The ‘New World’ of Tea
Last spring, we began our search for the season’s best white teas. Naturally, we first scoured China’s most reputable white tea origin, Fujian province. What we found though was very high prices, which reflected the limited supply and increasing domestic demand, but not always the quality of taste. As a result, we turned our sights a little further East in China, deep in the southwest province of Yunnan. This is not usually thought of as a place to find formidable white tea, but since we first set foot in Yunnan almost two decades ago, things have changed.
Discovering our Organic Yunnan White Peony last year was the revelation that put Yunnan at the forefront of our search for new, organic and masterfully crafted teas. While speaking to organic farmers in Yunnan, we found that they were now considering the province as the ‘new world’ of tea, to coin a term from the world of wine. But it makes perfect sense – with a history that dates back thousands of years, the appreciation for tea in Yunnan is so much like wine. Yet, at the same time, this mountainous province also sees itself as the way forward for Chinese tea. In this deep dive, we’ll explore Yunnan to uncover what makes it such a unique place for tea, what it already does well and what it is trying to do.
What Is Yunnan Like?
Yunnan is the most south-westerly province of China, a mountainous border region. In the north, the mountains, some of which are more than 6,000m high, form part of the Tibetan plateau. In the south, the region is home to tropical rainforests which contain some of the largest density of biodiversity of anywhere in the world. Yunnan’s mountain ranges join China to Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, with northern India only a short distance away. This makes Yunnan one of the most ethnically diverse provinces of China, with ethnic minorities accounting for about 34% of its total population and many living in small, rural villages among the mountains. Groups like the Dai, Miao, Yi, Blang, Lahu and countless other indigenous people bring a wealth of culture to Yunnan, with more than 20 different dialects and languages spoken. With this comes lots of colourful traditional dress and of course plenty of tea being produced. These different groups also celebrate their own festivals, where you’ll likely find entire villages hosting a banquet feast with regional style dishes like whole steamed fish with chili and lemongrass, wild mushroom hot pot, pumpkin and melon tip soup, fermented cabbages and even a colourful variety of different kinds of indigenous rice.
16 Centuries of Tea Making
It’s in this area of ancient China where, according to legend, tea cultivation began during the 4th century. However, it wasn’t until a few centuries later during the Tang Dynasty that the creation of a winding trade network, now known as the Ancient Tea Horse Road, would pass directly from Yunnan up into to Tibet and beyond. As well as proving tea’s worth as an important export, this trade route encouraged the growth of a unique tea culture within the province. There are now hundreds of mountains where tea is produced in Yunnan, often by single households or villages, some of which have gained serious fame for their ancient tea gardens of more than 1000 years old, or even wild tea trees.
What Makes Tea from Yunnan so Different?
What keeps us going back to Yunnan is its wealth of tastes and unique flavours, crafted by masters with centuries of tea know-how handed down from one generation to the next. Here, tea is often crafted using the indigenous Assamica varietal of the tea bush, known for producing teas with a thick texture and rich flavour. This varietal can be found growing in most of the tea gardens, but also among many of the wild forests high up in the mountains surrounded by bamboo and pine trees. Here, the tea bushes can grow into full-sized tea trees of 15 ft over hundreds of years. These natural factors make Yunnan a somewhat unique proposition among the famous tea regions of China.
Where other provinces in China have seen a rise in issues such as the over saturation of certain teas, land clearing and more pesticides and chemical fertilizers being used, Yunnan has maintained a much better reputation for organic farming practices. So, while holding on to its tradition of tea craft, we found that the tea makers of Yunnan are also finding the ability to adapt, using new and experimental cultivars, or taking famous styles of tea from other regions and producing them organically – inflected with a unique twist from their own, ancient terroir.
But looking at the heart of the tea culture in Yunnan, it’s the parallels with wine that really ring true. Tea from Yunnan is all about provenance. This means that batches of tea are often named after the specific village or mountain range where they were picked and produced, with a focus on the year and seasonality. This helps us tea drinkers to develop a better understanding of a tea’s ‘taste of place’. This idea of provenance is mostly associated with Puerh tea, a tea type only produced in Yunnan, but can also be found in our recent batch of Da Xue Wild Black tea. The name alone tells the story of this tea; from the mountain range where it was picked, to the fact that it was crafted from wild tea trees over a hundred years old – aspects that have a big effect the flavours found in your cup.
Which Yunnan Teas Should I Try First?
