Is the Same Tea Really the ‘Same’ Tea?

With the rush of new spring 2017 tea just a few short weeks away it’s a good time to discuss something which I think speaks to many tea enthusiasts – how to get the best tea for your money from a a crowded marketplace of variously priced teas that appear to be the ‘same’ thing.


Tea producers have an equally daunting task of pricing each and every production run of tea, and in the case of Chinese green tea, for instance, an excess of warm weather can increase the speed with which tea leaf grows in the first few weeks of the harvest. When the weather fails to cooperate, the amount of time for plucking tender bud-only teas may quickly vanish, even before enough of these teas are made.

When this happens tea producers will switch to plucking the next leaf configuration known as a mao feng ( two leaves and a bud) and make tea with it. So the tea in the baskets at the end of the day in the tea factory may be a different pluck from what they had in mind at the beginning of the day. For all tea, the quantity produced as well as the quality of each batch will factor into the price of those batches of tea. So the price of the bud-only tea will reflect a shortage of that tea for the year.

yel-mengmt_sb2-03bea932And so it goes – adjustments to the plucking style are made each and every day as the leaf grows larger. This gives tea producers many choice teas with both small and large grades of differences to sell. Each small batch will most likely have a different price, too.

Tea merchants, on the other hand, have the equally daunting task of finding the right grades of tea to satisfy their customers. The retail cost of any tea is directly related to what the tea merchant paid for the tea, plus a small amount added in to cover freight costs. Tea merchants purchase their teas from a variety of trusted sources – some purchase directly from origin, others from tea importers of varying sizes (in the US) and others from wholesalers (in the US) who purchase teas from larger tea importers. This range of sourcing options can present tea merchants with a dizzying choice of tea in many grades and prices.


So what savvy tea enthusiasts need to realize is this: all tea is not created equally, even when it has the ‘same’ name. Nor is all tea sold equally fresh and sound or from the same plucking season or year.While this may be quite obvious to some, we know from experience that there are plenty of tea drinkers out there who don’t see the correlation between grade and price, and erroneously believe that all tea with the same name is the ‘same’ tea.

Some tea merchants sell consistently high quality tea and others do not – it all depends on their attitude about tea and the teas they select. If you only frequent shops that sell low-priced tea and shun those you fear are over-priced, you may be cheating yourself out of drinking really good tea. Low priced tea will never be good value in the long run.


There is frequent complaining in the tea-o-sphere about the price of tea. Of course, those who are complaining about price usually believe that all prices are too high and that every tea vendor is an evil devil who is out to flinch their tea customers. Honestly, while there is some pretty bad tea being bandied about the internet (and that is something to complain about at any price) and a few merchants who mark their tea up to atmospheric levels, the market is self-policing.

So those serious about staying in business know that today’s transparency on the internet will cast them in a poor light. So, overall, I think the problem is not as great as it is made out to be. I sometimes think that posts like the aforementioned are designed simply to attract readership and cause a tempest in the teapot. It’s a known fact that sensational reviews and posts that rant and rave attract more attention than less flammable opinion does. Grousing is in – in fact, it has now become a sport for some!

So rather than have customers fixate on price, we believe that tea enthusiasts should think more about how to get the best tea that their money can buy. Which is not the same as searching for the lowest price. As shoppers, we need to think more like investors, and expect for ROI – return on investment on our purchases.

Thin-Client-Return-on-InvestmentWhat is ROI on tea? Imagine that you purchased 4 packages of Keemun Congou tea from 4 different tea vendors. You steep each tea fairly and uniformly with the same steeping parameters, and rate the teas on the following points. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction that you received from each tea in relationship to the price is the ROI value. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction is a measure of:

  • satisfaction with the taste/flavor/aromatics in the cup
  • freshness of taste/flavor/aroma
  • degree of seasonal flavor characteristics
  • sound condition and good appearance of the leaf
  • tasty-ness in relation to price

Ideally, you want to find tasty tea at a price you can afford – the teas that give you, well, the best bang for the buck. You might end up deciding you prefer the most expensive tea, or if the most expensive tea is 2 x the cost of another selection but only a little bit better tasting, then the less costly tea may be the best ROI for you.

