Pu’erh Regions: Eastern Xishuangbanna, Mengla County, Yiwu + Youle

This article frequently references and links to babelcarp. Babelcarp is a Chinese Tea Lexicon that is an essential resource for tea nerds that want to dive in further and don’t understand Chinese! This article also sources many maps from a TeaChat thread, original sources vary.

Pu’erh is frequently sold by its geographical farming location. Teas are marketed as being from Yiwu, Banzhang, and Bingdao. These areas exist as physical areas but also serve as important marketing terms for pu’erh. Hot regions like Banzhang or Bingdao can fetch extremely high price tags. Learning these regions are an important part in understanding new school pu’erh as well as the regional terroir of Yunnan. The southernmost prefecture in Yunnan, Xishuangbanna is arguably the most important prefecture within Yunnan for pu’erh. Xishuangbanna is home to Menghai Tea Factory and the six famous tea mountains. It is also where most examples of aged pu’erh base material originates from. In the last 20 years, the pu’erh boom is extremely apparent in Xishuangbanna, an area that generally fetches the highest price for their tea. Within Xishuangbanna, there are dramatically different flavor profiles, from the soft, pleasant aftertaste of Yiwu to the bold and brash Bulang. This post will focus on the eastern regions of Xishuangbanna, which includes the greater Yiwu region, most of which falls under Mengla County.

Note: Everything in this article should be taken with a grain of salt. Teas are frequently marketed as something they are not. Verifying the base material is never a for-certain game and everyone should be skeptical (rightly) of where their tea actually comes from, especially within the most popular regions.

Xishuangbanna Counties

Xishuangbanna Counties. Source: TeaChat, fdrx.

Pu’erh & Regional Importance

Pu’erh, like Darjeeling, is a tea with implied “geographical implications”. Its production is limited to the Yunnan province. Yunnan (the home of pu’erh) is located in southwest China, far removed from China’s other tea-growing tea regions. It’s a unique area in China, high in natural resources, borders (Vietnam, Laos and Burma), and ethnic minorities. Not so long ago, all the principle pu’erh regions would feed their mao cha into one of the major factories to be used in a plantation blend. In recent years, with the growing trend of single-origin pu’erh and gushu these teas are increasingly sold as being from a region, sub-region, or village. There’s also no clear division/sub-division system and this article does so based largely on the prominence and popularity of tea labels marketed to the western world.

Note #1: In neighboring areas like Laos, tea will commonly be brought over to Yunnan and foraged as Yunnan pu’erh. It is easy for these regions to disguise their tea because the terroir is similar and will typically share the same varietal Camelia Sinensis va. Assamica.
Note #2: Some of these regions produce tea (i.e. Laos) using the same methods as Yunnan pu’erh. What this tea should be sold as is part of a larger debate over region and tea nomenclature.
Note #3: Regions double as marketing and are commonly faked. 100% reliability is a difficult thing to come by for “authentic pu’erh”.
Note #4: Another caveat. Many of these regions are quite large and will have a diversity of tastes that may not fit the characteristic taste of that region. Breaking it down by regions on its own should not be treated too seriously and has very real limitations.

Eastern Xishuangbanna

Eastern Xishuangbanna. Source: Teachat, fdrx via puerh.cn.

Greater Yiwu Region (Eastern Xishuangbanna/Mengla) (babelcarp)

The name of a township as well as a greater region within Mengla county (the easternmost of three counties in Xishuangbanna). The Yiwu name has picked up considerable steam and now carries significant sway in the pu’erh market. As a result, what is marketed as Yiwu tends to come from a very large area.

A Brief History

Historically, Yiwu is famous for being the center of distribution for tribute tea to be sent to the emperor. The six famous tea mountains produced mao cha where it would be collected and sent out to Beijing from Yiwu. This trade brought a large number of Han merchants (the principle Chinese ethnic group) to the area to trade tea (source). Some of the more famous examples of aged pu’erh (from the 1930s) also originated here. i.e. Fuyuanchang, Tongqin Hao and Songpin Hao.

From the 1940s until the 1990s, tea production shifted away from these regions to Menghai County where Menghai Tea Factory planted ground. During this period, tea that was produced was usually unceremoniously sold as raw mao cha to the larger factories.

When China began to open up to the west, many Taiwanese traders visited Yiwu hoping to find both tea production and more aged tea. They found neither, but ended up helping the locals to restart tea production. As a result, the greater Yiwu area has strong ties with the Taiwanese market. Many of the Taiwanese pu’erh brands have strong ties to this region. This is covered far more thoroughly in Zhang Jinghong’s Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.