Although mostly known for its puerh and black teas, diving into teas from Yunnan is actually a great way to discover a very broad range of flavours from many different tea types. In the last year alone, we’ve selected a diverse range of teas from the region – some for their engaging and revered flavours, while others for their fresh, organic take on an old tradition. Here are three teas well worth exploring to get you started:
If a good cup of malty and rich black tea is your thing, but you’d like even more layers of sweet spices and red fruit notes with an indulgent chocolatey finish, then try this.
Produced in Ximeng Garden by tea maker Chen Qiguang, this fruity black tea is one of our long-standing favourites from Yunnan. Almost a decade ago, high up in the mountains Chen decided to take a risk by growing an imported Taiwanese varietal of tea bush totally uncommon to the area. It was traditionally cultivated it to make a creamy and fruity, oolong tea, but with Yunnan’s terroir and the local expertise for black tea processing, the experimental combination produced something totally unique.
Organic Yunnan White Peony
Try this if you’re after a tea that will leaving you incredibly refreshed, with delicate, floral aromas and mellow notes of sweet nectarine and rose.
Produced in Dahei Garden by tea maker Yang Jian, this is the tea that set us on the journey of sourcing even more organic teas from Yunnan. Although this is a style of white tea we’re not used to seeing from producers in Yunnan, we were excited to see more innovation and experimentation in the region. If you’re a fan of white teas like Jasmine Silver Needle or our Aged White Peony, then this is an easy one to love.
Ai Lao Mountains Raw Puerh
If you’re looking for something refreshingly complex with a unique bitter-sweet flavour that you can infuse over and over again, definitely try this tea.
It’s hard to talk about Yunnan and not mention puerh tea. The most famous tea type from this province, this is as traditional as it gets. Composed of spring picked leaves from the indigenous Assamica tea varietal, the leaves are pan-fried and rolled before being compressed to form a cake known as a ‘beeng’ in China using stone moulds. What I love about this tea is that it sets the trend for teas from Yunnan, being all about provenance and origin. But tasting this tea is also quite an experience – break of a chunk of cake and infuse it to reveal large, whole leaves with a fruity, minerally and almost bitter-sweet taste.
What’s the Best Way to Enjoy These Teas?
Our glass Tea-ieres work for all these teas, making it super easy to get great taste, and our simple recipes will ensure the perfect cup every time. In Yunnan, the locals will often enjoy their tea in the ‘gong fu’ style, a method for infusing tea which is common throughout China. This technique calls for a higher proportion of leaf and less water to prepare multiple, short infusions. Because of the lower volume of water, you’ll often see a small teapot or a gaiwan (lidded bowl) being used, though we like to use our Tea Master to make it even easier. Making tea in this way delivers a concentrated view of the flavours and aromas which you can follow as they evolve throughout the infusions. If you want to try this at home then here’s a basic guide you can try, which is a great place to start for any of our teas:
Start by preheating your teapot with some boiling water for 30 seconds. Discard this water and immediately add 4g of tea leaves. Allow these to sit for a few seconds in the hot teapot to release the aroma – this is my favourite bit as the fragrance of a tea can be so enjoyable! Then add 125ml of hot water (check the temperature needed for your tea) and allow to infuse for 30-40 seconds. Pour out the whole infusion and enjoy. You can then re-infuse your tea multiple times, adding a few more seconds each time. You can think about how the intensity of the taste evolves and what notes you’re finding, or sit and be mindful about the process by spending some time enjoying a relaxing tea session.
If you’re looking to learn more about ‘gong fu’, then check out our guide on transforming the flavour of your tea.
What’s next for Yunnan?
As the Chinese tea markets continue to boom along with a growing interest around the world for Yunnan’s speciality teas, we’re seeing an amazing amount of growth in the more remote tea regions of the province. Dealing directly with tea farmers has meant that their villages, once only accessible by foot or motorbike, now have fresh new roads. Small communities are expanding their tea production facilities with better equipment and new homes are able to be built. All of this is improving the quality of life for the people who are growing and crafting some of our favourite teas.
To help set in stone the importance of origin, we’re also seeing more of the famous tea mountains from the region apply for PGI (protected geographical indication). This means that tea from the region will be protected with a new level of status, bringing awareness to both the quality and authenticity of Yunnan’s most famous regions, as well as ensuring the direct trade with communities who craft our tea and protecting the environment in and around the tea gardens. We’re also hopeful that we will continue to discover more experimental teas too, such as Taiwanese style oolongs, grown in the high mountains of Yunnan, and more complex, aged puerh teas.