How to find teas with the best ROI? Our suggestion is to invest a little money in your future tea drinking this spring (when the fresh teas start arriving) and order the ‘same’ tea from several tea vendors. Do this with 3-4 teas and order the ‘same’ teas from at least 4-5 tea merchants. This will cost you a bit of money, but what you discover will be well worth it.


After you conduct your steeping/tasting experiment, you will most likely find that there is a pattern to the quality of tea each tea merchant sells. Tea vendors position themselves quality-wise, so you will find that some tea will be great, and some, just so-so. Reliable tea shops maintain a discernible level of quality because they know what they want in their teas and stay true to these principles.

And this is what tea enthusiasts should look for – a tea shop or online tea vendor that has a well-thought out selection of good, sound tea that turns over seasonally and stays fresh because it sells. Because in truth, great teas do not pop up in unlikely places. Most know that Walmart is not the place to go to purchase handcrafted goods, nor is Whole Foods the right place to purchase distressed food.

The same holds true for tea. The shop that sold you some 2-year old green tea, and some saw-dusty black tea will not be the place to find a mind-blowing Fenghuang dan cong.Choose Two-Way Road Sign - Isolated

OK, so what factors do tea sellers consider (and you should think of these, too) when purchasing tea to sell? The factors that affect grade/price:

  • season of the year and time frame within the season for teas made in the same year
  • age and condition of the tea (if it is an aged tea)
  • the leaf pluck of the tea (bud most expensive; bud and leaf next most costly; bud and two leaves next most costly)
  • amount of hand-work involved in shaping and firing the leaf
  • condition of the leaf
  • quantity of that tea produced
  • the taste/flavor and aroma of the tea

Let’s again use Keemun Congou, a popular Chinese black tea, as an example. Most producers of Keemun sell their tea in 3 categories with 3 price points in each category for a total of 9 different grades of quality.

So, at the retail level the grade of Keemun will account for big differences in the price of the tea. The cost may double, triple or quadruple per kilo from common grades to the highest grade of premium Keemun.  Keemun  Congou has 9 grades for teas – this does not include other Keemun-related tea such as Keemum Mao Feng or Keemun Hong Xiang Luo, which have their own set of grades and price points. And tea workers like to show off their tea making skills by finessing more and more differences from those tiny tea leaves. So it is not uncommon for small batches of special production Keemun to be outside of the normal grading standards.

Tea producers usually assign letters or numbers to their grades such as Grade A or #1 Grade, but sometimes also use terms such as premium grade, superfine grade, Emperor grade, superior grade, etc. While these can be legitimate grades, these terms may also become diluted when they are used indiscriminately by some tea vendors. On the retail level many Keemun Congous are not sold with a known grade. If the specific details about different Keemun Congous are unknown, you should assume that these are most likely very different teas that merit the taste test to ferret out the best ones.


Chinese spring green teas are manufactured in even more grades and price points, adding a greater level of complexity and confusion for consumers. But there are some clues given at will be of some help in evaluating the quality of spring teas, and these are:

  • season of the pluck (when plucked)
  • where the tea is from (place)
  • configuration of the pluck ( bud, mao jian, mao feng, etc)

Each spring, tea from the new harvest year is sold by tea producers in one of 4 categories based on seasonal divisions/pluck time. Sometimes these markers of pluck time are given for certain teas:

  • Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea (plucked before April 5th)
  • Before the Rains or Yun Qian tea (plucked before April 20th)
  • Spring tea or Gu Yu tea (plucked before May 6th)
  • Late Spring or Li Xia tea (plucked before May 21st)

Each seasonal division has several grades of quality, too. The earliest plucked tea within the division and the most perfect leaf will be the most costly. For XiHu Longjing, a very famous and popular tea worldwide, there are four designated places where authentic Longjing (based on tea bush varietal) is grown: Shi Feng, Meijiawu Village, Weng-jia Shan and West Lake Village. Last year, the 8 grades of XiHu Longjing were listed, as well as the occasional special batch and competition-grade teas.

