Tea's Brilliant (and Needed) Informality
Mr. Gao and his tidy moustache move past, beckoning me to join. He has finished a day of pan frying his remarkable teas, and now it is time that he heads to his tea table for a sip. He creates sips for others to enjoy, without ever having lost any of the divine enjoyment of his time to sip of his own creations from his own forests. It is the beginning of the end of the manic Spring harvest where the production of the leaves have been the singular goal of every effort and intention. It is the end of a phase where the tea-centric, collectors, and the obsessed throughout Asia have been waiting for, disappointed by, or simply sated by. Buyers with bags of cash have turned up and middlemen and middlewomen have been hovering and waiting to acquire, to discuss, to build relationships around, and to schmooze for, the great stimulant leaf. This village's tea is, along with perhaps two or three others, the Puerh that is annually waited for, worshipped, and desired. This little village is now starting its transition into some sanity after the fever.
I follow Mr. Gao's flip flops and neat dress pants up some tiled stairs to a table that can more accurately be described as an entire root system of some unfortunate tree. It has been carved and treated with stain and varnish and gleams, though the portions of it used for tea have been dulled with successive infusions of tannin.
Heat pours off of Mr. Gao and sweat bubbles up under his shirt. My nasal cavity is imbued with the smell of baking. Gently pan-fried leaves have been releasing their narcotic aroma for the last 7 hours into me, onto me...all gently coaxed by the master that is Mr. Gao. Master fryer, silent maker, and complete understated knowledge-bank of both the soft and hard skillsets needed to create this eternal commodity and stimulant fuel, he has now given himself permission for a sip.
Mr. Gao is, even to locals, someone gifted with his ability to calmly draw out - without damaging - the most subtle and consistent of flavours and notes out of leaves from the centuries old (and invaluable) tea trees that surround us. Here in this village of Lao Banzhang, Mr. Gao is himself something of a rare commodity. Modest and unparalleled as a fryer he embodies something of the enigmatic artist who doesn't need to show any outward signs of his skills or reputation. His tools are his hands, heat, time, a rare knowledge, and adherence to a system.
Lao Banzhang is an epicentre of some of the most remarkably coveted Puerh teas on the planet - or just teas period. Asian collectors, buyers, intermediaries, leaf-obsessed, sellers, and now tea tourists, annually arrive in colourful heaps. The dirt roads that were once largely impassable in the monsoon seasons are now paved and, and credit card readers lie (some unused) in most homes where during my first visit, there was only sketchy electricity. The little village of tin huts on stilts that I once knew has transformed full throttle into an accelerated, fever pitch hub of trade and outsized mansions of blue and white tiles. Tea (and its profits) have taken this Hani village and utterly expanded, transformed, and in some cases deformed it.
Lao Banzhang teas are also subject to some of the most ludicrous pricing, fraudulent pretenders, hype, weighted expectations, and deliberate misinformation in all of the tea world. With the vaunted Spring harvest though, the levels of maniacal buildup and promotion become frenzied. Mr. Gao has frequently admitted that he doesn't understand it, nor could he care less about it. He is a maker of sumptuous teas that are already sold before he makes them. His teas (however much he creates) is spoken for by buyers a season or even year ahead of time. More vitally for me, he is someone who enjoys the sips, and he doesn't mind quietly instructing and gliding me through the process of production. Quiet and fastidious, he is something elegant and precise in an industry of stimulants, cash, and pushiness. He is also, crucially, someone who has nuanced my view on tea and its taking inextricably.
Once in the past, Mr. Gao was trained as a doctor and is still known by many as 'Gao Yīshēng' or 'Doctor Gao', though he isn't one to hold onto titles, nor is he fond of too much chatter. He carries the energy of someone who holds dear to moments and the taking of them. The sprawl of his burnished wooden tea table is familiar to me as I've sat here before sampling, listening, and even pouring. I'm grateful not only for the teas he has shared, the unpretentious knowledge, and casual offering of some of the highest price teas available; I'm grateful for his relentless belief in informality in the world of the leaf.
He must have decided that on this day that it was time to offer me 'his own' special selection for an end of day celebration. I have long sought what it was in a tea that he regarded as something special. Was he beholden to the obvious coveted Spring creation from the oldest of trees? Was he tied to a particular year or harvest? Did he engage in the somewhat overdone conversation of "old vs young" offerings? What would this maker of brilliant, terroir-driven, sumptuous tea sip when he wants something special - and why? Did he even prefer his own creations, or that of others? I wanted to understand and I inevitably wanted to sip.
