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A Tea Making Record

Article: Li Jun Photos: Li Jun, Luo Yingyin

Mengku, in the Lincang area is by no means unknown to tea drinkers, but without the fame of Puerh tea, most of us surely would never have heard of this small town. Situated between road 214 and the Nanmeng River, Mengku is surrounded by mountains on the east and west, road 37 cuts right through the middle, dividing Mengku into eastern mountain and western mountain sides. Although nature was not intended to be divided, the two sides have created two distinct styles of tea, so when discussing teas from this area, we must first ask which half of the mountain the tea hails from, then find out in which village it was made.

From a Puerh industry perspective, the most famed of Mengku's mountain villages is Bingdao. Speaking solely from the renown of Mengku Bingdao tea, it is second in fame only to Menghai Banzhang; Bingdao tea is by no means cheap, prices start at RMB 1000; it is highly sought after in the industry. The reason for mentioning Bingdao here is because it is located on the west face of the mountain, although only a little to the west of the Nanmeng River, it is considered the starting point of the west side of Mengku Mountain, an area of fine scenery.

Tea production on the east side of the Mengku Mountain is principally divided into the areas of upper and lower Bangmu, Haigong, Bannuo and Nasai. The main groups of large tea trees on the east side of the mountain are distributed around this area. The western side of Mengku is home to the following tea growing areas: Gongnong, Dahu Sai, Xiaohu Sai and Dongguo. From a perspective of the distribution of tea plants, the main tea growing areas on the west half of the mountain are closer to the river embankment, and those on the east side of the mountain are closer to the high mountain area.

Mengku's large-leaf variety tea has unique characteristics: the leaves are very large and thick, long and oval, the buds are usually strong and scout, and covered in down. In comparison with other tea growing areas, at first glance, Mengku tea stands apart from other teas, the leaves are remarkably large, the sprouts are large and quite white, and smooth in appearance. In early days, the Mengku area traditionally produced black and green teas, so the Lahu, Wa, Blang and Dai ethnic minority households possess honed tea making skills and standardised tea picking techniques. In recent years, the emergence of various tea factories (both large and small) in the Mengku area, and their purchase of fresh tea leaves from tea growers for intensive production has influenced tea growers to mechanise their own tea processing facilities, and mechanisation has become widespread among even small scale tea making operations. This mechanisation has brought stability in tea quality, but fails to replicate the individuality of handmade teas.

Compared with other tea producing areas, the appearance of the raw leaves used to make the finished Mengku Puerh tea cakes is quite remarkable: the large buds, and fat leaves create a finished product that is stouter and stronger than teas made in most other areas. The majority of manufacturers here produce loosely packed Puerh cakes, very few use tightly rolled compacted leaves, apart from if they are producing ripe teas or special orders. From this perspective, it is relatively easy to differentiate Mengku teas from other teas.

Bitterness and astringency are both relatively balanced in Mengku tea, while its heavy and uplifting fragrance is the principal charm of this tea. When the tea leaves are wilted in fine sun-shine the fragrance drifts all around; the strength of its aroma is also a good sign in the making of Mengku black tea. The black tea I drank in Mengku was the finest I have tasted by Japanese style teacup so far, it displayed a rounded, sturdy fragrance that lingered until the last sip, and the mellowness of the infusion was unique.

With your average black tea, a look at the leaves and a good smell is enough give you a basis from which to assess the tea, but the tea I drank from Mengku brewed reveal a rich infusion, with no bitter aftertaste by Chinese style teacup, the fragrance fell upon my senses like a midsummer's stroll a flower garden. The merits of this tea have resulted in the average price of Mengku black tea becoming the highest in each tea district.

Mengku tea can be divided into three principal categories (not including Bingdao): big tree tea, mountain top tea (high mountain plantation tea) and embankment tea.

Of course, we can differentiate these teas at a glance, put how high should the prices go? I personally refer Mengku big tree tea, the flavour is thick, heavy and intense, with balanced bitterness and astringency, and a rich, long lasting fragrance. A thick, smooth infusion is one of the special characteristics of Mengku tea,after undergoing a period of ageing, a particularly fine brew may be had. The second category is mountain top tea, again, fine teas can be found in this category. If the tea plant hails from the Mengku plantation area and has lived for several decades, a fine tea may well be had; although the body of the infusion may be somewhat modest, and result in a thinner infusion, the other characteristics are all there; at times the aroma is actually superior to big tree teas. Compared to the two previous teas, the bitterness and astringency of embankment teas are often stronger, the infusion may be thin; single bud harvests of embankment teas are chiefly used as the raw materials in the manufacture of relatively high quality green and black teas and ripe Puerhs, The teas on the west side of the mountain also fit into the categories above. The incidence of big tree teas is similar to that on the east side, while there is a greater production of plantation and embankment teas on the west side, and communal tea production is also relatively popular here.

Mengku, with its two sides of the mountain and one river covers a large surface area it would not be fair to say that one side of the mountain is fairer than the other. It is acceptable to say that an individual tea growing areas is superior, but it is very difficult indeed to judge whole sides of the mountain. If one happened to run into a seller of raw tea leaves, he might say that his tea from the east side of the mountain is better than a tea from the west side. One should not be surprised at this, as in most cases the seller would have grown up on 'his' side of the mountain; there's nothing wrong in loving your home! Personally I have a soft spot for several teas from the east side of the maintain, but the west side also possesses some remarkable teas; the top of the west side of the mountain has the famed Mengku Daxue Mountain wild tea, and Bingdao tea, but I still cannot say that the west side of the mountain has better tea than the east side. If we look at the mountain as a whole, we may judge the good and the bad teas, so no matter what side of the mountain we look at, they both represent Mengku tea, and are both expressive cre-