Note #1: In Zhang’s book she characterizes the Taiwanese and Yiwu style as emphasizing the hand-made and traditional aspects of tea-making, a supposed contrast from the more production oriented Menghai County tea. Yiwu tea operations tend to be smaller, often family-oriented, whereas Menghai County is more densely populated with major operations, i.e. Menghai Tea Factory .

Aged Examples: Pre-1940s. Tongqin Hao, Songpin Hao, Fuyuanchang Hao.
Notable Local Outfits: Yongpin Hao, Yiwu Manluo/Changda Hao.
Notable Taiwanese Outfits: Yang Qing Hao, Chen Guang He Tang, Chen Yuan Hao, Xi Zhi Hao/Sanhe Tang.

Note #1: There are far more than just these outfits in Yiwu.

Songpin Hao Tongqin Hao

Songpin Hao, Tongqin Hao. Source: Sun Sing Tea.

Characteristic Taste

Yiwu is known for a distinctive softer, less punchy base with a long-lasting sweet aftertaste when compared with other pu’erh regions, i.e. Bulang/Banzhang. There are a number of growing regions within the greater Yiwu area, including the six famous tea mountains. These areas all represent Yiwu to some extent, although there will even be significant variation moving from one region to the next.

Note #1: Because Yiwu is a township and a county it is ambiguous as to what exactly constitutes “Yiwu”. This has not stopped tea producers from constantly marketing and using the Yiwu name to sell tea.

Eastern Xishuangbanna

Eastern Xishuangbanna, Six Famous Tea Mountains. Source: Teachat, fdrx via puerh.cn.

Mangzhi (babelcarp), Gedeng (babelcarp), Manzhuan (babelcarp), Famous Tea Mountains

Three of the famous tea mountains. These mountains and their greater regions compose a good size of the Mengla County region.

Also: Gaoshan Zhai (Manzhuan), Xiangming (Manzhuan).

Yiwu

Often used as the center of processing for many of the raw materials gathered nearby. There is also tea grown nearby. The Yiwu name is a commonly used marketing term .

AlsoLuoshuidong, Yibi, Mahei.

Yibang, Smaller Leaf Variety (babelcarp)

Yibang is one of the famous tea mountains. Unlike the majority of Mengla County or Yunnan, Yibang has a disproportionate amount of the small-leaf varietal (Camellia Sinensis v. Sinensis). Located north of Manzhuan and west of Yiwu, the prevalence of small-leaf variety makes Yibang an interesting variation on Yiwu pu’erh. Some are skeptical of the aging viability of Yibang pu’erh because of this. Yibang is also home to one of the most esteemed regions in Yunnan, Mansong. Interestingly, Yibang was the center of distribution for the six famous tea mountains from the 1750s-1900s before Yiwu.

Also: Xi Kong.

Mansa (babelcarp) & Gua Feng Zhai (babelcarp), premium & remote

Mansa is a famous tea mountain east of Yiwu and the townships in its greater area represent some of the more acclaimed regions for new school pu’erh within eastern Xishuangbanna. Gua Feng Zhai is smushed up on the east border of Mengla County bordering Laos. Gua Feng Zhai and nearby villages have a high-amount of older trees. Tasteswise these areas tend to be stronger than the rest of Yiwu. Laotian mao cha is commonly sold to the farmers in Gua Feng Zhai to masquerade as Gua Feng Zhai.

Also: Wan Gong Zhai, Yi Shan Mo, Ding Jia Zhai, Zhangjia Wan.

You Le (babelcarp)

Usually not categorized as Yiwu, this doesn’t fit neatly into any category. You Le (also Jinnuo) is the the sixth famous tea mountain and is the furthest west of the tea mountains and bears some Yiwu characteristics. It is the only real tea growing area in Jinghong County and while it bears some similarities to the greater Yiwu area, Youle tea is often marketed as being Youle (and not Yiwu). Its characteristic taste is a mix of Yiwu and other areas.

Also: Longpa, Jinghong.

