The Case for Northern Tea (North of Banna)

In the pu’erh world there’s three major prefectures in Yunnan that make pu’erh tea, Xishuangbanna, Simao (pu’erh), and Lincang. These do not necessarily get proportionate coverage. It’s hard to argue there’s not a heavy Xishuangbanna bias when it comes to the dialog in the pu’erh scene. I’d admit that TeaDB by extension of my own habits has a significant lean towards the southern prefecture, Xishuangbanna. Banna contains two heavy-hitting regions in Menghai county and Mengla county. Menghai gets a lot of press for being the home of Dayi and lots of factory raw and ripe production. It is also home to sought after areas and smaller villages/areas like Banzhang. Likewise, Mengla county is extremely well known and well-regarded, especially for Yiwu tea. Both of these areas in the west and east of Banna have long, rich histories with making pu’erh. And if we look north, there are some areas you’ll see referenced but it doesn’t really rival the southernmost regions in buzz within the tea scene. You’ll even find some downright northern haters, including some terribad bloggers that compare the most prominent northern factory to their toilet (wtf!?).

Yunnan Simplified
Major Pu’erh Growing Regions. Source: Teachat, fdrx.

Reason #1: Northern has Real Historical Precedent

One thing you’ll see in the region wars is that Xishuangbanna has a longer precedent in favor of it and northern tea is unproven for the long haul. It is true that the most famous Haoji teas were made in Mengla and the famous. The now very expensive aged tea made by Menghai tea factory also used predominantly Xishuangbanna tea. This would seem to imply that Simao and Lincang tea are a more modern invention and an unproven commodity in the way that Xishuangbanna tea is not. However Xishuangbanna doesn’t necessarily hold the only historical precedents..

Historical records for pu’erh north of Xishuangbanna date back many centuries. While I am not a historian and don’t personally put huge weight in thousand year old records for my own drinking, for the history buffs there are allegedly historical records dating back to BC. As an experiment if we lower our time period to something within the past century.. Let’s say tea begins to have significant aged characteristics around 20-25 years at a minimum, there is more than just Dayi tea. The two major factories from the 1970s/1980s are Dayi and Xiaguan, Xiaguan being based even further north of Lincang in Dali. Unsurprisingly given the proximity to Lincang, the 60+ year old Xiaguan has used northern tea for a long time in order to make their tea. How have their tea aged? I personally like them and the conventional wisdom is that they’ve aged quite well, although in price they do not approach their famous southern rival’s aged tea.

Reason #2: Northern Tea is Generally Cheaper

I’ve compared the boutique pu’erh under western vendor’s labels and Lincang and Simao are consistently and significantly beneath Xishuangbanna in median price (see here). You can find more expensive options in Lincang and cheaper options in Menghai, but the tea from the north is generally available for less.

This is also generally true for factory produced tea. The Dayi label carries weight and some premium, as it is seen as a proven commodity that can also be resold. Something like a Dayi 7542, needs no introduction. Xiaguan like Dayi, has a famous numbered recipe 8653 (not quite the same as 7542, but the best comparison). Older versions of this can also be expensive but they seem to be lower by a couple orders of magnitude than their southern cousin. In addition to the 8653, Xiaguan is well known for their tuos.. You can get 15 year old 2005 Jiaji (their standard) for just over $10 at a known taobao vendor like MX-Tea. This is exceedingly reasonable in my opinion and amounts to under $1 per session, for most western drinkers.

One issue with buying northern Xiaguan teas is that they tend to be fairly compressed. But this issue can be circumvented by buying northern tea that has already been stored somewhere decently hot and humid (i.e. Guangzhou/Taiwan) and then sold. As illustrated above, just because something is 10-15 years old doesn’t mean it is expensive.

Another reason to buy factory tea is that most productions are blends and blends have a solid track record of aging in interesting ways. You need to be less concerned with a tea being monochromatic. With big factories like Mengku and Xiaguan based up north and sourcing principally northern leaf, it isn’t difficult to find big factory blends that are less expensive than Dayi.

