A Tea for Departures – Lau Banzhang
Embarking for the south of Yunnan on the tea sourcing mission tomorrow, it seems a perfect time to indulge in a little ‘tea’ farewell from home here in Shangrila. Above, on the wooden slats of my Tibetan home’s roof, ice pellets are pinging down and the sky is heavy and dark – yes, a fitting time for a little farewell slurp. There is even a hint of snow, as Spring once again tries to figure out how to take back its allotted time in the year. So, as Winter is being forced out, I head for the tea mountains of Yunnan.
In all of its muddled, moddy beauty
Sorting through my ‘tea box #1’, I find a tea that I rarely indulge in, but think about often. It is a ten-year-old Lau Banzhang, sheng (unfermented) Pu’er It sits in its thin discoloured wrap with a little note inside, written two years ago describing it as “the tea for departures”. No idea what prompted the idea but, if, I did actually care about dollar amounts of my various cakes, tubes, bricks, and other blunt molds of tea, this tea would be worth more than the all of other tea contents of ‘tea box #1’…or at least close. I will be near the very area where this tea was cultivated, created and stored in less than a week.
Powering, chiselling, and whittling away at the precious cake
True to the little written notation inside, I do keep it as a tea for departures. It has never come on a journey, never been sipped in the morning as the first tea of the day, nor been sipped with a huge group of people; it is an indulgence, pure and simple. When I prepare it I’m aware that I take an almost neurotic amount of time, making sure not one errant leaf goes astray. Preparing the tea becomes a meditation of sorts. One cup, one gai wan – a flared cup to prepare the tea, and the inevitable kettle humming away as it boils water. That is it.
The tea cake was given as a gift by a tea maker from Lau Banzhang years ago on another tea junket into the mountains of southern Yunnan. The cake itself was one of about thirty that he had kept in a box of teas; each tea cake was more than seven years old – in lay terms the equivalent of green gold. The cake was presented casually to me, with only the words catching the breath, as he said “that tea is something most people would give years of their life to acquire”. Words like this from a tea ‘maker’, a grand chief himself of creating masterpieces, are words that carry weight. I had been in the tea town in southern Yunnan for days watching every step of the famed tea-making process…and I had also been up most nights slinging back the local firewater along with the requisite amounts of tea to balance out the liquid intake. In time, my visits there became part of an annual pilgrimage, and that in turn led finally to the gift of the Lau Banzhang tea cake. Though I had in my days purchased, pilfered and begged tea from Lau Banzhang, this aged cake was my little prize in ‘tea box #1’.
Nothing hints at its worth, no opulent wrapping paper, no adjectives lining the edge of the wrap; nothing at all. In fact the only aspect that makes it valuable – before the tasting that is – is the ‘knowledge’ in me of where and who it is coming from. This simple ‘truth’ is all that often separates a fake from a genuine piece of green gold: the all-important ‘source’.
The cake itself was firmly molded all those years ago, and is perhaps too tight in its compression, which prevents oxygen from circulating throughout the leaves and ‘ageing’ it in an ideal way. Witling away at the solid form is work, with the compressed leaves breaking off in bits and chunks only after some force is applied. The leaves in this form will not be ‘whole’ once I’ve massacred them, making it slightly more difficult to ‘see’ what the leaves are and once were.
While production methods have been slightly sanitized for the current tea markets, which are fickle when it comes to cosmetics, a great tea – like a crap one – cannot hide. While this tea’s appearance, and that of the leaves is not ideal, the quality will inevitably reveal itself…or not. The taste, the smell and the site of a tea reveal most to those whose interest and talents lie with tea. Site alone won’t be enough. Good teas need the full engagement of the senses. I’ve got the time, the tea, water and a pending departure – all is set.
Upon pouring the first rinse, there is that wonderful bit of ‘bitter’ froth at the surface to skim off with the lid. One of the first tests of any tea is a first sniff once the leaves have tasted some water. The smell is ‘iron-like’ with some vegetal hits and the colour is dark apricot.
Outside the window, the dark sky has cleared and the first proper tasting has me looking at a distant peak, which sometime this morning took snow upon its slopes.
When first picked this ‘new’ tea’s colour would have been a lemon yellow all those years ago; now the colours are deepening and will continue to naturally ‘age’ until one day – maybe another 7 seven years down the road – it will have morphed into a fully ‘black’ Pu’er, while losing much of its astringency. Though I’ve never bought into the fad of ‘aged teas are the only teas to drink’ a great tea will age ‘greatly’, or so the story goes.
The colour of a naturally fermented/fermenting tea differs entirely from a tea that has been artificially fermented. Naturally fermented teas stay clear and retain an almost red colour, whereas many artificially fermented teas go chocolate and almost 'black'
This tea’s power has moderated over time, but it and its depth still have some sharp tangs that cruise into the cheeks and over the teeth. When it goes down into the gullet though, it eases and glides down with all of tastes softening. The mouth afterwards holds onto much of what makes the Lau Banzhangs so revered: strength, an ability to carry all of the tea tree’s vital surroundings onto the palate, and a finish that reminds that not all departures are unwelcome.
Time to move south then.