It was around that table that I tasted the tea that we now call Immortal Dew. It was served loose in tall glass cups, and every now and then that little old lady would somehow lift that massive iron kettle and shuffle over to pour boiling water into our cups. It tasted bright, fresh, and floral, not like any particular flower close in, but rather like a field of flowers’ essence from far away, their collective fragrance rising with the warmth of the day.
Strictly speaking, Immortal Dew is a sheng pu er – the fresh, green leaves of the pu er plants that haven’t been subjected to the wet-ripening process that produces dark, earthy shu pu er. Specifically, it is what is known as gu shu cha 古树茶, “ancient tree tea,” a designation reserved for sheng pu er harvested from ancestral trees – those that are at least four centuries old. Along with high elevation and fogs and mist, advanced stock age is one of the three main conditions for the production of high-quality Chinese tea.
This tea is loose, the large leaves characteristically twisted by a double roasting process that the inhabitants of Nannuo reserve for tea for their own use. “It tastes better but it doesn’t look as good,” they say. I’m fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to participate in the unique processing of this Nannuo style of loose sheng pu-er. The freshly-picked leaves are tossed into a hot, dry wok set over a wood fire in a brick stove. The leaves hiss and contract as soon as they hit the hot iron, and are quickly stirred by hand. They gave me gloves to protect from the intense heat, but they used their bare skin themselves. They said they need to be able to feel the tea – its consistency, its moisture. I tried swirling the tea bare-handed at first but soon had to resort to the gloves and, occasionally, a pitiful little forked twig that was clearly mostly symbolic in its contribution to the process. The leaves are pressed, rolled, tossed, fluffed, twisted, and stirred in the wok until they are like tender leather. The steaming, half-dry leaves were then tossed onto a bamboo mat on the ground and we sat on our knees, kneading the hot clumps with a motion that resembles the ab-roller workout. A diverse array of interesting gestures are applied to the tea at this phase, always in the same direction – clockwise, in this case. The leaves are pushed hard enough to “squeeze out the juice” but not so hard that they tear. After doing this for a physically-demanding amount of time, the leaves are returned to the wok, this time at a diminished heat, and roasted again. This time, the gestures are different – no more pressing, because the leaves have become dry enough to be brittle and subject to breaking. This second roast is all finesse and legerdemain, and it imparts a depth and fragrance to the tea as the squeezed-out juice on the tea is cooked into the leaves, concentrating its essence.
Immortal Dew, the tea I’ve just described, is my favorite tea. For most of my tea-drinking life I didn’t have a ‘favorite’ tea and never felt compelled to try and choose one. Like all tea, its quality is a combination of clean, misty, high altitude conditions, old tree stock, and skillful processing. But it is my personal connection to it, and the way it can instantly transport me to that dark, smoky mountain hut, that makes it my favorite.