Yunnan, in the south west of China, is full of wild and ancient tea mountains – many of which are undiscovered by tea drinkers in the West. These mountains are home to very old tea trees – some of which have been there for hundreds of years, tended to by generations of tea farming families. Instead of the neat uniform bushes we’re used to seeing in cultivated tea gardens in other tea growing regions, on these mountains the tea trees are tall, often over 10ft and require a ladder for the leaves to be picked. The root structure is deep from decades of growth and so these trees access different concentrations of minerals and nutrients from the earth. The flavours from these leaves are varied and can be unpredictable. Tea farmers will gamble on wild trees, working with the leaves to see what aromas and complexities can be drawn out of them.
In this deep dive we’ll get to know a black tea made by Mrs Fu from wild bushes on Da Xue Shan – or Big Snowy Mountain in Yunnan. Da Xue Shan is an ancient, high mountain terroir that’s known locally for its production of complex puerh tea, as well as these unique sweet and malty black teas.
Read on to find out what tea that comes from this ancient terroir tastes like – and if you like the sound of it, we’ve shared tips on the best ways to make it and find its flavours.
Origin: Da Xue Shan, Lincang, Yunnan, China
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. assamica ‘Da Ye Zhong’
Name: ‘Da Xue’ translates as ‘Big Snow’ and refers to the name of mountain where this black tea was produced. ‘Wild’ refers to the uncultivated status of the tea trees that grow in the mountain forests and are used to make this tea.
Style: Wild tree black tea
Terroir: Steep mountain side, very high altitude. The area is remote and densely forested with lush vegetation and many large, wild tea trees.
Altitude: 1800m (though the mountain peaks at 3233m)
Picking Season: Spring 2020
Leaf: Dark black twists of long leaf, tinged with antique copper highlights
Production: Wild trees, naturally grown without pesticides
Infusion: A bright, coppery infusion, that has a slight green hue towards the edge of the cup.
What kind of tea does Yunnan produce?
Throughout the province there are high forested mountains, lush from the sub-tropical climate. It’s perfect for tea production – you’ll find white teas, including our Organic Yunnan White Peony, some exceptional green teas and even experimental small batch teas such as our Red Dragon. These are not the famous teas of Yunnan though. The famous teas tend to be concentrated in specific regions, using specific cultivars and production methods.
In the south of the province, the Puerh, Xishuangbanna and Lincang areas are known for being the home of the, ‘Da Ye Zhong’ or big leaf varietal of Camellia sinensis assamica. This big leaf varietal of the tea bush is understood to be one of the very first types ever cultivated more than a thousand years ago. It’s this cultivar and area that invented – and still makes Yunnan’s most famous tea type – Puerh.
Over the centuries the popularity of Puerh (and other teas from Yunnan), has meant that many tea gardens thrive among the region’s protected mountainsides. Most of these are small plots looked after by the same families and communities for generations. Often the style of production in these gardens is a light prune. It’s this low intervention technique which in part gives Puerh its unique character and means the tea can be found growing as large trees and living for hundreds of years.
In the north of Lincang is Fengqing County, the home of one of Yunnan’s other famous teas – Dian Hong, known in English as Yunnan Gold. We’ve already deep dived into our Yunnan Gold – in brief, it’s made using a different cultivar to Puerh – but with a similar dedication and history of using the high altitude and lush sub-tropical climate to make a deeply aromatic, complex and satisfying tea.
Unlike the neatly cultivated gardens making Dian Hong, in the very dense and almost jungle like forests of the very remote parts of Yunnan, you also find large areas dotted with wild, indigenous assamica varietal tea trees. These are completely wild trees that grow beyond the cultivated gardens. They often reach over 15ft in height, anchored by their deep, long roots that encourage tea leaves full of nutrient-rich flavour.
These tall, wild trees are often unharvested, and the flavour is considered “uncultivated” – that means it’s often a gamble for anyone looking to climb these tall trees and pick the leaves to produce puerh – with it’s well understood and specific flavour profiles. However, these naturally sweet wild tea leaves can be suited to producing exceptional and unique black teas. This process involves heavily rolling and then fully oxidising the leaves, concentrating much of their flavour and fragrance to create a rich, smooth and often, very fruity infusion. This is the style of this Da Xue Wild Black.
