Related to writing a tea blog and helping run a Facebook tea group I talk to lots of interesting people about the subject, recently William Osmont of Farmerleaf. I’ve reviewed some very nice teas from them, different Yunnan Dian Hong black tea versions (here and here), a Moonlight white, and of course pu’er.
This article is about his background in producing tea, and about typical questions that come up related to that area, about sub-regional variations, production and sourcing issues, and pu’er aging/fermentation. In particular vendor marketing claims about Yunnan tea tree ages have been a source of controversy, related to some being disputed on social media, and William offers his opinions on the effect of tea tree age on tea character and about identifying tree ages.
How did you get started on an interest in tea?
It all started on a sunny afternoon in French Provence. With two friends we were hanging out in the streets of our little town, and we stumbled upon a newly opened tea shop. We tried different flavored teas, and I really loved the different tastes. I hadn’t paid much attention to tea until then. I drank flavored tea for a couple of months and then got into Darjeeling, Chinese green tea, African black tea… until I tried a 1998 ripe Pu-erh tea. I clearly remember that first session with Pu-erh tea, and from that time, I knew I would dedicate my life to this beverage.
After high school, I went to Yunnan for a year, in pursuit of better teas. That was the best year of my life, I was 19 and free to explore. I studied Chinese in Kunming for six months and then moved to the South of Yunnan, in Xishuangbanna. I would visit one or two tea mountains every week, learning about the taste of tea and the different processing method.
One day, as I was visiting Jingmai, I met a beautiful Dai girl named Yubai, who had only started her own tea factory that year. We fell in love, and she is now my wife.
In a fair deal with my parents, I would return to Europe and go to university after one year. I was really interested in biology and ecology. I wanted to go back to China as often as possible and start something in tea. In 2012, I opened an online tea shop (www.bannacha.com) in which I sold mainly Pu-erh teas from farmers I had met. A large part of it was made by my girlfriend in Jingmai. This little website allowed me to put a foot into the tea business and I am really grateful to the customers who trusted us for all those years. The profits allowed my girlfriend and me to meet every summer holiday in China, strengthening our love and expanding our tea network in Yunnan.
I graduated in 2016 and obtained a master’s degree in agricultural development. Yubai and I are now married, and we live in Yunnan for good. We have started our Pu-erh brand Jing Yu Tian Xiang, which we retail in China and abroad. We’ve also opened a new website: www.farmer-leaf.com, on which we sell a wider range of Yunnan teas from our tea factory as well as from other farmers.
What do you see is the main differences in selling tea based out of Europe and from China?
Being based in China helps a lot with sourcing. As you know, building and nurturing relationships in the Middle Kingdom is extremely important, and it’s all the more convenient to be present all year-round.
Being based in a tea mountain in Yunnan is a great opportunity to understand the technicalities of tea production, and how the farmers make their choices in terms of agricultural practices. Some aspects of tea can only be understood by having a long term presence in a tea mountain. Understanding the details of tea processing requires making dozens of trials, sharing tips with fellow tea producers and experimenting.
Being online-based, the distance with the tea consumers doesn’t affect the relationship, we exchange emails with our customers every day. It is always great to receive feedback and questions. Our objective is to bring the tea lovers closer to the tea gardens. In 2017, we have decided to close the distance by running a Youtube channel. Some tea fellows even visit us in Jingmai, and it’s a pleasure to take them around our tea gardens.
What are some differences between Western tea enthusiast based tea traditions and the original Chinese traditions, or modern practices?
The way tea is brewed in China varies widely, depending on the province and the interest of the tea drinkers. The most common way is to brew tea in a large glass, what is sometimes called “Grandpa-style” in the West.
Just like in the West, Gongfu brewing is reserved to the “hardcore” tea lovers and the professionals. It is more prevalent in Yunnan, Fujian and Guangdong, because these provinces have a long history of tea drinking. In the last decades, China has experienced a revival of the tea culture; this is a luxury few could afford in the past. Gongfu-brewing spreads along with high quality leaves, just like in the West.
Your website mentions producing pu’er; do you also actually make any other types of teas? Do you produce shou / shu?
Yubai, my wife, has run a small tea factory in Jingmai since 2011. We now operate it together and produce white, oolong and Pu-erh tea. Our teas are hand-processed, which mean we cook the leaves in a wok instead of using a machine. That allows a finer control over tea quality and opens more possibilities. We’re developing a line of semi-oxidized tea that is unique in Jingmai, and we’re always trying to improve our Pu-erh tea processing. We do not produce Shu Pu-erh; the extra fermentation process involved requires special skills, big infrastructure and a lot of tea. Usually, the large factory productions consist in batches of dozens of tons. Nowadays, it is possible to ferment the tea in micro-batches (as low as 100kg), we’re considering making such a production, but it still has to be outsourced. A lot of the fermented Pu-erh tea is made in Menghai , Southern Yunnan.
Can you share a short summary of the character differences in teas within different pu’er producing areas?
Pu-erh tea features a wide range of tasting profiles. That diversity is due to differences in aging, processing, and producing area. Just like the terroirs of wine, tea tastes different according to the genetics, location and management techniques of the tea gardens. It would take a whole book to detail the subtle variations between each mountain and their underlying factors.
Jingmai is famous in the world of tea for its orchid and honey fragrance. Some bitterness is present; astringency is more present than average. In young teas, the mouthfeel is generally light and sweet. The Jingmai profile is accessible to the beginners and makes a great introduction to the world of Pu-erh tea because it has a bit of everything. In comparison, Bulang tea is generally more aggressive, featuring more bitterness; Yiwu tea is soft and mellow, with a thick mouthfeel. Menkgu is renowned for its complex fragrance and sharp sweetness.
However, there are many exceptions in each terroirs, and the result in the cup can be very different depending on the processing. In Jingmai, old-growth tea that received a high-temperature kill-green process will feature the typical high-pitched orchid fragrance, with fast-changing bitterness and a light body; while tea that went through a low temperature kill-green process will have a thicker body, more sweetness and a honey-like aroma. There’s a lot of possibilities in-between.
Some tea gardens are known to produce more bitter leaves, while others grow particularly fragrant leaves. It is indirectly influenced by the soil type, garden design and agricultural techniques. For example, tea that grows on sandy soil will receive less water and nutrients than tea grown on clay soil, and that will influence the physiology of the tea tree and therefore the taste of its leaves.
A second part of this article covers pu’er aging and fermentation issues, about producing tea from a single tree versus mixing plant sources, and about the effect of age of tea trees and about evaluating ages.