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Superior Old-Growth Tea: A Case Study of 99 Yichang Hao

By Shiu Fei Peng and Shiu Fei Peng

PROFILE
Shiu Fei Peng is the Puerh Tea Director for Jhuang Tea in Guang Dong. He's been a private collector and merchant for many years. His resounding aim is to further popularize Puerh, while at the same time educating consumers about the part they can play in its development.

With the increased popularity of Yunnan puerh, the old-growth tea from Yunnan has also been widely accepted and has become an all-time favourite! Compared with tealeaves from tea plantations, old-growth teas are doubtlessly more superior in quality. However, the amount of old-growth tea is dwindling due to a host of reasons. While Puer tea is taking off in a big way, a small plot of old-growth trees dating back hundreds of years is a precious part of our heritage passed down by our ancestors. As it takes not decades, but hundreds of years for a plot of old-growth trees to come into being, harvesting will have to be moderate and done with extreme care.

When did old-growth tea first gain public attention? It was about 2003 when prior to this, old-growth tea was mostly neglected due to the inconvenience in plucking; subsequently, many old, large tea trees were felled to give way to terraced tea plantations, which made leaf plucking much easier. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, the tea leaves from most tea plantations in Yunnan before 2003 were plucked and processed into black tea, green tea or puerh tea, where the one-bud-two-leaves variety was far more appealing than that of the old-growth tea leaves; what's more, plucking large tree tea leaves was a strenuous task. Although old-growth tea leaves had also been used to produce Puerh tea, the scale and amount remained small. Furthermore, the price of a tea plantation's raw tea used to produce black tea, green tea and puerh tea was far higher than raw tea for old-growth trees. Another obstacle was, old-growth trees have larger and higher boughs; and all the shoots are at the top of the tree, which makes management, plucking, and pesticide spraying and fertiliszation more difficult. The growing process of old-growth tea is completely natural; as such, it involves more labour and time during plucking while the output is relatively limited. On the other hand, trees of moderate height on a tea plantation can be grown on the same piece of land, enabling centralized processing and management that further reduces significant labour cost. Massive fertilizing further pushes up the yield of a tea plantation. Judging from the above, it is not surprising that a large number of old-growth tea trees were felled at that time.

However, we can never be too sure of changes in the course of time. While puerh has grown in popularity, old-growth teas have also captured people's attention in a big way - with its superior quality and unpolluted growing environment, in addition to the increasing demand for natural, environmental-friendly and organic products nowadays, old-growth tea has made a comeback and its price has shot up dramatically. The overwhelming demand has created a pressure on its supply. The old-growth tea, with its non-stimulating and unpolluted characteristics, promises astounding transformation in its properties after extended storage. Old-growth tea leaves, compared with the tea leaves from tea plantations, are superior in terms of texture, taste and colour of the tea liquor. Today, old-growth tea has become a real treat for tea lovers!

Meanwhile, the value of old-growth tea has been soaring to greater heights. As a result, old-growth tea leaves of some famous tea mountains had been overly-harvested, leaving a negative impact on their growth and quality. Unscrupulous tea traders have sought to profit by selling tea leaves from ordinary plantations as old-growth tea leaves, mixing tea plantation leaves into the. old-growth tea leaves, or mixing old-growth tea leaves of poor quality with premium ones, and offering this as pricey "Authentic Wild Mountain Tea Leaves". These have adversely affected the quality of old-growth tea leaves, and consumers sighed over the deteriorating quality of old-growth tea and missed the mellow and full-bodied flavour of superior old-growth puerh of bygone eras.

In 1999, managing director of the Changtai Group, Mr. Chen Shi Huai founded the Changtai Tea House. Owing to the insufficient capital at the initial stage, and its idea to produce a unique puerh tea, the relatively peculiar Yi Wu old-growth tea was selected as the company' first offer — this is the well-known 99 Yichang Hao in the market today. As the production line in the earlier days was not perfect, and there was no drying room due to capital shortage, this batch of tea was air dried under the shade in a natural way. The compressed tea cakes were smaller and more compact, with weights varying from 330 grams to 390 grams. The diameter of the tea cakes also varied from 16.5 cm to 19 cm. However, these flaws did not affect the superb quality of the Yi Wu old-growth tea at all. This excellent tea has benefited from its transformation over time. Many people were amazed, and they highly commended 99 Yichang Hao after the first sip of the thick and smooth liquor. This unique feature of Yi Wu old-growth tea has become more pronounced today after going through eight years of transformation. When compared with the plantation tea from the same period, it has undergone faster transformation! Tea aficionados go all out to get a hold of this celebrated brew. Unfortunately, there are also many counterfeit 99 Yichang Hao tea cakes. As tea drinkers may not be able to identity the difference between 99 Yichang Hao and other so-called "Yichang Hao" offers ,we will talk about the six versions of 99 Yichang Hao,

99 Yichang Hao can be categorized into "Supreme","Exquisite" and "Genuine", each category is subdivided into two versions, namely the Song Ti and Zhuan Ti, hence a total of six versions. Following is a detailed explanation:

Supreme: one-bud-one-leaf to one-bud-two-leaves, without any yellowed or broken leaves.

Exquisite: one-bud-onc-leaf to one-bud-three-leaves, yellowed or broken leaves are barely present.

Genuine: Buds left behind after the screening for "Supreme" and "Exquisite" categories, with a small amount of yellowed or broken leaves.

In effect, the differences are minimal as seen by the naked eys, with Supreme, Exquisite and Genuine 99 Yichang Hao looking pretty much the same:, almost no yellow leaves and just a trace of broken ones. If we look at the shape, and size of 99 Yichang Hao tea cakes, they arc smaller, with a diameter from 16.5 cm to 19 cm. When compared with Yichang Hao made after year 1999, they are smaller and thicker.

Each 99 Yichang Hao teacake is wrapped with a very thin piece of cotton paper. The wrapper is saffron yellow in | colour; however, the colour may differ slightly due to different batches of printing. The "chd*"(tea) character on the j trademark ticket inside has the same colour as the character "Ti Wu Qi Zi Cha Ping (Yi Wu Seven Son Teacake) on the wrapper. Meanwhile, the "Jiu Jiu Yi Chang Hao" (99 Yichang Seven Son Brand) characters on the trademark ticket inside are yellow in colour; some may have product descriptions, while some arc without. If the colour of the trademark ticket inside is green, or the "cha" (tea) character at the middle of the wrapper is green, then the product concerned made after the 99 Yichang Hao!

When brewed by Chinese Teapot, the 99 Yichang Hao gives a thick aroma that drifts in the air. The stout leaves, resembling leaves of Yi Wu old-growth tree of the earlier days, remind one of the vintage teas Red Mark and Blue Mark!

From the colour of liquor, one can tell the remarkable transformation that has taken place. The crystal clear liquor with mellow and full-bodied aroma is silky smooth and sweet to the taste. We can almost be sure that a master tea is in the making! We could certainly savour 99 Yichang Hao now; but it is believed that the flavour will further improve over time-so a little wait will prove rewarding!

Though the puerh market is not as flamboyant as before, it may be a blessing in disguise. The nearly frantic pursuit of quality puerh tea in the past few years has caused many old-growth tea leaves to be excessively plucked, resulting in a quality deterioration over the years. While we are enjoying vintage puerh tea, we should pay more attention to the protection of big tea trees. Don't let quality old-growth tea disappear during our lives. Instead, wc should help pass on its wonderful flavour. Don't let commercial motives take away our pleasure in savouring the thick, full-bodied genuine puerh tea.