Within it, our home Qianjiazhai is a protected microclimate that shelters some of the oldest tea trees in the world. We believe that to call a tea “wild,” it should mean no intervention - no planting tea, no watering, no pesticides, no fertilizer and no trimming. We forage tea growing between evergreens, walnut trees and herbs.
We have banded together and formed a small cooperative in order to make a sustainable future for tea in our home, encouraging stewardship of our forest through ownership of the process.
We do not sell to big brands or workshops to blend our leaves with other regions. We sun dry, hand finish and stone press our teas and sell them ourselves to show the community that if we care for the land, it can care for us and provide a better future.
We hope that by tasting our tea you will get a sense of the beauty of the place we call home, and that by respecting our environment and perfecting our craft we will bring Qianjiazhai fame, recognition, and protection for future generations."
Gu Hua is Master Zhou’s favorite tea harvest, a small picking from 100 to about 400 year old tea trees that the cooperative does in early autumn as the weather shifts and the nights are cool again. This tea is rich, fruity, juicy and incredibly sweet. It almost drinks like jasmine tea! The tea flowers add a texture and honeyed sweetness. The tea itself was pressed into a cake in an old-school carved stone mold, weighted with a block. No hydraulic press used here! This means looser compression for even and beautiful aging.
This unique black tea is picked from the early spring leaves and tender buds of the Camellia Crassicolumna tree, a close relative of the tea plant native to Qianjiazhai. Crassicolumna is naturally caffeine-free and high in antioxidants. Since Crassicolumna is native to the Qianjiazhai region, there are many examples of staggeringly old Crassicolumna trees. Mr. Li of the cooperative is actually employed by the local government as an environmental protection officer to make sure these ancient trees are protected from poaching, where outsiders would sneak in in the cover of darkness to cut the tall trees and quickly harvest their precious leaves. Mr. Li has found that the best way to protect the trees is to allow sustainable wild foraging by the people living in the protected region in exchange for their help watching over remote Crassicolumna groves. This extremely rare and labor-intensive to harvest offering is allowed to slowly sun-roast to oxidize and finished as a unique black tea with a rich fruity but wild flavor, all without the caffeine you’d see in camellia sinensis.
Qianjiazhai is a region within the protected Mt. Ailao National Forest Preserve, home to some of the oldest tea trees in the world, and one of the most biodiverse forests of China.
Only families that can trace back their presence in Qianjiazhai for generations have the right to sustainably wild-forage in the National Forest, and the Dongsa Cooperative was formed in large part to coordinate sustainability efforts to protect this special place.
The mountains of Qianjiazhai soar to well over 2000 meters above sea level, creating a cooler climate that’s well-suited for tea. The environment here is so perfect that Qianjiazhai may be one of the ancestral origin points for all tea today; the forests are still some of the most biodiverse for tea in the world, including many close tea-relatives like Camellia crassicolumna.
One of the most powerful protections for the region is it's remote location.
We are almost 20 hours by bus from the nearest airport in Kunming, and then another long day's drive into the mountains. Most of the tea trees we forage require a half days' hike off road. This keeps away development and pollution, and protects us from being taken over by big brands and investors.
Our isolation protects our wild trees, and our self-reliance gives us the will to hand pick and hand finish every batch of precious leaves.
Zhou Baitong is the current organizer for the cooperative, and travels between each family’s remote workshops to learn and then share the skills of picking the right mix of leaf, bud and stem, sun drying, and finishing sheng pu’er, shu pu’er and black tea between all members of the cooperative. He founded the cooperative as a framework to unite families living in isolation on mountain peaks across the region and to provide a better future for the next generation through tea.
Mr. Zhou doubles as the middle school teacher in Jiujia, making sure every child in his classes has the tools to succeed in life with fluency in Mandarin Chinese and all the knowledge they need to go on to high school and college in the nearest city of Zhenyuan and beyond. He believes that a good life for the community is tied to success in education and in tea, and has devoted his life to this cause.
