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Q & A with the Tea Expert - Zhou Yu

PROFILE

Zhou Yu was born in Chungking in 1945. He majored in foreign languages and economics. In 1981, he rebuilt his family home and created Wistaria Tea House, which he still cares for today. He has devoted himself to a life of tea, with emphasis on the way of Cha Dao. Tea to Zhou Yu is enlightening - a way of self-examination and exploration. All of these questions were collected from tea lovers. They are representations of the most asked questions out of more than 60. We will continue to gather your questions and take them to the relevant experts in each issue.

Q: What is the difference between Puerh and other kinds of tea?

A: The biggest difference is of course that Puerh originates from trees. Many newcomers to tea ask me for suggestions about what tea to drink at home. In my opinion those interested in flavor or aroma will prefer oolong, Wuyi yan cha, or green tea. Drinking Puerh isn't really about the flavor. Some tastes in the Puerh world are delicious, especially aged sheng, but drinking Puerh should be an experience of the whole body. If the Puerh is good it will make you comfortable, and movement of Qi will begin. Good quality Puerh tea will connect a person to himself or herself, making them feel good. I could talk about the processing differences between Puerh and other teas, the historical differences, etc. but to me the experiential difference is the most important.

Q: With such a tremendous variety of Puerh being produced, and not all of it good quality, how does one go about choosing which new Puerh to buy for storage?

A: Newcomers to tea must learn to be patient. Buying tea on impulse will just waste money. One needs time to develop sensitivity to differences in flavor, aroma, and most importantly for Puerh, the ability to feel the Qi. I suggest that beginners move slowly, purchasing small amounts and trying many of them before investing any money in large quantities of tea for storage. I can give you some simple tips for buying,but it's still better if you continue experimenting on your own. Even if I say a certain kind of Puerh is a better buy, and it turns out that I am correct, you should still have the experience of drinking the alternative, inferior teas, as this will provide an understanding of what not to look for. Here are some ideas:

1. As I mentioned, try a large variety of teas, even poor quality ones. They are usually cheap anyway as long as you aren't buying in large amounts. Learn to be sensitive and develop discrimination. Experiment and enjoy trying new tea.

2. The whole purpose of buying Puerh tea is for storage. Aged Puerh tea is fully fermented; the flavors are richer, deeper and far more rewarding than new tea. The Qi is stronger and makes the body more comfortable. The richness and other good qualities in aged Puerh are beyond any other kind of tea in my opinion. I think that since you want to begin storing Puerh tea it is important to start drinking as much aged Puerh as possible so that you can become sensitive to the characteristics that make a good aged tea. If you know what a Puerh tea should taste like when it is aged, it will be easier to determine which new cake is better for storage. Rich ingredients in new Puerh will lead to the same rich tastes in aged teas. Vintage Puerh can be expensive, though. Try buying small samples, even poor quality ones will improve your understanding of the fermentation process.

3. Puerh made from ancient trees is almost always a better choice, especially with regards to health and Qi. Some of these trees are even more than a thousand years old. They are in balance with nature, organic and have many qualities that are good for one’s health: they are good for digestion, blood pressure, the kidneys, etc. Actually, in ancient times Puerh tea was regarded as a medicine.

4. To distinguish quality Puerh it is essential that one become very familiar with the sensations in the mouth and throat (cha yun). If it is bush tea, for example, the sensations will be concentrated at the front of the mouth, and a puckery taste will stay on the surface of the tongue or upper palate. Tea from ancient trees, on the other hand, will coat the throat to various degrees, which will transform from bitterness to sweetness and linger on the breath. The lasting sensations in the throat (hui yun) will continue and eventually a good Puerh from ancient trees will make the whole throat comfortable. The best teas will produce pleasant sensations all over the mouth and throat.

5. Most importantly, one must use the body, learning to feel the tea. For this a healthier body and mind are better. Most all of the teachings of China, Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc., promote the importance of "cultivating" oneself. The term for this cultivation process is "xiu yang" - "xiu" means "corrections" or "removing negativities"; it is a reduction of sorts, and "yang" means accumulating the good, like in obtaining knowledge. Thus, the cultivation of oneself might be thought of as abstaining from certain things and accumulating others. Tea will of course help us to achieve a healthy physical and mental state, ridding our bodies of some negativities and introducing positive nutrients and energy. As one becomes cleaner, one will also become clearer, and more sensitive to variations in tea. Try cleaner living. Find more quiet time, and enjoy your tea - concentration and clarity will develop naturally.

Q: How many different ways of farming Puerh are there? Many products have the words "wild tea", sometimes even in English, on the wrapper. What does that really refer to? Is there a standard?