  • AAA Jing Pin: 100% bud and 1 leaf
  • AA Te Ji: 70% bud and 1 leaf; 30% 1 bud and 2 leaves
  • 1 st Grade: 70 % 1 bud and 2 leaves; 30% 1 bud and 1 leaf
  • 2nd Grade
  • 3rd Grade
  • 4th Grade
  • 5th Grade
  • 6th Grade


Lastly, for an even more complex listing of grading/pricing, consider a very well-known
yan cha or rock oolong tea – Da Hong Pao. Prices for this tea can range wildly, as can its authenticity, proving a thorny issue for tea merchants. This is an example of last year’s production grades and not counting special small batches; traditional charcoal roasting or not; amount of roasting; new or aged tea; blends of Zheng Yan and Ban Yan, etc.:

Zheng Yan – core production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3

Ban Yan – close to original production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5

When purchasing yan cha (or dan cong) remember this: the best ones can cost $1,000 a lb or more in China so are never cheap. The highest grades never leave China. The older these teas are or the rarer the tea bush varietal from which they are made the more expensive they will be. And if these teas have been given a traditional charcoal-roast this will add to the cost as well. Much of the ‘Da Hong Pao’ that is sold in the West is actually Shui Xian – know your vendor!

OK, so before you throw up your hands and say ” What’s a tea drinker to do? ” remember, that the best way to find your way to a clearer path of discernment among tea is to do a little homework and taste a lot of teas to develop your palate.


Keep notes in a book or on your smart phone and educate yourself about the teas you are drinking. Because purchasing tea is not as cut and dry as searching for a specific bottle of a favorite wine by a known producer or finding the brand of chocolate that you like, tea enthusiasts have more work to do to find the right tea vendor for their taste preference and pocketbook. However, once you do, the rewards are tremendous and are well worth the effort required to educate your palate for fine tea.

So, with a new tea season coming, it is time to revel in the fresh new teas that will soon be here. Use a little caution and look for ROI in your tea and you will feel that you have spent your money well for tea that is fresh, tasty and makes you feel good when you drink it. That is the best ROI that we can think of!


Traditional Tea versus Commodity Tea


Our tea is exceptional. We sell traditionally-made teas crafted by experienced tea artisans. Not commodity tea grown by big business. So just what do I mean by traditionally-made tea and commodity tea? Please read on…..


Commodity tea is tea grown by large companies in newly-planted tea fields in areas of the world not usually associated with tea growing and that have no prior tea making history. Conversely, traditionally-made tea relies on well-established methodologies and techniques to do what tea workers and mother nature do best together – make distinctive tea. Traditional tea making utilizes the terroir of each place (soil, geography, climate, weather, etc) and local tea bush cultivars to show a tea garden’s best flavor advantage.

The process of traditional tea making utilizes hundreds of years of knowledge and experience in the crafting of fine tea. No two tea producing countries produce tea the exact same way, and for that we are thankful. It is differences both great and small that give tea a national identity – and many regional differences, too.

Our teas come from China, Japan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Taiwan where traditional tea is made by tea workers who are in harmony with the seasons of the year. They craft teas of exceptional beauty and elegant flavor. We select tea from small family tea farms, small village production, and tightly controlled tea co-operatives. In these gardens, the ability to make great tea is a point of pride for the tea makers, and generations of the same family carry on tea making traditions established by previous generations.

Traditional tea farmers/producers must be in tune with nature and understand the vagaries of weather, soil conditions, how to maintain healthy tea bushes, and how the keen senses of a skilled tea master (sight, smell, touch and hearing ) influence from start to finish the outcome of the finished tea. The livelihood of each family or tea village depends on knowledge of nature and the ability to wrangle with problems and situations that arise during the harvest times. For these people, tea is their life and their life is tea. This accounts for the care and respect they accord their tea.

Traditional tea production is sustainable on many levels.Traditional tea uses methods of pest control ( such as encouraging the presence of birds in the tea gardens and environs and the introduction of plants that discourage the presence of certain pests) and organic farming practices ( soil enrichment, worm production and natural fertilizers made from food sources and manure) that work with nature and not against it. A traditional tea garden does not make use of copious amounts of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

A traditional tea garden is almost always small and is often broken up into patches of tea bushes located here and there. The elevation is high, away from the pests that plague low elevation tea gardens. The garden is comprised of mature tea bushes (which produce the best teas) that are well-adapted to their environment. In such tea gardens local varieties of tea bushes or tea trees will have been growing in that place for decades. This means that the roots of these tea bushes will be well dispersed under and throughout the soil, allowing healthy soil to nurture the bushes through the roots. Local tea bush cultivars add complexity and individuality to finished tea and keep the diversity of taste alive and well from region to region.


