Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What defines a tea?

There are hundreds of different names for tea : Darjeeling muscatel, Bi Luo Chun, Tie Guan Yin, Hojicha,  Pu-erh, Bai Mu Dan, Tai Ping Hou Kui, Dong Ding, Dong Fang Mei Ren, Gyokuro, etc…
Just like the classification of European wines, this system requires a lot of knowledge; you have to learn about the specifications of each tea one by one.

I would like to give a simpler approach to tea. By focusing on the aspects which have the most influence on the taste of tea, you will be able to have a rough idea of what the tea will taste like just by looking at the leaves.

Early Spring 2014 Jingmai tea

First, let’s start with things that are not obvious to see: the cultivar. Apart from Pu-erh tea, most of the teas come from selected tea trees. For example, Tie Guan Yin comes from a specific cultivar, its processing is the same as many Taiwanese high mountain teas. Tea trees are mostly selected for the taste of their leaves, and to a minor extent for their capacity to resist certain disease or cope with frost.

There are two main varietals: sinensis and assamica, also called China and Assam or big and small leaf varietal. Generally speaking, var sinensis has small leaves, a low yield, a better resistance to low temperatures and more fragrant leaves than var assamica, which is a more robust varietal. Their main botanical difference is that sinensis is a shrub: it grows many small branches from the ground, assamica is a tree, it grows a single trunk and grows taller. The difference in leaf size can be confusing because there is a middle ground where leaves could come either from sinensis or assamica. There are also wild varietals such as Camellia taliensis in South East Asia or Camellia formonensis in Taiwan.

China varietal in Pandam Tea Estate, Darjeeling

Assam varietal in Pandam Tea Estate, Darjeeling
The harvest time, altitude and agricultural techniques have influence on the strength of tea because the tea leaves will make different amounts and types of chemical compounds according to the environment conditions: temperature, sunlight,  nutrient and water availability, presence of some insects…
Finally, the leaf grade has a big influence on the tea quality. More buds give lighter and more fragrant tea, while older leaves give a stronger brew with more bitterness and astringency. Tea with lots of buds is more expensive because it takes more time to pick, but it’s not necessarily the tea you’ll like most, some people, including me, prefer 1 bud/2 leaves tea over single buds or 1bud/1 leaf. A high amount of tea stalks makes tea sweeter.

A good tea starts in the field, but its quality is glorified in the factory, the large variety of taste is obtained thanks to many different processing techniques. However, those techniques have an impact on a couple of factors only, which I’m going to detail now.
The oxidation state might remind you of your worst cramming time at university, trying to understand organic chemistry. Tea has many polyphenols, which are (in)famous for having many possible oxidation states. Simply put, the more oxygen atoms attached to a molecule, the more oxidized it is (dear chemist readers, I’m sorry for taking such shortcuts!). The more oxidized a tea, the darker it is, note that most of the teas being black, green or wulong, they are solely differentiated by their oxidation state.  I’m not going to go into further details on what happens in the leaves, but oxidation state of tea can be influenced by heat treatment (pan frying or steaming) and aging (especially in Pu-erh teas and white tea).

Experimenting with oxidation

Roasting is another way to make a tea darker and enrich its flavor profile. Just like coffee, some teas are roasted, a chemical reaction occurs and the leaves get darker, this is the same process that makes meat turn dark when you cook it, it is called the Maillard reaction. Roasted tea leaves have a hard time unfolding when they are brewed, this is because the leaf cells are damaged during the process and probably stick together. It also brings out more astringency because as some cells burst, more chemical compounds will be released during the steeping.

Most of the teas are rolled, some of them so heavily that the leaves are broken during the process, just like many Darjeeling teas. During the rolling process, the cell walls are broken; just like roasting, this allows more chemical compounds to be released during the brew. Heavily rolled teas pack a punch in the first brews but struggle after a couple of infusions. They tend to be more bitter and astringent; this is what gives “briskness” to the Indian teas.

Heavily rolled tea

Finally, tea can have added flavor, wanted or not. Smokiness or off-flavors are generally considered as flaws but can be desirable traits. Mixing fragrant flowers such as jasmine is a traditional way to bring more fragrance to the tea leaves. More modern techniques involve the spraying of artificial flavors or essential oils.

