To finish our time in Yiwu, we were, of course, keen to take a walk up the start of the Tea Horse Road from the old Yiwu central square – home to the Pu’er Museum – for a chance to soak up some history and trace the footsteps of tea merchants and their trusty mules.
We walked up the “Old” Tea Horse Road for about a mile, through traditional Chinese homes – family homes situated around a courtyard surrounded by walls with beautiful, grand wooden doorways – looking out over a great valley until the houses stopped, the road became a dirt track and only old tea plantations remained on the hillsides above and below.
The plantations here are all in the Yunnan Pu’er style – there’s none of the beautifully manicured neat rows of small vibrant green tea bushes. Here, larger, unkempt, ageing trees called “dashu” – literally meaning “big tree” – of the assamica varietal, a few metres high, roughly lined up make up the dusty landscape.
Why older tea trees?
Why? Because older trees grow slower than younger, small, manicured trees, allowing the leaves to soak up more nutrients from the earth. More nutrients and slower growth means more complexity to the tea. It’s not as cost-effective, but that’s not what it’s about: Tea here is not about low margin high volume sales; it’s a passion, a culture, and this is vindicated in the respect that Yiwu tea has amongst Chinese tea connoisseurs – not least the Qing dynasty emperors who made Yiwu teas the Tribute Teas of their time.
But even now, Yiwu tea commands amongst the highest prices for pu’er tea, which, as a category of tea in itself, commands some of the highest prices.
A small family Pu’er tea factory
As we walked back down the Tea Horse Road, through the tourist square with bronze tea mule statues overlooking the valley, between stunning architecture of the old Chinese village housing style housing small tea factories – given away by the blue plastic ceilings and clear corrugated plastic cladding – and back into the town square on the new Tea Horse Road, the most incredible, thick, steamy sweet aroma enveloped us.
They’re only bloody making tea!
Through a grand carved wooden door into the last (or first) building on the lane and the aroma grew stronger, so we carried on. Through an open inside doorway, through a rack of freshly packed “sheng bing” we see the source of the aroma: the steaming, packing and compressing of the raw “mao cha” into the bing.
We’ve stumbled into a small family pu’er tea factory and the employees are more than happy for us to come in and watch them at work.
I’ve never seen this process firsthand before and it stirred something. Maybe it was the all-encompassing, sweet, heavy, complex aroma of the freshly steamed mao cha, or the relaxed but busy nature of the employees, or all of it together, but as we watched I became mesmerised.
Firstly a steaming cylinder is filled with 357g mao cha, then passed over to be shaped.
The cylinder is placed over a steam jet to moisten the leaves, allowing them to be shaped, a cloth “sock” placed around the cylinder top and the leaves emptied into it.
The shaper then skilfully pushes the moist leaves to the sock bottom and, using a slightly concave shaping stone, shapes the tea into a rough, thick disc, tying the remainder of the sock into the bottom of the disc, creating the famous inlay in the bottom of the bing. This shaping takes about 20s per disc.
The roughly shaped bing is passed to be compressed into it’s final shape, where it is popped onto a board on the floor and a heavy mould is put on top of it. The employee stands on the mould and wobbles the rock in a circular motion to flatten the shape down whilst ensuring perfect rounding of the brick and leaves for a while to fix the shape.
Once compressed enough the moist bing is removed and racked, allowed to dry until it’s firm enough to be removed and racked, ready to be wrapped.
I could have stayed and watched all day.
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