In comparison, commodity tea ( or industrial tea, agro business tea, etc ) is just that – intensively grown and frequently harvested leaf that is grown for high harvest yields, not for distinctive flavors or unique qualities. This tea is grown for wholesale packagers of commercial grade tea, flavored tea blends and bottled tea drinks. The goal for Industrial tea producers is low production cost and abundant yield, a combination that does not result in premium quality tea.

Commodity tea is grown in large industrial tea gardens in flat, low-lying agricultural areas in non-historic tea producing countries where tea growing is a relatively new industry. The techniques used are standardized and mechanized – typical of agribusiness agriculture.

Tea gardens such as these exist throughout most of Africa and parts of South America. Whereas most English and Irish tea companies once used China, India, and Ceylon ( Sri Lanka ) teas in their blends, these tea sources have been replaced in the last 20 years by teas grown in newly-planted tea gardens in unusual places. Part of this switch is based on simple supply issues ( there is not enough traditional tea in the world for large companies to use even if they wanted to pay higher prices ) and price issues ( these new modern teas can be grown and harvested at far less cost than traditionally-made tea.

Because there is no rich soil for the plants to depend on, large amounts of pesticides and commercial fertilizers are required to maintain such tea bushes. Because of this artificial condition, the roots of these plants mass together in a ball just under the surface of the soil, which means that what is nourishing the plants is the applied chemicals, not the soil.

There is no sustainability in this scheme – without the continued heavy application of fertilizers there is no ability for the soil to sustain the tea plants. And, there  is no diversity among the tea bushes – all the plants are clones of one type and genetically the same. So, there is no effort made to ensure layers of flavor or subtle differences in these teas.

And lastly, commodity tea has no history, culture, inherited knowledge, high-elevation location, cooling clouds and mist, or moisture-laden weather, seasonal differences, or other historical or cultural elements that are part of traditional tea making culture. It is business-grown tea, pure and simple.

Commodity tea is not the type of tea that we want to drink or sell to our customers. But it is the reason that we are committed to selling traditional tea and supporting the efforts of artisan tea makers who produce delicious, awe-inspiring tea.

So, given the choice, which tea do you want in your teacup?

What’s New? Hei Cha or Dark Tea

Hei Cha


Hei Cha or dark tea is a category of wet-pile, post-fermented Chinese tea that includes shou Pu-erh along with other teas such as Hua Juan, Liu’An, Liubao , Qing Zhuan, and Tian Jian.

Hei Cha is made with large and medium-sized leaf collected from local tea trees and tea bush varietals located in the high mountain areas of their individual production zones. The basic processing method for the various Hei Cha is similar, but exact details vary in each place of origin.

Hei Cha is made from fully oxidized leaf and is therefore classified as ‘black’ tea in China ( which is different than tea classified as ‘red’ tea in the Chinese color scheme of tea ). But Hei Cha is quite different from what tea drinkers in the West know as ‘black’ tea. In dark tea manufacture, oxidized tea leaves undergo a wo dui process – wet fermentation or rapid fermentation – which exposes the leaf to high humidity over a determined period of time in a controlled environment in the tea factory

Some Hei Cha is slowly dried over low pine wood embers, others are not. Hei Cha is dark brown to black in color, and is variously sweet and woodsy, but never astringent. Hei Cha is usually best when it has been aged for several years following production, but it can also be quite delightful and tasty when drunk young. The sweetness of most Hei Cha is a pleasant surprise to many tea enthusiasts.

