Expo Seminar: Ancient Tea Forests
“A Journey into the Ancient Tea Forests of Xishuangbanna, China”
By Sean O’Leary, photojournalist, Rishi Tea
Wednesday morning’s seminar speaker was a photojournalist who travels with Joshua Kaiser to document Rishi’s organic tea trade and sources. Again, a booklet with small images of the presented slides was provided with plenty of space for notes. This was good because I was writing whenever not looking at the fascinating images. What’s below is an attempt to make sense of the scrawled notes that fill my booklet.
O’Leary started with maps of China’s tea regions, focusing our attention on the Yunnan district. In particular, we were seeing images from old growth tea forests in a mountainous region of Yunnan. I loved seeing the photos of the “King Tea Tree,” a 2700-year-old tree that is protected as a national treasure in China. Lest you think this is a drive-by tourist exhibit, know that it is a four-hour trek up a mountain with no roads and barely visible trails. I was reminded of some trails I’ve been on while geocaching in the Pacific Northwest, but our climate is much cooler making bushwhacking/hiking a bit easier. Of course, tea plants flourish in humid, hot, monsoonal climates.
I don’t want to give away all of the information that was presented in this seminar, but the speaker had an important message that bears repeating.
Old growth tea forests differ from “mono-cultural” gardens in several ways. They have a naturally biodiverse ecosystem, which means more exposure to other pollens and animals/insects. The trees vary in size and age. The younger, shorter tea trees are often shaded by larger trees – anyone who drinks Japanese green tea probably knows that shade-grown tea has a different flavor from tea in the full sun. The varying sizes also provides a natural misting, the bud is supposedly more tender, and all of things combine to make for a different flavor to the tea grown and processed in this region. The forests also do not suffer from the severe erosion problems that many of the monocultural gardens are fighting.
Not all of the old-growth forests are strictly “wild” – they can be cultivated or semi-cultivated. They are in difficult to access regions with village living conditions that are less than ideal. Child labor, inadequate processing, difficult travel, and lack of quality control are problems that need to be overcome before these forests are a viable source of tea for international trade. Longterm investments in sustainable development are needed. It is a lengthy process to build trust and develop new standards and techniques – it’s not a situation that can be improved by simply throwing money at it. However, there are several movements getting underway to create better conditions, a viable business environment, and standards of cleanliness (no animals in the processing rooms, for instance).
O’Leary then went on to show a wonderful series of slides featuring traditional processing of puerh cakes. He gave much information on terminology and talked about issues with aged puerh. One thing I had not considered is that some of the aged tea from the 60s might contain DDT (it has an extremely long shelf-life).
Many of the slides and much of the information from the seminar can be found by clicking through to the first installment of Rishi’s new Travelogue: Jingmai-Mangjing.