People are always asking me what my favorite tea is. To me, picking a favorite tea is like picking a favorite song or a favorite color – neither are things I’ve ever been able to do. I do, however, have a favorite tea, and where it’s grown it doesn’t have a particular name. We call it Immortal Dew. The first time I encountered this tea was on the tip top of Mt. Nannuo, in a little Akha village called Duo Yi. We were taken there by my Nannuo pu-er tea farmers, the Li’s, to see the ancient Nannuo trees and to visit their relatives. We trundled up a dirt road gnarly with roots, stopping periodically to get out and see the old trees, the gods of the mountain, some nearly a millennium old. They dot the peak of Nannuo like minarets, some surrounded by generations of their progeny, others singular, all of them gazing across the valley. These old, wild trees are the mother stock from which Nannuo mountain pu-er is descended. The most desirable trees are chosen for propagation: terraced rows of chest-high clones sprawl across the hillside, with a tall old mother tree rising up at intervals.
Nannuo mountain is located directly in between the hot, wet microclimate of Jing Hong in the east and cool Menghai to the west. This produces a dense, consistent fog that descends nightly on the mountain and rolls down its slopes, lingering sometimes through mid-day, bathing the ancient plants. Nannuo doesn’t have the highest peaks in Xishuangbanna, but the abundant “clouds and mist” create an ideal environment for producing fragrant, powerful tea. Duo Yi village is at the summit; the fog descends first on Duo Yi and as it lifts in the day Duo Yi receives its farewell kiss. It is also known to have the oldest and most venerable trees on the mountain, wild trees that predate the current inhabitants of the mountain. Some are strange and mysterious, reserved only for medicine, some are rent and charred by lightning but still send out tender buds each spring.
The queens of the mountain are on the western-facing side of the summit: spreading; majestic; jutting out towards the sky with nothing to shade them. They are like tall ships adrift on a green sea of their own offspring. We spent the day picking this tea against the stunning backdrop of the Menghai valley, unending peaks extending below us into the gray horizon. By early afternoon the mountain cast off its misty shroud, exposing us to a sky so blue you could hear it. The songs of birds, the fragrant wind through the tea plants, and the delicate snapping of tea picking were the only sounds besides our own conversation. Occasionally the Li’s, a married couple, would sing duets in their native Akha. Songs about love, and tea-picking songs.
As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, we made our way back to Duo Yi, entering the village through a wooden spirit gate that separates the domain of Man and Domestic Animals from the world of Spirits and Wild Animals in Akha culture. We carried our harvest back to our hosts’ house, a raised wooden hut with a smokehole and a fire inside the single large chamber. The floor was woven bamboo as was all the furniture. The walls were black with soot; the only light came from the fire and a few bare bulbs hanging from exposed beams. The walls were hung with knives, pans, bags, instruments, and woven hats. By the fire a tiny, ancient woman, the matriarch of the family, sat in her traditional Akha embroidered clothing, silently tending a massive iron kettle perched on a tripod over the flames. We squatted around the woven table on bamboo stools and ate a dozen different dishes, almost all of them made from the produce of the mountain, including a dish of fresh tea leaves stir-fried with eggs, and a pot of rice cooked with a whole chicken chopped up in it.
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.
This article has been reformatted and updated from the original June 2014 publication.
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