2005 Iron 8653

Reason #3: It is Different

Most people don’t like to eat the same meal everyday.. For lovers of variety, northern tea is different. I am a huge Yiwu fan and also enjoy drinking Dayi teas which predisposes me towards many Xishuangbanna-grown teas. Probably more than half of my pu’erh consumption is from Xishuangbanna-made pu’erh… Still, I find plenty of time to appreciate the resinous, dense nature of Xiaguan teas. These teas can pass my speed test and are often much cheaper than the equivalent Dayi tea. I often find myself drinking Xiaguan and being pleasantly surprised at how decent and inexpensive they are.

I don’t drink much of any young pu’erh, so I won’t make a long-winded case for northern boutique here, although I suspect there is a similar one to be made… For those that like to pore over regions there are many regions in the north, high price tag ones like Bingdao and Xigui which are difficult to access. And other, larger areas like Daxueshan, Mengku, Jinggu, Ailao, that are all distinct and different. If you like young tea, don’t be a snob by default! Northern tea is definitely worth trying out as a different flavor to Xishuangbanna teas at the minimum to see if it suits your preferences. 

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5 Responses to The Case for Northern Tea (North of Banna)

  1. Nathanael says:

    Really great stuff! I think you put your finger on something I had intuited but hadn’t been able to describe well, me still being relatively new to the puer scene.

    When I first started buying cakes I did buy a lot of northern stuff (xiaguan and lincang) because they were significantly cheaper. I just assumed because they were cheaper, and because people on the internet seemed to go crazy for yiwu and menghai stuff, that they were indeed inferior. I went ahead and got them because I just wanted to start somewhere, and now I’m wondering how much my assumptions colored my opinion of those teas. Because my experience was limited and I didn’t have anything to compare them against, I always felt like I must be missing out on something amazing. I always really enjoyed xiaguan especially, but had this nagging thought that maybe my tastes weren’t very refined since there wasn’t as much hype for those teas as compared to, say, yiwu.

    It’s been quite some time since I’ve had any from those cakes and tuos, so I think it’s time to revisit!

  2. I am a by default a young pu’erh drinker (raw or ripe) and I love Xiaguan for flavor and price and something different in the rotation. So skipping any young stuff, a couple easier to drink favorites are [Zi Yun Hao Tuo Cha 2012] and [Bao Hong Yuan Cha 2012]. But really they are all good that I’ve had. Unfortunately, I drink tea like an aged crotchety barbarian warrior, I really like the rough, bitter and smoky tuos they make which hold their flavor out to 15+ years of age. Always one of those in drinking rotation with several bags in reserve. If I am not battling a couple gallons of tea down my throat daily, I’ve probably lost the will to live.

  3. Hammockman says:

    Interesting, informative piece, thanks James. My puer experience began with 2004 Xiaguan tuos. I was in Singapore 2006, purchasing the tuos for 90. cents(USD). Over the years Xiaguan tea has been my mamma. Keeps me satisfied.

    • Yeah, now you’ll pay 5.00 to 6.00 USD or more for the same tuo in the five bagger. Or did you mean the 250 gram mushroom tuos? Those big shrooms go upwards of 13.00 USD or more nowadays new. The fond memories of drinking up my first mushroom back in 2005 or 2006. I drank a 2007 year mushroom 2013 and forgot about it until 2019 when it only had 50 grams of mostly stem left in a ziploc bag. Still good! It was very mild for a Xiaguan, mostly sweet water.

  4. teakkurim says:

    i love this point you bring up. i assume the industry plays a role in things like this (i.e.: marketing and hype to drive up prices etc).
    different wild and naturally hybridized tea trees can have their own unique merits independent of being judged based on their likeness to Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica and Camellia Taliensis and independent of their micro climate being similar to Xishuangbanna.

    i would greatly appreciate a future post on border tea because i feel it gets a similar rap.

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