By: Augustus Rushing
Greetings tea enthusiasts, my name is Augustus Rushing — you may know me as the general manager at Dobrá Tea in West Asheville. This last spring I had the privilege of traveling to a few famous tea producing areas in China: Wuyishan in Fujian province, several tea mountains in Xishuangbanna of Yunnan province, and Meng Ding Mountain in Sichuan province.
While in subtropical Xishuangbanna — the “birthplace of tea” to which Camellia sinensis is native — my partner and I met an amazing woman who owns ancient tea tree gardens in Nannuoshan and produces her own puerh tea from it. Because of their deep root systems and resilience, ancient tea trees sometimes hundreds of years of age known as 古树 gǔshù, are acclaimed for producing tea with attributes such as robust chi with more nutrition, flavor, fragrance, and an ability to be brewed many times, extending the tea session. Her name is 达娥 Dá é (pronounce it!) and her ancestors were farmers of these tea trees, her parents used to sell this quality leaf material to the original Menghai Tea Factory, and she herself began producing tea from these ancient trees in 2003 in addition to stewarding them.
Dá é grew up on the southern end of Nannuoshan, but as she showed us around, it was clear she knew just about everyone on the mountain. She owns a carwash and her two sons love basketball. Most of the time she spoke to her folks in their native Dai language. She was a far cry from the typical machismo tea patriarch of China just there to stoically do the deals. With her connections, Dá é served us up a surreal experience by taking us to Lao Banzhang – one of the most acclaimed and remote puerh producing villages – all while adamantly refusing my attempts at paying for our meals in Menghai. My partner bestowed to her an heirloom stone of hers with blessings of good fortune, and in return, over shared tears, Dá é gifted her a traditional Dai satchel that her grandmother embroidered.
This tea was produced in the spring of last year, 2018, and is a raw, or shēng style puerh tea, a traditional style of puerh that highlights the richness and unique tasting attributes of the mountain terroir. This style of puerh is revered as superior by most Yunnanese and precedes the advent of cooked; ripe; shóu puerh style. The leaves are from shítou zhài 石头寨 (lit. “stone village”) ancient tree gardens of southern Nannuo (elevation 5,500 feet; about the height of Mt. Pisgah!) of which Dá é and her brothers and sisters have rights to around 150 acres. Unlike other styles of tea, puerh is often appreciated aged (stored 10+ years). The first year after it is pressed the tea evolves the most – so these cakes have a bit of a headstart – though I actually prefer sheng puerh as is; young; relatively unaged.
The process of producing shēngchá is relatively simple, but not easy. The basics are that one bud and three to four leaves are plucked, set out to wither to reduce moisture, carefully cooked in a wok to only partially stop the process of oxidation (at about half the temperature of a standard green tea shā qīng), pressure rolled to further degrade the cell walls & release liquids for more readily accessible flavor, then thoroughly sun dried. Pressing into cakes is optional, and is traditional when the tea will travel and/or age for later consumption, giving way to its reputation as “the drinkable antique” 可以喝的古董 kěyǐ hē de gǔdǒng
Most visitors to Xishuangbanna don’t make it out of Jinghong city without spending a fat wad on a guide for a preplanned trip. Humbled and confused, I can’t help but feel that this experience was meant to be. So, in equal parts am I floored that we happened upon such fortuitous waves to ride that led us to experience and now source this exceptional gem of a tea as I am honored to participate in reciprocity by presenting my friend’s tea to a new audience: the folks of Asheville and beyond.
The process of acquiring this tea has not been easy! This is Dá é’s first international sale, having only sold to local tea merchants who will then distribute to a Chinese domestic market. I spent many hours on WeChat (China’s main social media platform) talking details and finally walking through the hairy steps of sending a few kilos’ weight of precious cargo out of a remote Chinese post office around the world to Asheville. I’m so stoked it’s here.
It is my sincere hope that you get to try this tea – come in to either of our locations and taste, smell, listen, & feel this tea with your body. It’s a rare treat and it is a premiere example of quality puerh from Nannuoshan as well as Yunnan province tea.
They say the best tea doesn’t make it out of China; that the domestic market gets it all. Not this time.
taste Dá é’s tea & other Dobrá puerh offerings while learning about this special ancient style of tea in my in-person class here