Searching for Hei Cha one may find Guanxi Heicha, Hunan Heicha, Sichuan Heicha, and Yunnan Heicha. The following teas all fall under the umbrella of the category of Hei Cha:

  • Hunan Hua Juan ( Hunan Province)
  • Liu’An (Anhui Province)
  • Liubao( Guangxi Province)
  • shou Pu-erh ( Yunnan Province)
  • Qing Zhuan ( Hubei Province)
  • Tian Jian ( Hunan Province)

The general descriptions of Liubao, Liu’An, Bai Liang, and Pu-erh may sound similar. But they are each a unique tea and are distinctive one from another. Every type of dark tea is associated with a particular place of origin in China and are not produced anywhere else in China. Each origin has a unique terroir (soil composition, climate, altitude, weather patterns, tea bush variety) which, when coupled with local and regional manufacturing technique (skills and other minutiae involved in developing fresh leaf into finished tea) makes the different types of Hei Cha distinctive.

Production dates are usually given for Hei Cha, and the older the tea is, the more satisfyingly flavorful (and costly) it will be. While Hei Cha have discernible differences, they also have characteristics in common. Most Hei Cha have been made according to traditional methodology for centuries and hold an important place in China’s tea history.

Historically, Hei Cha was made in Hunan, Guanxi and Sichuan, and Yunnan Province and shipped to populations of people living close to China’s borders. Most of these teas were compressed into various shapes – rectangles, squares, round discs (both large and small) – to allow for easy transport over long distances and rough terrain. Hei Cha is still found in these fanciful yet practical shapes today, as well as in a few loose-leaf versions.

Hei Cha is not fancy tea. It is not about stylish, tiny, first-plucked spring tea leaves or skillful hand-rolling techniques or perfect leaf shapes and appearance. But we know it as delicious tea, and its simple, dark, brooding demeanor gives it an intriguing and exotic sense of mystery and adventure. At one time various Hei Cha were the life-blood for millions of tea drinkers both inside and outside of China, and was the only tea accessible to them.

Today, much Hei Cha is still exported, and offers another choice of tea for tea enthusiasts, but it is important in many regions of China. Some Hei Cha, such as Liubao, is made with leaf that is thick and large and has some tea bush stems present. For other Hei Cha such as Hunan Tian Jian ( a loose-leaf Hei Cha ) and FuZhuan and JinHua bricks, the leaf is coarse and stems are quiet numerous. Most Hei Cha will keep and mellow as it ages over time, but will not transform into so completely different a tea as will natural, post-fermentation sheng Pu-erh.

This is the listing of the Hei Cha that we have right now. More different kinds are on the way sometime in the next month or so.To read more about Pu-erh and Hei Cha, or to order tea, please visit our website –

Liubao 2003 Liubao 2003
Pressed in 2001
approx. 100 gr: $20.00
Liubao 2007 Liubao 2007
Pressed in 2005

approx. 100 gr:  $12.00

Liubao 2010 Liubao 2010
Pressed in 2008

approx. 100 gr:  $9.00

Liubao Jin Hua Brick 2008 Liubao Jin Hua Brick 2008
Pressed in 2006
approx. 400 gr: $18.00

Book Review: TEA HORSE ROAD: China’s Ancient Trade Route to Tibet

TEA HORSE ROAD: China’s Ancient Trade Route to Tibet

by Selena Ahmed and Michael Freeman, River Books Press (2011)

340 pages, 276 photographs,

“The Tea Horse Road is a narrative of politics, economy, culture and health. It is about ascending empire, a desire for the exotic and a more humble quest for energy, well-being and livelihood.”

So begins the tale of this book. As the title of this book suggests the topic is about an extensive network of physical pathways and small local routes that came to be collectively known as the Tea Horse Road. For centuries, this road carried tea out of the forests of Yunnan Province, China to the faraway lands of Tibet, Nepal, India and Burma.

Astonishing in its feat and staggering in its abundance of perils and danger, the importance of the Tea Horse Road was so great that a former trade route–the Southwest Silk Road (Xi’nan Sichouzhilu)-connecting China with neighboring countries (and carrying such goods as silk, jade, wool, furs, tobacco, salt, and silver from east to west and back again) was renamed the Tea Horse Road (Chama Dao) after tea became the most sought after commodity traveling along the route.

Beginning in the 7th C the Tea Horse Road transported tea up over the Himalaya by caravans of men and mules. This road served this essential duty until the mid-20th C when paved, motorized highways made the transport of tea faster and easier and rendered the perilous old routes obsolete.

