Black tea from one of the best artisan crafters in Yunnan with strong notes of grape, and a tingling spicy warmth. . . .
Pictured Above: Master Han picking leaves in the canopy of a tea tree, Qianjiazhai region
Master Han is a remarkably talented crafter of wild picked pu'ers and black teas whose workshop and ancient plot of tea forest is an hour's walk to the nearest gravel road in a national forest preserve. We were lucky enough to meet him at his first tea conference. Tucked away in a hidden corner behind slick modern displays with uniformed reps from Xiaguan and Menghai, Master Han and his young apprentice seemed apprehensive about the operation. We were on our way to a panel on gongfu brewing when the sheer beauty of a bag of his wild-picked black tea caught us in our tracks.
Smelling like the fields of terraced grapes in the Himalyan foothills of Yunnan, and like the wild fir tree forests near the Tibetan borderlands after a wet rain, this tea was calling out to us. When we asked Master Han if we could try it, he was surprised. We were the first people to stop and ask him any questions all day. He pulled out a shoebox full of polaroid pictures of his secret plot in the forest, pictures of him climbing trees and rolling leaves, explaining that he and a few apprentices crafted their tea for the local market in Mengsong village nearby, and had been inspired to share beyond Yunnan after a friend connected them with the tea conference organizers.
He packed an yixing clay teapot full to the top with leaves and poured us cups of the golden liquor. The taste was startlingly complex- more like a sheng pu'er in dimension than any black tea we had tried before. The thick linen-like mouthfeel distinct to Yunnan was strong, but the tip of the tongue was all wine-grapes and the bursting sweetness of biting into a honeycrisp apple. It was hard to even concentrate on the conversation with the intense warm aftertaste on the sides of the tongue.
The later steepings unfolded with a unique malty spiciness best compared to unfiltered Italian olive oil on crisp sourdough bread. The malty notes combine with the apple and grape to evoke specifically the rich dark concord grape. The aftertaste grows bright like a younger highland single malt scotch and lingers like coconut flesh. The tingling on the tongue and uniquely potent energy or chaqi we were left with was incredible.
While we drank tea with Master Han and discussed our mutual love of the wild flavor of Yunnan, an important-looking businessman approached and asked if he could wholesale the tea in Shandong. Master Han looked at him carefully and said that the tea wasn't for sale. "He didn't even want to try it. I'm not sending half my harvest to someone who isn't interested in tea." We were terrified to ask if we could share his tea after that, but as we were leaving he sent us off with bags of samples and his phone number to stay in touch. With a little logistical help from Weiwei to get this tea out of the forests and on an airplane for America, we are extremely excited to represent Master Han to some of the first outside of Mengsong Village to try his master work. Enjoy!
Date of Picking:2012
Location of Picking:Qianjiazhai forest region near Mengsong Village, Xishuangbanna. Altitude 2100 meters.
What Was Picked:Large silvery buds and leaves from old tea trees
Quantity Acquired:Our initial purchase was 18 pounds.
Sourcing Agent(s):David and Lily Duckler at Master Han's first tea conference. Master Han is a member of the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers' Cooperative
Brewing Golden Fleece, a similarly wild-picked Yunnan Black
Gongfu Brewing: Use 4g of leaves for a 5-6oz gaiwan or yixing pot. Heat the gaiwan or pot with boiling water and pour out. Add leaves, rinse leaves with boiling water for less than a second. Use this steeping to heat cups and pour over yixing. Steep each round for 2-3 seconds, increasing time by 3 seconds each steeping after the third steeping. Enjoy at least 15 infusions.
Western Brewing: Use two heaping teaspoons of leaves per cup of water. Steep in a brew basket or loose in a pot to give the leaves plenty of room to expand. If possible avoid tea balls or paper filter bags. Steep for one minute with filtered boiling water and remove leaves or pour off water. Save the leaves. Enjoy at least 4 infusions, increasing steep time with each infusion.