To my astonishment, there were 300-year-old, lichen-laden wild tea trees scattered across the mountain in all directions. The high canopy provided shade, allowing soft, theanine-rich tea leaves to develop on the tips of weathered and twisted branches. Some trees were bearing a necklace with a placard strung to it, stating the approximate age of the tree and who held the plucking rights. On average, these tea trees had been standing in their current positions since 1700AD or earlier, and one tree, the “tea emperor” of the mountain had been standing strong for 800 years…pretty incredible.
Exploring Nannuo was like perusing a museum of ancient artifacts, except the art was alive, living and breathing right in front of you. You could pluck a bud (just one) off the art and chew it and taste it. You could touch and feel these living organisms that have been producing tea for people to enjoy since the times of Columbus… since… the times of Columbus’ great great great grandad (Bill Columbus).
On the topic of tea history, Nannuo has been harboring tea trees at least as long as any place on earth, with modern estimates placing the evolutionary birthplace of China type tea in that region around 22,000 years ago. And from the look and feel of the place, I could understand why a tea tree would want to hang around here for 22,000 years or so.
An afternoon of admiring old trees flashed by too fast. At sundown, I ended up in the home of Yuan Meizhi’s old friends, a couple of Hani brothers who ran a small-scale tea operation out of their home on the forest’s edge. The shed-like structure behind their home included all the necessary equipment for traditional Nannuo Shan tea production; two wood-stove woks, a rolling machine, and a glass-enclosed attic for sun-drying. Heat, roll, dry. The mantra of green tea production.
While raw puer is not technically green tea, it’s processed much the same, just with a couple of minor tweaks. Mainly, the heating stage (kill-green) is done at slightly lower temperatures in raw puer tea than in green tea, so as not to entirely denature the polyphenol oxidase (PPO) enzymes. This allows raw puer tea to continue maturing and ripening over time.
My story takes place in April, peak season in Nannuo, meaning that time was precious. At sundown we took the leaves plucked that day and fired up the woks. Cook, flip, churn, repeat. 5kg of fresh green leaves at a time, cooked down into dense, mostly-but-not-entirely PPO-denatured leaf material, prime for rolling. The woks stayed above 300 degrees Celsius (572 F), but the beers on our wok-side table kept much cooler.
We worked, we sweat, we laughed, we drank, I took it all in while trying to take notes –– notes on how these hard-working Hani brothers turned leaves into tea like water into wine.
I had to leave Nannuo Shan at 11pm, but the brothers kept working until near 3am, and did so every night of that month, as any small-holder tea master does during peak season.
In Nannuo, work is tough, but that is true for any tea terroir. The difference is that people in Nannuo don’t just work hard at producing tea, they also work hard at protecting the source of it, for the Hani are aware that their peoples are blessed with a homeland rich in precious cargo –– the ents of Nannuo Shan.