Travel Journal #3: The Frontier

May 04, 2014

This continues a series of travel journals documenting Hugo Tea's adventures in China. The previous entry can be found here.

The Frontier

Yunnan is a large province in the extreme Southwest of China on the border with Myanmar and Vietnam to the South and West, and Tibet to the Northwest. It is among the least dense provinces of China by population, with only one super-city—the provincial capital—Kunming.

This is where I found myself after nearly 30 hours of non-stop travel from Hefei. Kunming is only a stepping-stone though. While there are large tea export companies clustered in Kunming, part of the promise and mandate of Hugo Tea is that we go direct-to-origin and buy directly from integrated farm operations where possible. 

And so, after a brief respite in Kunming, I found myself on a plane bound for the village of Xishuangbanna, followed by a three hour car ride to Puer City. Concerted tea-drinkers will recognize the name: Puer. The city shares its name with a famous type of tea, “pu’erh”. Hugo Tea doesn't currently buy or sell pu’erh tea—preferring to focus on finding the best black tea instead—but for those who care to know, pu’erh is a unique style of tea that undergoes true microbial fermentation prior to consumption. This gives the tea a very complex taste this is adored by some and loathed by others. I'd suggest a quick Wikipedia search for anyone who is interested in learning more about pu'erh tea. 

Here in Puer City, finally, I met Mr. and Mrs. Tsai, the married co-owners of the tea farm from where Hugo Tea sources our much-loved Full-Steam Black Tea. For earl-grey fans, take note that the tea base we use also comes from this farm. And for chai fans—well—wink, wink.

Mr. and Mrs. Tsai (and me)

Again, more traveling. Always moving. The Tsai’s and I travelled another 4.5 hours to the literal edge of China, only a few miles away from the Myanmar boarder. Here, farmers cultivate organic tea in an entirely pristine mountain environment. It’s an area that doesn’t look like traditional China at all, but more like a tropical rain forest.

This region is home to a large population of ethnic minorities whose customs, history, language, and appearances are significantly different than the majority “Han Chinese” ethnic group—the peoples most associated with China by Americans.

Local Village (the distant hills are Mynanmar)

The Perfect Black Tea

Finally some rest came. I stayed for three days in the mountains with the Tsai’s and some of their close friends and co-workers. Many cups of tea were had. I learned, more exactly, what makes Full-Steam so damn good—and most important how we can make it even better.

Full-Steam does not come from traditional tea bushes. Instead, it comes from tea trees. The waist-high tea bush with which we are all familiar is only this size and shape because of constant pruning in the gardens. It’s simply easier to pluck tea from a bush that is waist high than letting it grow upwards. If you don’t trim tea plants, they grow into wiry teas that are quite beautiful.

For hundreds (and thousands) of years, the tea plants on the Tsai’s farm have grown wild, uncultivated, reaching heights of several meters. Genetically speaking, this region in Southwest Yunnan Province is the birthplace of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis). It’s not your typical tea farm. This is, in short, what makes Full-Steam so rich, full, malty, and smooth. These are not new plants. These are ancient. Moreover, the tea plants grow in the full shade of much larger trees—a forest canopy. This canopy provides shelter allowing the plants to grow slower and to concentrate their flavors and polyphenols.

The Ancient Tea forest (and a tea-picker who insisted that I take his picture).

The Tsai’s, like all Hugo Tea growers, are at least as passionate about organic cultivation as we are. They—quite rightly—see little reason for chemical use. Indeed the cost difference is marginal. The tea plants on the Tsai’s ancient mountain have grown without chemicals for thousands upon thousands of years without help. Think about that. It is quite possible your Full-Steam was plucked from a tree that existed before Columbus sailed to America.

Cheers to that.