To summarize, if you want to know what kind of tea you’re dealing with, try to know which cultivar it comes from, in which conditions it was grown, when it was harvested, look at how dark the leaves are, check if the leaves seem roasted, oxidated, heavily rolled or broken. And more importantly, enjoy your tea session.

Tea makers don’t see each tea categories as independent. In the field and factory, you can virtually make an infinite number of different teas because you can always do something more or less: weathering, rolling, frying, roasting, drying… These are slides, not switches. Knowing this, debating about whether Darjeeling tea is black or wulong tea then becomes irrelevant. A name is only an approximation; the real thing is what you get in the cup.  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Organic matter

In my last post, I talked about the importance of a good soil structure for having a high fertility. Another very important factor is the percentage of organic matter present in your soil.
Organic matter is essentially made of carbon, the atom that defines life. Carbon is the basic unit of all living things, from bacteria to humans. As Antoine Lavoisier said: “in Nature, nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed”.  I’m going to talk about the fate carbon and why it matters in agriculture.

A diverse landscape in Mengsong, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan.

When the leaves fall off the trees, they accumulate on the ground and for litter. After a while, the action of small animals, fungi and bacteria will transform the litter in humus: a dark material made of unrecognizable remnants of leaves, dead microorganisms and animal feces (yes, you’re walking on poo every day!). The difference between humus and litter is the stage of decay at which they are, but the limit is not very clear.

Litter is organic matter which is being eaten by microorganisms, it is transforming, typically the colorful fallen leaves cover that you can see in the forests during Autumn. Litter is the main source of food for the soil animals and microorganisms. Worms feed on litter, their presence in the soil will guarantee a good soil structure because they spend their life digging tunnels. They eat litter and digest it into smaller particles. Nematodes are very tiny round worms, barely noticeable with the naked eye, they will continue the job and eat smaller pieces. Fungi and bacteria eventually degrade organic matter into humus.

Jingmai Ancient Tea Gardens have a thick litter thanks to the big trees.

Humus is organic matter that has reached its final stage of decay, it is almost as stable as stone, it is what’s left after microorganisms have eaten everything. Humus mixes with the soil particles (sand, silt and clay), this is what makes your soil more or less dark.  It is important to have a lot of organic matter in the soil because it increases the water and nutrients capacity of the soil, the fridge is bigger!
Not only the fridge gets bigger as humus is produced, but it is also steadily filled. If organic matter is mostly made of carbon, it also contains nutrients very useful for the plants: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium… It works as if you were demolishing a house: you couldn’t reuse the concrete, but you could recycle the copper from your electric wires and use it in a new house. Nature works the same, as matter decays, nutrients are made available to the plants.

The soil in Jingmai has a dark color, it is rich in organic matter.

Chemical fertilizers are very handy for the farmers because they are much lighter than organic manure, you need to add up to a hundred times less of for the same amount of nutrients. This is one of the main reasons why they are widely used in the world, from large scale industrial farms to smallholders who don’t have a tractor. They have been the cornerstone of the Green Revolution.

However, their use on the long term creates a major problem: soil degradation. A soil is always degraded because of rain, wind and chemical processes. In order to compensate the losses, you have to continuously add things; this is especially true when it comes to organic matter. After several years without adding organic matter, the soil structure is impacted; it is more vulnerable to weathering and has poorer nutrient and water retention capacity. In other words, you have plenty of food, but your fridge is very small… 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

For a fertile soil...

For a long time, soil has been seen as a simple support. The philosophy of conventional agriculture is to give each problem its solution: if there isn't enough nutrient, you add fertilizer, if there isn't enough water, you add irrigation and if there's a pest attack, you spray pesticides. In conventional farming, the soil is adapted to the crop by using a variety of inputs. 

Agroceology takes a different approach. The soil is the most important part of the field because many ecological processes occur in it. Changing your agricultural practices will affect those natural processes which will change your soil and create a positive or negative dynamics. Conventional agriculture focuses on the present and neglects those long-term evolutions, this is why soil degradation occurs in many place: because of a poor management of the ecological processes, the soil was kept in a vicious circle for years. The yield was not affected because the loss in soil quality was compensated by extra inputs added. Farming on a degraded soil is possible but it requires an intensive management because everything has to be brought. 