DaXue mountain is in Lincang and the mountain is home to some cultivated tea, used to make Puerh and these wild trees, used for the more experimental black tea.
How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?
This batch of tea came to us directly from the wild tea forests on the mountain of Da Xue. Picked and produced in spring 2020 by local tea producer Mrs Fu, who picked leaves from the tallest of the wild trees, each around 16ft in height, meaning they reach the top of the forest canopy.
Da Xue Shan (translating to Big Snowy Mountain) is a significant peak, sitting high above the clouds at a whopping 3,233m. Overlooking the Mengku valley, Da Xue is surrounded on all sides by other tea mountains and villages, many of which, such as neighbouring Bing Dao (Ice Land) Village, are highly revered areas for tea. But unlike those close by, the towering forests of Da Xue mountain have a very high concentration of indigenous tea trees, which are left to grow naturally, without pesticides. Their known only locally for their particularly sweet and flavourful leaves.
After carefully harvesting the leaves by hand, Mrs Fu and her team begin the black tea process by gently withering the small batch for a few hours. The leaves are spread out in small piles or on bamboo mats. Mrs Fu needs to stay close by to pick up the signals about how the leaves smell, the humidity and atmosphere they give off, how they feel and look – the signals that let her intuition know when the leaves are sufficiently withered and will be ready for the next phase. The rolling is an all-important step to break open the outer skin of the leaves and activate them well enough that oxygen can get in and darken the leaf and concentrate its fruity flavours. Once rolled, the leaves will rest and fully oxidise in bamboo baskets before the final sun-drying phase. Natural and slow, this last step helps to ensure a mellow, smooth texture with a long resounding finish.
What is this batch like to drink?
I enjoyed a long session with Da Xue Wild Black gong-fu style (see instructions for how to do this in the section below), and my experience began with the potent, heady aroma of tropical fruit notes, like fresh pineapple and sweet lychee, emanating from the wet leaves. The taste from the first infusion was also very sweet and fruity in flavour with notes of green tamarind balanced by an earthy woodiness and a long, more-ish finish. The naturally sweet wild leaves work so well for this black tea, adding layers of complexity in the many subsequent infusions with more notes of sweet aloeswood, hops and light malt coming through. The glowing copper colour of the infusions maintained throughout the session too, fully amplifying the life and flavour to be found in these leaves.
Where and when is this tea for?
This is an invigorating tea that can be fully enjoyed over a focused tea session, maybe during a quiet afternoon when you have plenty of time to sit and enjoy the layers of complexity available from multiple infusions of this tea.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
Tea Master or Gaiwan (Gong Fu):
Method: 5g per 125ml; 100˚C; 1 min infusion, add 10 seconds incrementally for each subsequent infusion (at least 6 infusions.)
The flavour of these wild leaves is best revealed with ‘gong fu’ style drinking – that is, using our porcelain Tea Master, a small teapot or, as is most common in China, a Gaiwan; literally a small ‘bowl with lid’. The technique here is to use a high proportion of leaf to water and enjoy infusions of the same leaves over multiple short infusions. It delivers a more concentrated view of the flavours and aromas, so you’ll find much more of those tropical fruit notes and a pleasant citrus coming through, developing with hints of resinous woods and hops in later infusions. I managed to enjoy at least 8 infusions of this tea in a single session and each maintained a smooth and rounded texture too, all delivered by the nutrient rich and thick leaves of very old wild trees. It’s definitely one that deserves to be fully explored in this way and enjoyed for its complex and dynamic flavours.
Who is this tea for?
This tea is for any fan of black or Puerh tea, looking to discover the variety and depth of flavour available from Yunnan’s wild trees. It’ll also work for you like the complexity of oolong teas. If you have a taste for fruity and complex infusions with plenty of aroma and infusions to explore, then Da Xue Wild Black is a must try.