you well with this tea which is easy on the caffeine and on the digestive tract.
- Jeff Fuchs
While we encourage each drinker to tinker with infusion times and amounts of tea used according to taste, the below is a good base from which to begin the JalamTeas' Bulang Mountain (Lao Ma Er) tea experience.
If this is your first tea cake, here is a step-by-step guide on how to break and prepare a tea cake.
Do not be afraid to make a stronger brew than you might be accustomed to. The tea will darken quickly with the infusions but many prefer this tea a little stronger in flavor. Use fully boiled water.
We recommend not less than 6 grams per serving; ideally 8-10 grams. Locals in southern Yunnan will use as much as 12 grams and wring out more than a dozen infusions, keeping the infusion times relatively short.
When the tongue ceases to enjoy an infusion's strength, that is the time to begin anew with a fresh load of leaves.
Don't be shy to ask me any questions about your tea leaves or anything related at [email protected]. You have my ears and I will get back in touch with you.