A Prose about Exclusivity
Thank you for drinking tea with us.
"Royal Banquet" aims to bring tea drinkers into the world of very fine and exclusive teas. These teas used to be inaccessible to commoners in time gone by, but today we are able to bring it to you via our network of sourcing direct from the farms and our friendship with the producers.
The three teas on feature are a green tea, a wulong tea and a red tea, namely:
- 2012 Aged Raw Yi Wu (易武正山易武乡), 6 gm [Unlisted]
- 2022 Second Flush Jungpana, 6 gm [Pre-launch]
Different teas are preferred in different eras, depending on the prevailing cultures, lifestyles and ruling power of the time. In July’s subscription, we noted the few famous teas in the Qing dynasty were none other than Long Jing in Zhejiang, Jie Tea in the south of Yangtze River, and Wuyi tea from Fujian. However, one thousand years before that during the Tang dynasty, the tea capital was in a different direction - at the west of China in the land of Shu (蜀地), referring to Sichuan area. Of the teas produced there, those from Meng Mountain (蒙山) stood out, and the best among them is the Ambrosia. Surely, it was a royal tribute tea during the Tang dynasty, and it remained that way till the Qing dynasty 1,300 years later. In the Song dynasty, it was selected for heavenly worship, which continued till the Qing dynasty when it was also used for ancestral offering. The Mengding Ambrosia always has a heavy religious overtone, it being first planted on the mountain by a renowned Han dynasty Buddhist monk and that the Song dynasty abbot of Yong Xing Monastery (永兴寺) in the mountain invented a now-standard Buddhist ritual in ancestral prayers. The tea’s Chinese name of Gan Lu is translated as ambrosia in English but it originates from the Sanskrit term for ancestral remembrance (念祖), which could be another reason why it was featured in royal ancestral worship.
Chinese tea making philosophy is about natural cultivation with diligent processing. The Mengding Ambrosia undergoes three sets of pan-frying and shaping to achieve its curly shape that resembles tiny hooks. It is downy with silver hairs against the dark green leaves that reveal its high elevation terroir blanketed by mountain mist and nourished with mostly deflated sunlight and unpolluted soils away from urbanisation. Using a porcelain tea ware or our Parchmen tea evaluation set, brew 3 gm of the tea in 150 ml of 80°C water for 20 seconds in the first brew, and 30 seconds subsequently. After two brews, the prime flavours have passed. A luscious green tea meant to enjoy its freshness, one is reminded that time slips by fast and youthfulness is but short-lived. We are reminded of an umami-laden chicken soup, sugar cane sweetness and aroma reminiscent of yellow and purple flowers and green cardamom. We brewed all the teas this month using Purete water we bought off the supermarket.
中国的制茶哲学是自然生长，用心加工。蒙顶甘露三炒三揉，形成了类似小钩子的卷曲形状。它身披银毫与墨绿色的叶子相映成趣，揭示了它被山雾笼罩和多阴的高海拔风土，以及远离城市的原始土壤所滋养。此茶可使用陶瓷茶具或百茶门审评杯，在 150 毫升 80°C 水中冲泡 3 克茶叶，第一次冲泡 20 秒，然后冲泡 30 秒。二次冲泡后便可换茶叶。绿茶必须抢鲜喝，它短暂的美好似乎提醒着我们时间如流水，世间无常。这两泡茶就让我们陶醉在它鲜浓的鸡汤味，甘蔗的甜味，类似黄花紫花，绿色小豆蔻的香气。这个月的茶都是使用从超市买来的Purete冲泡的。
Based on historical records, the system of Chinese tribute teas lasted for 3000 years till the collapse of the Qing dynasty. Yunnan first sent tributary teas for the Qing court’s selection at the establishment of the dynasty and was subsequently registered for standard annual tribute during political reforms of the area in the Yongzheng era (year 1729). Palace records revealed the great love of the Qing royalties who came from the frozen north for this southern tea, which explained why tributary amounts for Pu Er teas largely exceeded other teas. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the Forbidden Palace was turned into the Palace Museum, where it was discovered a great amount of Pu Er tea, including a 150 years old Pu Er tea mounded into the shape of a pumpkin and still in good condition.
Tribute teas were produced at the six historical regions (故六大茶山) on the east of the Lancang River (澜沧江), with Yi Wu (易武) at the southern base of this cluster of ancient mountains. The Nanla River (南腊河) flows through this cluster of tea mountains, and the local Dai (傣) tribe sees it as the mother river, giving it the name River of the Water (腊, la) for Tea (南, nan). Nanla River joins the Lancang River to become the Mekong River (湄公河) that flows southwards through five countries of Southeast Asia. The tea department for the Qing court was then located in the north at the conveyance of major trading routes, in a place called Pu Er (普洱). Being the distribution and trading hub for all the teas from the neighbouring mountains, all teas from there were since called Pu Er tea.
During the subsequent Qianlong era, immigration into the area benefitted Yi Wu which allowed tea production to reach 50% volume. Yi Wu enjoys good geographical advantages. It is located at the southern base of the cluster of tea mountains near the Chinese border with proximity to the main tea consuming areas in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. It is at a low latitude but of high elevation from 700 m to over 2,000 m, creating balanced conditions for mass tea production. All these factors prompted the Qing court to establish a branch of the tea department at Yi Wu, and further developed tea culture and cultivation there. But Yi Wu as a tea hub reached back longer into the Tang dynasty, when it was the starting point of the Ancient Tea Horse Route (茶马古道) leading northwards to Tibet and southwards to current Southeast Asia. Even today, Yi Wu continues to produce tea as being one of the most common Pu Er tea in the market.
