YunnanLast month, we were welcomed by a 20 C cool breeze at 5:00 AM when we touched down at Kunming airport in Yunnan, China. Far from Calcutta’s 35 C hot winds, I felt like I had been transported back to Darjeeling, except for the dryness in the air. Over the next few days, we would be absorbed in our research of the CTC teas being produced in Yunnan. Totally unaware of the outside world, we woke up to the reality of 20 million kilos of CTC tea production in Lincang County, with an average cost of production of 5 USD per kilo – this was an eye opener that came with almost the same suddenness as that of a stealth bomber.
Fenqing, Shuangjiang, Lincang, Baoshan, and Mangshi – all have CTC lines imported from India, producing clean, black, heavy teas with an unspoken guarantee from Lipton to be bought instantly. The milk tea market is increasing at an amazing pace and since 2004 when people looked down on these whiskery, brown, unknown, alien molecules from India or Sri Lanka, China has come a long way. Brands like You Le Mei, Xiang Piao Piao, Wa Ha Ha, Coca Cola, and Nestle are everywhere on the shelves and menus of businesses – be they big or small, restaurant or fast-food chain.
YunnanChina is changing, but so is Taiwan and Korea – with Japan in tow – as far as the consumption of CTC and milk tea is concerned.  Although difficult to pronounce, milk tea – conveniently called nai cha – is ubiquitous. For the next nine days, our eyes grew bigger and brighter and our eyeballs almost bulged as we flew to Hong Kong, where milk tea is also everywhere – particularly in RTD form. There was a special show at the Hong Kong International Tea Fair from August 11-13 focusing on milk tea and it was very interesting to see CTC teas being used in every conceivable way. Let Buddha take his own course … Om Mani Padme Hum.
As a bonus and totally unplanned, I landed on the doorsteps of Shennong Temple in Shuangjiang and visited the 3,200-year-old tea ancestor tree in Xiaowan town, Jinxiu village, known as the “Jinxiu tea ancestor,” a two-hour drive from Fengqing. We were so lucky that we understood the gravity and importance of these cities only after many others saw our trip photos and reminded us about these extremely important places.
Altitude, vastness, and the availability of land in Yunnan is permitting experimentation with many new manufacturing ideas, along with conventional processes like withering and fermenting. Here the superior quality of the tea leaf is attributable to being grown at an average altitude of 4,000’ above sea level, which is the standard height at which Darjeeling or Sri Lankan teas are grown. Nearby Burma also has the same altitudes and thereby gets very good liquors, although the appearance of their teas is not good. China has improved upon all of these factors and resorted to the best machines and the best manufacturing practices to produce some of the best CTC teas.