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Introduction to Yunnan Tea

Introduction to Yunnan Tea: from Yunnan province, south-west China

Yunnan is a region having a border with Laos and Burma, extending north towards the Himalayas. This borderland is a craggy, mountainous area of thick jungle. It is considered the birthplace of tea with native tea trees growing wild – some reputed to be as much as 1700 years old. Its fertile soils and high rainfall make it ideal for the cultivation of tea. This introduction to Yunnan Tea aims to bring vto wider appreciation some of China’s greatest teas for flavour and character.

Yunnan teas are complex and aromatic with a foresty character. Indeed the larger leafed varietals used are native to this region where wild bushes grow to the height of trees in the northern mountainous areas. The Dai and Bulang minorities within the Mekong basin have revered these ancient trees. For centuries Yunnan teas have been highly prized – being traded for salt, sugar, furs and livestock along the horse roads leading from Lijiang in Yunnan and Sichuan to Tibet and for the past 200 years extending further along the Silk Road to foreign markets in Russia.

Teas are picked for as many as nine months of the year from the beginning of the dry season in November. From Yunnan comes traditional black tea as well as green and white teas. Green teas may be either steamed or pan-fired. Aged Pu-erh is famed for originating here. These are often compressed into attractively embossed tea bricks. The large leafed teas of Yunnan have a 5-7% higher polyphenol content than average and beneficial catechin values some 50% higher than the norm.

Tea has evolved between dynasties in Yunnan from a healthy tonic in the Shang Dynasty of 1766-1050 BC, boiled with salt, roasted and whipped before infusion became the norm as a method of preparing tea. In Yunnan’s neighbouring province, Sichuan, to its north-east, tea was thought to have been prepared as a stimulant rather than for its medicinal properties as long ago as the Zhou Dynasty of 1122-256 BC.

Pu-erh teas may be made from black or green teas. They are then aged and compressed and subjected to internal oxidation where ingress of fresh oxygen is severely limited. The teas are then wrapped in paper and aged for several years – possibly decades. The best known of these originate from the sub-tropical Six Famous Mountains in Xishuangbanna district where tea is picked year-round. These teas are made from the larger leafed Camellia sinensis var. assamica or local sub-varieties known as dayeh which are lightly steamed. As the tea is picked from wild or only semi-cultivated bushes, gathering the leaf and transporting it is slow, difficult and expensive. Green ‘raw’ Pu-erhs can be sweet, floral and nutty with an herbaceous, woody, earthy character having great depth of flavour. Black ‘cooked’ Pu-erhs is less complex and challenging to appreciate than green Pu-erhs. They are herbaceous, floral and earthy with a deep character. Ours is a black Pu-erh. Both have deep umber coloured infusions.

Black teas from Yunnan made from wild dayeh leaves are epitomized by Golden Needles. This tea has large golden leaves with long tips. It is smooth and malty with a subtle chocolate aroma. Grand Yunnan has an invitingly pipe-tobacco aroma and a mellow richness that makes it one of my favourites. Other Yunnan black teas have a certain creamy maltiness and good body which enables them to be drunk with milk. Their maltiness and good body invites these black teas to be compared with Assam and they are perfect at breakfast. If you love Assams you may well love these too. Green teas from Yunnan have a lovely herbaceous quality, smooth with a certain sweetness. Yunnan produces some white teas such as our divine Yunnan White Dragon which is gloriously delicate.

We hope you have now been inspired to try the wonderful tastes of teas from Yunnan Province.

Visit the Yunnan Black Teas section of our Tea Store.