This book is imposing in size (340 pages) and considerably heavy. At first glance it appears as though it might be just another pretty coffee table picture book. Indeed, wonderful black and white photographs appear throughout and offer stark contrast to vivid color images of the rugged landscape and hearty people who live in this area of China and Tibet.

But readers who sit and linger with this book will find that it contains riches. Well-written, concise text effectively introduces us to this colorful part of the world and the importance that both the Tea Horse Road and the tea have to the people who have populated this region for generations.

Yunnan Province has a wealth of natural resources, a grand history, unique cultures, and one of China’s most treasured teas. For me, what sets this book apart from other books that I have read on the topic of The Tea Horse Road is the author’s use of the present to help us understand the past. In the spirit of the meandering local side paths of the Tea Horse Road that brought traders and tea to small pockets of local populations, the author, too, brings us along divergent paths and into the lives and cultures of people in Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Burma and India who were and still are affected by the Tea Horse Road.

I like the layout of the book and the chapter designations. The story moves from place to place, adding this and that bit of relevant information, rather than just following a historical timeline. And I am especially pleased to see the full-sized map positioned in the early pages of the book that clearly illustrates the routes of the Tea Horse Road. I think that maps are essential, and I like editors and publishers who understand how helpful maps are to readers.

Selena Ahmed, co-author with photographer Michael Freeman, is an ethnobotonist (someone who studies human-environment interactions and how plants are managed and used in different cultures ) who has conducted research in Yunnan for years. Her particular interest is in the villages of Yunnan and the tea production systems in place there.

As such, she understands that the Tea Horse Road did not exist in isolation from its surroundings and that it’s location was not happenstance, but that it developed because of many factors particular to Yunnan. By taking a long and wide look at the history and culture of this place, she breathes life into her narrative by discussing much more than just the history of the tea road itself.

For instance, we learn about the tea that traveled over the Tea Horse Road –what we call pu-erh today. Since earliest recorded time, tea has been made in Southwest China with leaf plucked from large leaf varieties of tea trees. From those early days until now, tea has evolved from a crude, simple food to a medicine, to a tonic, and ultimately to a pleasurable beverage. How the tea was back then and how the tea is today is a story too long for this review ( please read the book! ). But let me suffice to say that the tea underwent profound changes brought about by dramatic weather as the tea moved along its journey over the Tea Horse Road, and those changes most certainly influenced how the tea was processed after that fact became known.

Readers learn the story of pu-erh, and why its importance to the people of this region continues today. The best pu-erh is still made using traditional processes and by following certain criteria in leaf plucking and tea manufacture, and storage of the tea after production.

Yunnan’s teas (yes, there are green and black teas, too, in addition to pu-erh) are unique because of many variables: terroir (place) of the region: climate, geography, soil conditions, humidity and rain patterns, etc , and also because the Mekong River has played a pivotal role in keeping this area vital. Over time, many cultural groups have navigated along this waterway mingling tea seeds and tea culture with them as they traveled from the old homelands to new ones in both upland and lowland areas.

Many of these ethnic groups (Akha, Dai, Hani, Jinuo, and others ) trace their roots to ancestors who have lived in these forests over centuries. The 12 Tea Producing Mountains (a reference to the most famous tea growing mountains where many of these ethnic groups live) still maintain old-growth tea tree forests (multi-generational descendants of long-ago wild-growing, indigenous tea trees). This is in contract to the large tea factories and cultivated tea gardens (once operated by the Chinese government in the 20th century but are now privately owned) that are located low down the mountains near the cities.

photograph by Selena Ahmed

For some of these people and their villages, the old tea trees are their patrimony and their children’s inheritance. These trees are a link to their ancestors who took care of the tea trees and made distinctive tea of their own cultural preference from these large-sized tea leaves. This region claims the oldest association between man and the Camellia sinensis tea bush–ancestors of these ethnic groups grew and nurtured ancient tea trees, and consumed tea before China existed as a unified state.

The biodiversity in Yunnan’s tea forests stands in opposition to the intensive mono-cultural practices of modern tea farming. The message here is that much can be learned from the tea farmers in the old growth tea forests, and that intensive tea growing practices, in its haste to bring more product to market faster, can lead to the destruction of land, genetically diverse plants and in some cases, cultural practices.

