The world of Chinese tea is at once easily accessible and nearly impossible to fully grasp. Even when choosing one specific variety — such as southwest China's famous Pu'er tea (普洱茶) — the permutations, growing conditions and serving methods appear endless. For more than three generations, the Shi family has sought to find a subtle balance between obsessive connoisseurs and the newly initiated, while sourcing the finest leaves from the prefectures of southern Yunnan.
Tea has been drunk in China for a few thousand years, although no one knows explicitly when the practice began. Chinese myth points to the demigod Shennong (神农) as the godfather of tea drinking, while DNA analysis suggests the first strain ever to be cultivated — Camellia sinensis — was endemic to portions of modern-day Myanmar, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and put into cultivation about 3,000 years ago.
Over time, of course, tea became China's drink of choice — as ubiquitous as water, steeped in history and available in a dazzling array of flavors. For families such as the Shis, tea is as much a philosophy as it is a product. Without being too trite, it influences the quality and tenor of their lives. This is a fact borne out not only monetarily, but on a daily and seasonal basis.
"Tea can become a discipline that fosters an unhurried temperament while encouraging psychological introspection," says Ms Shi. She is the head a family tea business in southern Yunnan called Gift from the Forest Teas (森之馈). The origin of the business grew out of her experiences more than 20 years ago, when an adolescent Ms Shi and her grandfather would hike through the rainforests of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) in search of wild tea trees — some of them centuries old. After collecting enough leaves, they would return home and carefully prepare the forest-gathered tea.
While this preparation process is at least a few centuries old — varying from village to village and sometimes house to house — today everyone in China knows the end result is one of the country's most sought-after tea varieties, Pu'er. The method Shi learned from her grandfather, at its most basic, is fairly simple — pick, sort, clean, sun-dry, hand-rub, dry by roasting, shape into a desired shape, wrap in banana leaves and allow to ferment in the sun.
For Shi this process is by now ingrained and intuitive. But the science of making high-quality Pu'er tea involves careful temperature modulation, the precise stimulation of enzymes and perfect timing. "To me," she explains, "the procedure involves going through the required and proper motions, but also necessitates personal ethics and aesthetics. You have to use your hands. This is paramount."
And so each spring and autumn, Ms Shi can be found traveling the Yunnan countryside in search of small-hold, forest-based farms that live up to her expectations. She focuses almost entirely on areas in Lincang (临沧), Pu'er, Yiwu (易武) and the slopes of Bulang Mountain.
Local weather conditions — temperature, humidity, sunlight and rainfall levels — factor into the job of selection, as do soil quality, elevation, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. "All of these considerations affect the taste and quality of tea," she says. "You cannot violate the basic laws of nature. Ecosystems need to be left in as much of a natural state as possible, and the most important thing is that the plants are free from pollution."
With such an emphasis placed on natural growing conditions, Ms Shi has become concerned with conservation efforts. The south and southwest regions of Yunnan are some of the most biodiverse in China, and she is extremely cognizant of this fact as she sources her tea. While describing her company's ethos of preservation, Ms Shi explains:
A farmer cannot over-prune or stress the plants. Things have to be done as they were traditionally. At Gift from the Forest we stress that if there is no forest, there is no vegetation, and if there is no vegetation, there is no tea to drink. It's as simple as that.
To that end, Ms Shi and her family have kept their operation fairly small, specializing in the sale of choice teas grown and prepared in a very specific manner. For more than three decades the market for Pu'er and other high-end teas from Yunnan has grown exponentially. In China and elsewhere, connoisseurship has become a badge of elevated social standing and refinement, which in turn has pushed demand ever higher.
The market for teas grown in Yunnan is now awash in mass-produced Pu'er knock-offs, outright fakes, and also characterized by massively fluctuating prices. But for Ms Shi, the challenges of authenticity are worth the effort. The reward, she says, comes when sharing a cup of tea with old acquaintances or a new client who is just learning. "Watching a tea's second life — the one it lives in a cup — is my favorite thing."
Asked if she thinks sometimes Pu'er can be romanticized a bit too much, Ms Shi is quick to respond. "But it is romantic!" she says. "Watching the colors evolve from cup to cup, and tasting the flavors build and transform between infusions — enjoying it with friends and feeling the connection to our heritage — that's romance."
To see the full range of Gift from the Forest products, check out their online Taobao store or add them on WeChat by searching 345790189. Ms Shi, who speaks some English, is also available through Skype ID 'shijuelu', at email address puqiu1988[at]sina[dot]com or by calling (086) 13888917289.
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