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Pu-erh Tea Cultivation

plantation_bush.jpgPu-erh tea cultivation method can be equally or even more important than the region it comes from or the grade of the leaves when classifying these teas. There are three different cultivation methods:

Plantation tea bushes (guànmù, 灌木):

Cultivated tea bushes, from the seeds or cuttings of wild tea trees and planted in relatively low altitudes and flatter terrain. The tea produced from these plants is considered inferior due to the lack of pleasant flavors, and the presence of harsh bitterness and astringency from the tea.

"Wild arbor" trees:

Tea trees from older plantations cultivated by previous generations but now gone wild since they are no longer diligently cultivated. Most producers claim that their pu-erh is from wild trees, but they are really in this category. They do have a better flavor than the plantation bushes due to the higher levels of secondary metabolite produced in the tea trees. Also, the care of the trees typically includes the scheduled pruning of the trees in a manner similar to pollarding. Despite the good quality of their produced teas, "wild arbor" trees are not as prized as the truly wild trees.

Old, wild trees (gŭshù, ; literally "old tree"):

Teas from old, wild, tea trees that grow without cultivation. They are the highest valued pu-erh teas due to their deeper and more complex flavors, often with camphor or "mint" notes, said to be imparted by the many camphor trees that grow in the same environment as these wild tea trees. Young raw pu-erh teas produced from the leaf tips of these trees are also free of the overwhelming astringency and bitterness often attributed to young pu-erh.

Determining which method was used

th_Tea-Leaves-Picked.JPGDetermining whether or not a tea is wild can be a challenging task, made more difficult through the inconsistent and unclear terminology and labeling in Chinese. Terms like yěshēng (野生: literally "wild" or "uncultivated"), qiáomù (乔木: literally "tall tree"), yěshēng qiáomù (野生乔木: literally "uncultivated trees"), and gǔshù are found on the labels of cakes of both wild and "wild arbor" variety and on blended cakes, which contain leaves from tea plants of various cultivations. These inconsistent and often misleading labels can easily confuse uninitiated tea buyers regardless of their grasp of the Chinese language.

Also, the lack of specific information about tea leaf sources on the printed wrappers and identifiers that come with the pu-erh cake makes identification of the tea a difficult task. Pu-erh journals and similar annual guides such as “The Profound World of Chi Tse,” “Pu-erh Yearbook,” and “Pu-erh Teapot Magazine” contain credible sources for leaf information. Tea factories are generally honest about their leaf sources, but someone without access to the tea factory or other information is often at the mercy of the middlemen or an unscrupulous vendor. Many pu-erh aficionados seek out and maintain relationships with vendors whom they feel they can trust to help mitigate the issue of finding the "truth" of the leaves.

Sadly, even in the best of circumstances, when a journal, factory information, and trustworthy vendor all align to assure a tea is genuinely wild leaf, fakes fill the market and make the issue even more complicated.

Because collectors often doubt the reliability of written information, some believe certain physical aspects of the leaf can point to its cultivation. For example, drinkers cite the evidence of a truly wild old tree in a menthol effect ("camphor" in tea specialist terminology) supposedly caused by the Camphor laurel trees that grow amongst wild tea trees in Yunnan's tea forests. In addition, the presence of thick veins and sawtooth edges on the leaves plus the camphor flavor elements are taken as signifiers of wild tea.