Irrigated and heavily pruned tea trees
A good soil can store nutrients and water, the main things plants need to grow. One of our teacher says "soil is to water what the fridge in your house is to you, and you prefer it big and full of good stuff". Some soils are better than others naturally, because of their texture. Soil has particles of different size, from big chunks of sand to tiny pieces of clay. The smaller the particles, the better the soil can keep things in it, therefore, a clay soil is generally preferred to a sandy soil. The soil texture cannot be changed by agriculture, it would mean bringing tons of new material and it is very unpractical.

However, the structure of the soil is very dependent on what people do on the soil. The structure means how the particles are organised. You want the soil to be bulky enough so that it won't fly away with wind and but not too compacted in order to offer a maximum surface contact between the soil particles and the air. That way, you can store much more nutrients and water : the fridge gets bigger.

The soil is so loose in some parts of Jingmai mountain that heavy rains give that hilly shape to the surface.

In agriculture, the main problem is compaction : it occurs when you use tractors or when you and your cows walk on the field. It is possible to loosen the soil by digging it, but this is hard manual labor. Small dudes can do the job for free : worms. As worms crawl through the soil, they dig galleries that will loosen the soil and therefore improve its structure. This is one of the main reasons why soil life is important.

Ants contribute to the soil structure

With a good structure, plants will grow roots easily and a special kind of fungi called mycorrhiza will fix on the roots and grow a network of filaments that will help the plants catch nutrients. In exchange, the fungi can take carbon from the plant to feed itself. This is one of the great mutualistic relationships known in Nature. It is believed that without mycorrhizae, the nutrient catching capacity of many plants would be severely reduced.

We should think about the soil first, and the crop second. A fertile soil is the guarantee of good yields on the long run. By improving soil life, we can improve the soil structure and therefore increase its fertility. 

Manual weeding as part of an experiment in Jingmai natural tea gardens

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why Pu-erh tea could be cheaper in 2015

As we all know, the price of Pu-erh tea has been steadily increasing in the past decade. The crash of 2007 is seen as a detail in the Pu-erh's race to become China's most famous and pricey tea.

Since last Summer, there are a lot of discussions among the tea merchants. The investors are getting timorous. Who might reverse the trend in Pu-erh price evolution ? Xi Jinping of course !

The recently appointed Chinese president has taken serious measures to tackle corruption in the country. He wants to hunt down the corrupted « tigers and flies », and even though some analysts explain his motivation is to eliminate his political rival, the threat of being caught in an act of corruption has become very real in the government circles.

Pu-erh tea is an excellent gift in China, from a simple Dayi 7542 to a premium Lao Ban Zhang cake. A good cake can be the key to a signed contract, a construction permit or a business licence. But in those troubled times, it is unwise to accept gifts. Government officials are being watched and Big Brother Xi is waiting for them to commit a mistake. Hence, a decrease in demand should be expected.

This is good news for the average drinker, it seems in the past year, the high-end Pu-erh tea trade has been dominated by the rich, and I would love to be able to offer Yiwu or Lao Man E tea on Bannacha at a good price.

Yet, uncertainty remains, the Pu-erh tea market remains unfathomable, everybody was expecting a price drop in Autumn 2014, but it didn't happen. This year, prices in the mountain started lower than last year, but now that the customers have come to the mountain, they are back to their Spring 2014 level, at least they are not higher !

However, a more certain fact is that the euro is at its weakest while there is no change for the dollar against the yuan. Probably if something happens in the Pu-erh tea market, it will be in the next weeks, during the Spring harvest, but my guess is that if there is a price drop, it will be a small one, nothing like the 2007 crash.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The story of Bannablog and its future

Dear tea community, it's been a long time I haven't posted new articles on this blog.

I started Bannablog in Summer 2010, shortly after I bought my first camera. At the time, I was 19 and had just moved in Xishuangbanna, in the South of Yunnan, China. After high school, I decided to spend a year in China to fulfill my passion : tea. I spent six months in Kunming to learn the basics of Chinese and make my first contacts in the tea world. The purpose of my stay in Xishuangbanna was to explore the famous tea mountains and learn about Pu-erh tea growing and processing. I also wanted to understand how the tea farmers live in rural China.

Man Nuo, in the North of Menghai. My first tea trip with a camera.