A: * There are really only four major categories of tea trees in Yunnan, though they could be subdivided further.

* Real wild tea could be demarcated by two varieties of Puerh cultivation: 'ancient tea trees' and 'ecological arbor trees'. Also there are a small number of very old trees that may have inseminated naturally or else been planted very long ago. These trees are not for drinking.

1. Ancient tea tree gardens were planted through seed selection. They were inseminated by our ancestors and have since been forgotten. Over time, the forest overran them and other foliage now mingles with the tea trees. These gardens have taller trees that are mostly found in remote mountain regions of Yunnan. Since the seeds and propagation were all supervised by our ancestors, and their expertise was often better not just because of skill, but because there wasn't any financial motivation at the time, they are usually safe to drink. We are now finding these abandoned gardens, many dating back even to the Song, Ming, or Qing Dynasties. Sometimes the tea is great quality and sometimes it isn't. Of the ancient trees, these abandoned gardens represent about 80% of the trees; the other 20% would be the very old trees, mostly with undrinkable tea, mentioned above.

2. Ecological arbor trees were also seeded by our ancestors, but they aren't as old. These gardens are the ones that were used to make the great vintages of Puerh in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of these gardens were also abandoned, but some have been cultivated steadily until the present. There are even a few conscientious farmers that have begun to plant new gardens like this in recent times. The trees are adequately spaced out so that there is ample room for the roots, the surrounding forest and undergrowth is all left intact to keep the ecological balance, and the tea is farmed organically. These trees are now often from one to a few meters tall. This is the best farming method at the present time.

* Finally there is plantation tea created in modern times using seeds or even cuttings. These leaves are far inferior and sometimes even unhealthy, as they are often overharvested and not organic. They also sometimes damage the environment. These bush leaves are distinct from the "wild" leaves, and the more experienced one gets, the easier it will be to notice them.

Q: What do you think is required for the future of the Puerh industry?

A: I think that we need to develop some kind of institution to govern Puerh production and, then develop positive ways to enforce and regulate it. In France they have a good sustem for reviewing and regulating wine production. The Puerh industry needs something similar. I suggested in a recent article that the retired officials of Yunnan should go to France and learn from the government there, in order to teach those that follow them. If there is some kind of quality standard and labeling becomes consistent, the consumer and producer will both benefit. It would be wonderful if region, production method and quality standards were clearly labeled and enforced.

I also think that the future of the Puerh industry will require more understanding on the part of farmers and producers. The farmers need to learn to focus on nature and ecology as much as they do innovation and science, and the producers need to be aware that conservation is in their interest.

Q: Why is Puerh tea compressed? Perhaps long ago they needed to compress it for the purpose of transportation, but is it still necessary?

A: I did my own experiment not so long ago with regards to this issue. (And I would remind you that experimenting yourself is always the best way to learn.) I kept some 2003 Yiwu tea in cakes and loose form. It was the same tea. I produced it myself. I wrapped the cakes in organic paper and then bamboo bark tongs. I put the loose leaf tea in a nice cardboard box with ventilation. Everyone here thought the loose leaf would ferment faster, but actually the caiies had more and better fermentation. Not only that, but the compressed tea tasted better and had a much deeper Qi. It's impossible to know if our ancestors understood this, or just compressed the tea for convenience. Perhaps it was both. Some of the swords forged in the Song Dynasty are made from metals we cannot recreate today, suggesting that the ancients had technology and understanding that has been lost. Masters passed techniques down to students or to their children, often without explanation, until things like this just become a part of tradition. I think most factories compress Puerh tea today just because that is the way it's done, the cultural tradition. However, we have found that the cakes all have better Qi and ferment better than loose leaf Puerh. The compression offers the perfect environment for the microbiotic activity that leads to decomposition. The steam used to compress the tea cakes is only partially dried out. It also cools gradually. The trapped moisture creates an ideal environment for the changes in the tea to occur. It also holds the Qi in, making the old cakes much stronger.

Q: Are vintage Puerh teas worth the exorbitant prices they are now fetching?

A: This is a difficult question to answer. The value of something is subjective, while the price is determined by the market. Some people will spend millions on a home stereo, while others have no radio to even speak of. I think that any true connoisseur of Puerh tea wil say that Hong Yin or Song Ping Hao are priceless, just as any art lover would say the same about certain paintings. Of course they are worth a forture - not only are they rare, they are some of the best teas on Earth. Still, being worth a lot doesn't mean that everyone will be willing to pay such a high price, but obviously some people are. Many Puerh vintages are, to me, treasures of limitless value.