Discovering Yiwu Teas & a tear inducing price for tea!

Last month I was a busy bee in China. Xishuangbanna Region, Yunnan Province, China, to be more specific.

As UK Director for Tea Guild International – a partner of Global Tea Fair organisers Huajuchen, in promoting Chinee tea globally – I’m very grateful to be have been invited as an international guest to the 10th Mengla Tribute Tea Celebration and also as an Expert Judge in the Yiwu Tribute Tea Competition.

The event was a 3 day Expo promoting the teas of Yiwu Mountain, one of the 6 famous tea mountains of Xishuangbanna that produced Pu’er tea; possibly the finest category of tea (and certainly one of the most expensive, as we’ll come to see!).

Myself and French tea expert, consultant, agro-economist and many times published author on tea Lydia Gautier were the international guests for the event, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer lady to share this experience with. The opportunity to learn is never one to be passed up and, with Lydia and the contacts I made through her, there was ample opportunity to learn.

What is Tribute Tea?

Tribute Tea was the practice of giving the best selection of your tea yield “in tribute” to the Emperor.

Although originally a voluntary practice, it was made compulsory around 700BC and officials were sent to collect the teas from producers around the country.

And its links to Yiwu were that, during the Qing Dynasty, Yiwu Pu’er tea was the Tribute Tea of choice for its smooth, sweet taste and the associated health benefits that come with Pu’er tea.  The teas were carried along the old Tea Horse Road to Kunming and then to the seat of the Emperor in Beijing.

The Celebration

So after an interesting opening ceremony of many speeches from venerated officials, watched by a crowd of hundreds in Mengla County Government Square, my name was called, along with Lydia, Mr Yang (CEO of Huajuchen) and the local Government representative.

Not really knowing what was going on we were whisked onto the stage to place our hands on a big black ball before being scared the sh*t out of by close range fireworks going off to herald the official opening of the event.

The Competition

Bring on day 3 and the competition. Dressed in fetching white coats Lydia and I were part of the expert judging panel, which comprised professors specialising in Pu’er tea from Kunming University, as well as a range of other experts in the field.

Following a Raw Tea Skills competition, comprising frying the leaves, rolling and preparing the leaves for drying, we had the main event: the tasting competition.

Split into 2 branches, the first part of the competition included 20 bing cha (Pu’er steamed and pressed into round cakes, or discs) entries, whilst the 2nd part included 33 mao cha entries (the processed leaves, left loose). All the entries were sheng, or “raw” pu’er, meaning they hadn’t been wet piled to induce fermentation, although some of the entries weren’t 2019 leaves, but were aged sheng, with the oldest I believe being 2016.

Entries were judged on dry leaf appearance, looking for whole leaves & buds and good, green colour without too much oxidation in stalks and leaves; wet leaf aroma, flavour, mouthfeel and aftertaste, with a possible 100 point up for grabs.

Judged using the standard competition steeping protocol of 5 minute infusion at 100°C, we left slightly dazed & tea drunk after sampling 53 excellent teas in the heat of the tropical Yiwu day.

A good day for the winner

As we wandered through the expo after the judging, hoping to try some teas to source, we were asked if we’d like to drink some of the winning tea – they’d literally just been told they’d won.

As if we’d pass that up, so we did. We drunk quite a bit actually, with the tea master who produced the tea, a superb tea with a lot of gentle sweetness, full mouthfeel and excellent Hui Gan.

But that’s when the auction started.

10kg each of the top 5 winning teas all auctioned for increasing amounts of money until the winner, which after a staggering start at ¥1m rose to ¥1.3m. In context, that’s roughly £150,000 for 10kg of tea, or £15,000 per kilo. Or a cool £120-150 per brew.

Luckily for us, our host was kind enough to share more of his tea with us and leave us with a decent enough sized sample to share between Lydia and I. One for a special occasion, I think…

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