Back in 2010, Xishuangbanna was very different from now, it was quite a remote region. I made friends with farmers I have seen change over time. Some of them were poor at the time, and they have now become very wealthy thanks to the tea business. Some had big projects, but life hasn't granted them success yet. Many people I used to hang out with now have children. Besides tea, I feel I have learned a lot about life during my stay there.

The blog was very active at this time, I used to post once a week, between two tea trips. I had plenty of time and only tea on my mind. Each visit to a tea mountain felt like a whole adventure and I keep many good memories from that time.
Hunting birds in the jungle near Gua Feng Zhai in Yiwu mountain

After six months in Xishuangbanna, my next stop on the tea road was India. New culture, new approach to tea. As I moved to this country, I stopped blogging, I had other things in mind and I wanted my blog to stay focused on Chinese Pu-erh tea anyway. I visited Darjeeling, but I was out of luck : the factories were on strike because of separatists movements. I collected many pictures and information but didn't process them well enough to write about them. However, this visit broadened my vision of tea, I found another system in India. The tea industry in Darjeeling is managed by corporations, while most of the tea in Yunnan is made by smallholders. This difference has important social impacts

Darjeeling, on the foothills of Himalaya

Eventually, I went to university. I think taking a break after high school is very beneficial, even though it is very uncommon in France. Still, education is very important in order to get a better understanding of the world and have tools for the mind. Tea is closely linked to Nature, this is why I decided study biology and ecology for my bachelor's degree. I learned a lot of interesting facts about Nature, i love to talk about the diversity of life forms on earth and how they impact each other, I have a preference for insects because they look so cool and funky !

The tea shield bug, one of my favorites!

But tea isn't only about plants, it's actually a link between men and Nature, this is why I didn't graduate from university, instead, I joined an agricultural college in order to learn more about men in addition to Nature. The very outdated French system requires you to prepare for a highly competitive exam similar to the Chinese Gaokao after which your are able to select from the best colleges in France. The work environment is much better than in regular universities because of the smaller number of students in class and I feel this teaching is really helpful for my understanding of tea. We learn how to deal with the complex issues faced by the farmers in impoverished areas. Understanding agriculture requires knowledge in a large variety of subjects : hard and soft science, from physics and chemistry to business and sociology. I love that !

Bannablog hasn't been very active since I have entered agricultural college because the class and student life kept me very busy. Every day, I learn a lot about things related to tea, be it about how plants pump their nutrients or how smallholders adapt to food price fluctuations in Kenya. You can always relate some of that information to the world of tea. I am so grateful to life to be able to learn so many new things !

Currently, I am an exchange student at National Taiwan University in Taipei. It's a great opportunity to learn about agriculture from very interesting professors, open a new window on the world of tea and improve my chinese furthermore.

There is also another thing i haven't mentioned :I have found my love in the name of Yubai (玉摆), a pretty tea girl from Jingmai mountain. We met while I was living in Xishuangbanna, and I have gone back as often as possible to China since then to meet her. We like to travel in the best tea places of Asia. We like to walk in Jingmai ancient tea gardens together, looking for interesting things on the tea trees or in the soil, picking fruits and meeting friends. We like to investigate tea together, improve the farming and processing techniques in her tea farm, conduct and monitor experiments... After I graduate, Yubai and I want to live together, we have bigger projects with tea that I will detail later on.

You are more and more buying tea on, I am happy to see that many people like our tea selection. Bannacha is only the first step towards more ambitious goals. Our aim is to bring the consumers closer to the tea producers. I feel our society lives in a more and more virtual environment, made of electronic stimuli and concrete blocks. Our busy life lets us few time to remember how connected to the soil our existence is. I believe that this connection can be re-established through a cup of tea. Tea can have such a diversity of tastes thanks to the natural processes that occur during its growth, processing and storage. We want to give you the opportunity to make that connection, and for that, we sell tea leaves. We also want you to have access to information about these leaves, we hope you will then feel closer to the tea gardens, more connected to Nature.

This blog is not an advertising platform for my online tea shop. The main goal of bannablog is to share my ideas with you, dear readers. In the following weeks, I will write articles about tea with a focus on agriculture and nature. You are welcome to leave comments or to send me emails, I am always happy to discuss tea with fellow drinkers.  

Thank you!