There is an usual tea saying that goes “Ban Zhang tea is king, Yi Wu tea is queen and Jing Mai tea is concubine” (班章为王，易武为后，景迈为妃). Of these 3 tea areas, Yi Wu is from the ancient tea world on the east of Lancang River, while Ban Zhang and Jing Mai are from the new tea mountains on the west of Lancang River. Even this short verse reflects the Chinese tea philosophy of balance. Ban Zhang tea is known for its boldness and strength, which is balanced by the persistent but mellow flavour of Yi Wu and the floral aroma of Jing Mai. We see such philosophy in the famous tea region of Wuyi Mountain (武夷) as well, where the strong aroma of the Rou Gui is balanced by the thick mouthfeel of the Shui Xian (香不过肉桂，醇不过水仙).
This raw puer is 10 years old having been aged since 2012. The usual camphor and caramel were obvious when we smelled the leaves in our “Bell” zisha tea pot (汉铎壶). Brewed using 6 gm to 150 ml of 90°C water for 45 seconds to a light brown colour, the flavour was incredible soft with an undiminished brightness polished by a decade of aging. Underlying the classic camphor note is a blend of complex aroma reminiscent of forest flowers, rain, mushrooms and white flowers.
这款生普洱从2012年开始陈放10年。我们用汉铎壶冲泡，洗茶后闻壶盖有熟悉的樟木香与焦糖香。我们使用 6 克茶叶和150 毫升 90°C 的水冲泡 45 秒至浅棕色，味道非常的柔软，虽经十年陈放，茶气依旧。经典樟香的背后是多层重叠的香气，有森林花卉、雨水、蘑菇和白花。
The Qing court continued to satisfy its quest for high quality tea by developing the system of tribute tea. When the Qing rulers who were tribal horsemen from the north started to consolidate their rule on the land of the Han people during the formative years of the dynasty, it was during the same time that England’s obsession with tea started. England King Charles II married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Known more for her tea addiction, the princess’ dowry included a chest of tea alongside the ports of Bombay (Mumbai today) and Tangier (Morocco) and the free rights to trade in Brazil and the East Indies by Portugal. The English East India Company in 1664 shipped the chest of tea from Bantam (Java, Indonesia) alongside other items “fit for His Majesty”.
Led by the queen herself, tea drinking became a royal affair and a social event of class. Tea as well as other exotic Chinese items like silk, porcelain and other rarities were well sought after by the English, but the trade was only one way. Qianlong emperor in 1793 snubbed the England’s King George III, saying, “Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures.” By 1817, England imported a staggering 36 million pounds of tea from China for a population of just 10 million. This trade imbalance posed a serious problem for the English court, as tea must be bought with Spanish silvers minted in Mexico, and the tea purchases were depleting England’s silver reserve.
No tea has been found in the spread of colonies that England ruled around the world, but the East India Company found in India at the start of the 17th century a drug of addiction that was lucrative and non-native to China – opium. The push for opium sale into China culminated in the First Opium War of 1839 which ceded Hong Kong to the English, and the opening of five trading ports from Canton to Shanghai. England could now buy Chinese teas using the silvers they earned from selling opium to the Chinese. It was also at this point that the Horticultural Society despatched Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to China. Disguised as a merchant and managed to infiltrate beyond the port into the Chinese inlands for a period of 3 years from 1843 to 1846, he collected vast information about tea and even smuggled 20,000 tea plants from China to India. These teas subsequently ended in the various tea farms north of India, and in Darjeeling where the Chinese teas grew exceptionally well. When the first chests of Darjeeling tea were shipped back to England in the mid 19th century, China’s grip on the global monopoly of tea was lost forever. Robert Fortune’s detailed records also offered a rare glimpse to the state of decay in the Chinese inlands and this subsequently invited western interest to colonise the once formidable superpower at the start of the 20th century.
We are featuring Jungpana tea estate this month. It was first owned by the Nepalese royal family before being sold to the current Kejriwal family in 1956. Legend says that a gorkha named Jung Bahadur was mauled by a leopard when hunting with his British master. The hunter carried Jung to a stream but he died after taking his last drink of water (pana) there. Ever since, the area is known as Jungpana. To access Jungpana today, one has to first reach Goomtee Estate that has a road that ends abruptly at a river, then walk 638 uneven, slippery steps to the estate. This is the daily route to send teas out and bring supplies in. A constant winner in global tea competitions, many experts called Jungpana the best tea estate in Darjeeling. Beside supplying to all the boutiques tea houses around the world, it also fills the cups of British and Japanese royalties.
We used the Parchmen tea evaluation set, at 3 gm to 100 ml (2/3 of cup), at 85°C for 30 seconds, repeated at 35 seconds, using Purete water we bought off the supermarket. Experience the classic notes of sweet muscatel, roasted grapes and baked peach, on a bright and smooth mouthfeel. This is indeed one of the best Darjeeling teas the world has seen.