Always with Mr. Gao, there are few words, but when he does speak up, he would sometimes repeats to me what others want from a Lao Banzhang, speaking of its initial strength, its mouth and throat feel...but these descriptions and words were never really 'his' words, I felt. In the ensuing 30 rare minutes that we are alone, he simultaneously demolished, enhanced, clarified, and untethered a part of the tea world for me, all without saying much more than fifty words. It counts as one of the most divine sessions of tea I've ever been a part of because of the complete lack of pageantry, monologues or any wild ramblings or judgements.
He rinses his hands with some water and starts to dig through a box, mumbling gently to himself. He pulls out a single cake which has already had nips taken from it. The box is an only slightly bit of organized chaos and the only 'order' to it, according to Mr. Gao, is that the older teas are on the left.
"This is something I like very much", he says simply of the cake in his hands.
Though his formidable tea table has all of the tea paraphernalia 'required' atop it - cups, brushes, clays, vessels, boats, a calculator, and small piles of discarded leaves - to ensure that all who come are impressed, he uses only a small flared gai-wan serving vessel and cups for our present little sip session. He breaks off a small layered hunk of loosely compressed leaves and stems from the cake and sets it into the gai-wan. Looking off of his veranda into a sea of surrounding forests (much of which is ancient tea tree forests) he sighs. Off to his left a kettle has been turned on and the water rasps its way to a full burble. What begins as informal gets more informal. He tips the kettle into the gai-wan and fills it, leaving it in for close to a minute. What he doesn't do is tell me the age of the leaves, the age of the cake, or the season. He doesn't say anything. When I ask about the tea, he tells me to wait until I have it in my mouth. There is no 'first rinse' of the leaves. None. Here we'll not be wasting anything. A cup is put in front of me and I'm told to wait to let the heat settle. There is no smelling or inspection of the leaves; nothing. There is no formality whatsoever. There is simply some leaves, the master, and a great view from a veranda in the deep south of Yunnan province, of a day that is fading.
We sip at last and sip some more with no sounds from either of us. It is as casual a moment with the leaf as I've had. "I cannot describe the flavours of this tea with the language that people from cities use. But I like it". That's it. What is glorious in this moment is that he doesn't tell me what I'm tasting. He lets me simply determine to my own best abilities and biases, how I feel about the tea. It isn't about the name, the season, the chemistry, or even the age of the tea here. At this moment it is about the entire time of tea with all that is around us, in our minds, and yes, in the cups.
Only after three rounds will he speak about what the tea is and from where. This tea is a raw (Sheng) Puerh from two years ago I'm told, from trees and bushes 200-300 years old, panned by him. The next part enhances everything...it is from a late summer harvest that he himself put together with his wife, and not for any resale, marketing, or "others" as he explains. He goes on to explain that this tea is not only about the flavour elements, but about the memory of harvesting 'off-season', and how he did a small batch that was only intended for himself and his family. The context here is everything to him it seems and the tea isn't from the vaunted Spring harvest or prized primordial tea trees.
The tea in my cup seems to joyfully shatter all of the preconceptions of what a "classic" (whatever that means) Lao Banzhang is about: namely a Spring harvest from ancient trees (300 years +), a heavy 'end' bud count, and carefully edited leaves, along with a price that can shatter some dreams. This tea does carry the power and vegetal edge, but apart from that Mr. Gao seems to be demonstrating that all is about perception and perspective. It is about some moments to enjoy something and it is about the offering - which so often seems of secondary importance.
We sit sipping this favourite tea of one of the great tea makers, in one of the heralded tea sources, until chatter signals the potential arrival of others. Mr. Gao smiles gently and tells me to finish my cup. The language of tea and its taking in some quarters has begun to overshadow the actual visceral enjoyment of leaves, but here it is about the taking, the context, and the generosity. We've barely spoken about the tea at all. He puts the cake away in the box and looks off beyond where the day has faded a little more and I realize that this little bit of tea taking has been all about context and the offering. It is, like so many other great tea times in my past years - that sometimes the most memorable moments with the leaf haven't been with the best tea necessarily. They have been about the sharing, the surroundings, and some context and time. Even the master thinks so.
Try as I might to purchase a cake (or even a chunk of the cake) the offer isn't accepted. He tells me later that, "this is a tea to serve and sip rather than sell".