The authors introduce us to some of the mountain and hill-dwelling ethnic people that populate this region; compelling photographs bring us into their lives and we feel that we are experiencing a small measure of their culture and the hardships they face living in these stunning but remote places. These are the faces of many of the people who make these incredible teas by following traditional, learned practices.

In addition to the story of the tea, the Tea Horse Road is the story of the men (muleteers) and their mules that traveled long and perilous journeys from Yunnan and Sichuan over dangerous roads in hostile weather conditions with their precious cargoes of tea bound for  Tibet, Nepal, and later, India and Burma. It took many months for the caravans to make a round-trip journey, laden with goods for Tibet one way and goods bounds for China on the return journey.

As the author writes: “the task was strenuous and the terrain unforgiving.”  The stories of these perilous journeys defy belief, yet some of these men are still alive to tell their stories. Michael Freedman’s photographs of some of the few men still alive from those days and the terrain over which that they traveled give proof to wary disbelievers.

By the end of this book, we have been treated to a story with many intertwined and nuanced layers, and that has elements worthy of an epic novel: an astonishing commodity, stunning and dramatic geographic locations, rugged people and traditional ways of life and cultures that survive today.

I have traveled in Yunnan Province learning about tea, and I am still in awe of everything about this province. From the link between the tea and the tea plants; the plants to the environment and the environment to the ways of the people; and the people to their culture, religions and their tea drinking habits, I can honestly say that there is no other tea place in China quite like it. Reading this book and luxuriating in the photographs brought me back to tea producing villages in Yunnan Province that I have visited. I am re-inspired to return, and to learn even more about this epic chapter of tea culture.

Ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed studied tea and culture in the mountains of Yunnan for 4 years for her doctoral study at The New York Botanical Garden and City University of New York. Selena is currently a National Institutes of Health TEACRS (Training in Education and Critical Research Skills) post-doctoral fellow at the Antioxidants Research Lab at the Jean Meyer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Her research seeks to understand the role of phytochemicals from plant foods in promoting health and reducing risk of chronic disease.

Award-winning photographer and author Michael Freeman has made a specialty of documentary reportage on Asia over the last 3 decades, for the Smithsonian Magazine, Time-Life, the Sunday Times Magazine, and GEO, among many others. He has produced more than 30 books on Asian subjects as diverse as the ancient Cambodian temple complex at Angkor Wat, other sacred places, contemporary Chinese design, and ethnic minorities. He lives in London.


Tea enthusiasts looking for a refreshing tea to drink hot or iced during these hot days of summer, would be well served to consider this light, refreshing, regional, loose-leaf interpretation of sheng Pu-erh.

This tea is made from the Dayeh variety of big leaf and was plucked in the Yongde region of Lincang Prefecture in southern Yunnan. The leaf has undergone short withering or wilting, and a quick de-enzyming ( kill-green step ) in a tea firing pan. The leaf was then removed from the pan and rolled and twisted by hand to generate internal cell changes within each tea leaf. Finally, the leaf was given a partially drying in the shade  ( to allow the residual moisture to begin natural fermentation ) and then final drying in the sun.

Yongde-cha is similar in appearance to mao cha, the semi-processed, stable leaf that is used to make Pu-erh, but the difference is that Yongde-cha is finished tea.  Those who had the pleasure of drinking the charcoal-fired Ba Da Ba Ba Cha sheng Pu-erh that we featured last year should know that this tea is reminiscent of that, but it has a lighter, sweeter flavor without the influence of the charcoal-firing.

This tea is only lightly fermented and pleasantly so. In fact, the level of Pu-erh ‘taste’ in this tea is more like a flirtation than an exclamation point. It is delicious drunk plain as an easy-going, refreshing and light sipping tea.

Harvested from old-growth tea bushes during the spring of 2007, this tea has gained some age and has been stored in superb conditions. It is aged just enough to have given up its youthful, woods-y astringency. Drink now or keep another year or two or three.

Curious about loose-leaf Pu-erh and Yongde-cha? Click below for more information.