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