This entry was posted in Aged Pu'erh, Article, Raw Pu'erh, Tea Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Pu’erh Regions: Eastern Xishuangbanna, Mengla County, Yiwu + Youle

  1. John says:

    Great. Thanks James. This is very helpful. It would be nice if you could pull back the geographic lens a bit and put these regions into a bigger context within Yunnan so we can see how this area is situated relative to other areas. Can we expect something from you soon on Lincang? I think at one point Essence of Tea was plotting its teas on a google map…would you consider doing something similar with the pu erh you sample? Given pu erh is described / labeled in so many different ways it is really hard to get a ‘toehold’ when you are first starting out. As you mention fakes certainly do not help either when trying to develop / educate your palate. Given your previous month long focus on different regions can you suggest good exemplars of the different regions for us? Keep up the great work. Best
    John

    • James says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the very valuable feedback. The plan is to cover more of these regions, next up would be western Xishuangbanna and I hope to get to Lincang and Simao at some point (probably the end of this year). We’ll also be doing Tea of the Month’s early next year on those particular regions.

      That being said, I currently have pretty mixed feelings on this region-based approach. Much of it deals with the often unreliable information that is fed to us. If we can’t trust that a tea is from the region it is marketed as, then it becomes pretty meaningless to draw patterns/conclusions from the tea.

      In the end, I had this post written for a while and decided to publish it and will likely continue to do these regional breakdowns. Everything should just be taken with a degree of skepticism.

      Cheers!
      -James

  2. Carolyn says:

    Dear James,
    Thanks for another great article with valuable info on the geography of Yiwu. My husband and I are new to Pu’erh, and we are still trying to figure out where everything is.

    I agree with John in wanting even more of a geographic context with Yunnan as a whole.

    I am looking forward to your “tea of the month” tastings and really appreciate you risking the health of your digestive system to increase our knowledge base!!
    Thanks for all of your hard work,
    Carolyn

    • James says:

      Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks for the kind words and valuable feedback! After hearing from both of you I think I’ll make it a priority to create it sometime in the next few months.

      Haha. Sadly, I would risk my health for much less. I’ll be moving back to pu’erh for the next several tea of the month sessions come October.

      Cheers!
      -James

  3. Rogo says:

    Excellent article James, more of these would be fantastic.
    I have just gotten back from Yunnan and found it extremely interesting to find that a lot of the tea stores know very little about their sources. Some of the better (non-tourist) tea sellers offered an amazing back catalogue of unbelievable Sheng. In Yunnan, regions are less noted than I thought, as a lot of tea farmers and private harvesters didn’t associate themselves with famous areas as they decided to market their tea without regional names (relying on their strong relationship with store owners to distribute their tea). These made for some of my favourite tea tastings with taste notes I haven’t experienced from online vendors of various regions. It was very interesting, however I still lack a lot of knowledge on regional taste notes; the journey commences 🙂
    Keep up the brilliant articles and reviews !!

    • James says:

      Hi Rogo,

      Thanks very much for the kind words! Sounds like a great trip. I hope to also make it out to Yunnan someday.

      Thanks for sharing your observation. It’s very interesting that the regions are not emphasized as much for marketing in Yunnan. It’s possible that we are getting a very biased selection of Yunnanese tea as western consumers of western pu’erh.

      Cheers!
      -James

      • Rogo says:

        Hi James,

        Thanks for the reply. Yes it was interesting, I was naming some teas I wished to taste, Baotang, Bulang, Nannuo, Gua Feng Zhai, etc, but a lot of the sellers hadn’t heard such titles and after conveying my ‘serious’ interest in tea they heavily recommended cakes that had very little decoration, with maybe just a farmers name and date on the covering. Some brands I’d never heard of on the western market that were knock out Pu’erhs. I wasn’t expecting the experience but was nicely surprised.
        Yes for sure TeaDB should try and get out there, and hopefully one day you guys will be a top western vendor as well as bloggers/reviewers!!! That would be great.
        All the best,
        Rogo

        • James says:

          Very interesting. Where were you buying tea from? Kunming?

          Perhaps these names and regions are more for the foreign markets.

          Cheers!
          -James

          • Rogo says:

            I was buying from Lijiang, Dali, Shaxi (a little out the way and remote compared to other tourist areas) and Kunming. Big factory names were everywhere though as you can imagine. Extremely expensive 80’s Menghai seemed to be a show piece for a lot of sellers.
            Yes that is a good point, the tea culture integration there could also add to their passive approach to brands and regions. I imagine that tea conventions there rely a lot more heavily on regional sourcing than the stores seem to.
            The Western approach to buying Pu’erh could possibly have us researching and discovering a lot more about these topics than if we lived in Yunnan. Interesting to think.
            (It should also be noted that, when in Yunnan and tasting Sheng day and night, one tends to be a tad tea drunk… I could have missed some of my favourite teas whilst lost in the language barrier haha).
            Rogo

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