The Li Family lives in one of the most remote mountain townships of all. Mr. Li proudly serves as the environmental conservation officer for the Qianjiazhai region of the Mt Ailao National Forest Preserve. His job is to make sure that neighbors or even outsiders and poachers are not picking from illegal-to-harvest wild Crassicolumna trees to make yabao, and to help safeguard the land for future generations.
Mr. Li’s view on conservation in such a remote region is that it only works if everyone can be enlisted to help the cause through mutual benefit, not fear of punishment. This goal to raise up the region motivates him to teach tea crafting alongside Mr. Zhou, and to allow farmers to forage in small sustainable amounts from the wild old trees that are already growing on their own land, as long as they do not over-pick and help protect their trees from outside poaching.
Mr. Deng is newer to both tea and the cooperative, but joined Master Zhou through shared passion for education. When he was a child, he lived so far from school that it took a full days' hike for him to get to class. His teachers were skeptical he would be able to keep up with the other students, or even afford to keep attending school, but they agreed to let him try.
On his long hikes to school, he picked walnuts all the way into town, and set up to sell the walnuts before and after school. In this way, he was able to raise enough money to stay in classes. At night between school days he slept at school, only returning home once a week.
Mr Deng had to struggle to teach himself reading and writing, but with his knowledge, he started a business picking, roasting and distributing walnuts, and eventually raising the money to establish a new sleep-away elementary school, providing more access to education to children across the region. Now he works with Mr Zhou to reach more remote farmers like himself and teach them tea craft for an even better future.
Here in Qianjiazhai, nature takes care of much of the craft.
Our job is to protect the environment and know when and how to harvest from the wild trees scattered across the mountainsides.
The age of our wild trees gives them very deep roots that take in sweet minerals from the rocky soil, and the biodiversity creates an environment that stimulates deep flavor complexity
Because of the importance of tree age on the flavor of the finished tea, we separate our pickings by tree age, from 100 year tree Gu Hua autumn harvests, all the way to ancient single tree harvests and pressings.
After picking, we spread the leaves thin and allow them to sun dry in the sun. On cooler or cloudy days in the fall, a light firing in a wok helps eliminate moisture more quickly. The key is not using too much heat to avoid the smokey flavor that some young sheng pu’er can have. We store our tea loose for good air flow and aging, only pressing cakes using traditional stone molds as orders come in.
We avoid the use of high heat or machinery, preferring to take the time to let each tiny batch realize its full potential and develop the flavor and complexity that this environment gifts us.
Pu’er is dominated by fakes, big brands and ad money, with the true origins of teas often hidden behind secretive blends and white label wrappers. We are fighting back, selling our tea as a true single origin offering.
We have worked hard with our international partner Verdant Tea to make sure our story is told. If you want the best value in pu’er, buying from real family producers, demand the transparency of photos, video and interviews.
Qianjiazhai is home to some of the oldest tea trees in the world. Once again, we are extremely lucky this year to be able to offer a single-tree harvest from the oldest tree on the Li Family’s high elevation plot, estimated to 1300 years based on its trunk diameter. Located at 24°16'13.6"N and 101°12'19.6"E, this single tree needs to be carefully climbed to sustainably harvest about ten kilograms of leaf per year. Growing out of a rocky mountainside, and surrounded by a biodiverse wild growth of evergreens, tulsi plants and flowers, this tree benefits from cool misty air, and mineral-rich soil. It takes three people with linked arms to circle the trunk! The deep roots and thousand plus years of fighting for survival give this tea an incredible complexity full of yun cooling sensation and aloeswood incense undertones. The Li Family works with Master Zhou to dry this tea in bamboo baskets in the sun, and hand finish the maocha for traditional stone pressing. Even within a microclimate like Qianjiazhai, each mountaintop and valley has its own unique qualities, and the cooperative selected this tree as worthwhile to finish separate from their blended cakes to show off the stunning terroir and the complexity that is possible with ancient tree stock. Set aside a few cakes for aging and the yun cooling and tingling qualities continue to develop over the years. We’ve been following this tree for years now and have been blown away with the development we see in cellaring.