THE AMAZING TEA RACE
AILAO MOUNTAIN, YUNNAN, CHINA
A promising tea village - Manla Village, in Ailao Mountain
From Kunlu Mountain, we took another 5 hour journey to the Ailao Mountain. All along the mountain roads were beautiful fields of tea. While we did end up in the Ailao mountain area, the GPS coordinates from our guidebook took us hours away from the main village. We had no idea where we were, so we decided to stop at the next tea garden that inspired us.
Upon arrival a surprised dog barked at us as the farmer looked up at us with confusion. He came to greet us, and explained that foreigners had never come to his home before. His name was Liu Nianlei. Mr. Liu showed us his tea garden, where his grandfather had planted the first tea trees over 100 years ago for his personal consumption. In 2007 word spread throughout the region that puerh tea was in high demand, so his family put more focus on the farm and its old tea trees, and began planting more. Excited by his story, we asked if we could stay to chat more.
Mr. Liu, from Manla Village.
His wife set up a place to sit, and went to prepare tea while the he continued his story. A puerh factory had come to the community to grow and process tea. He sells all his raw tea leaves to the factory, but the prices offered by the factory aren’t enough to cover the expenses and effort to maintain the tea garden. For this reason he and the rest of the 20 growers in the community had started to practice more hand-made teas, in an attempt to sell directly to the consumer. Besides the low price, the Liu Family grows with no chemicals, but their leaves are processed together with leaves from farms that do use chemicals. Because of this, they don’t drink the processed tea from the factory, and they make their own tea in their home kitchen. All their food is home-grown on their land with no chemicals. While this is a dream for many, in reality the family is struggling to make a good life for themselves, as agriculture in China becomes more difficult each year.
Grading and tasting the Liu Family's home-made tea.
They were excited about our visit; they couldn’t believe that we were building a marketplace for small growers’ tea. We tried two different teas: one from the young trees, and one from his grandfather’s 100-year-old trees. It was exciting to taste something so unique, but the quality of the tea was not up to par yet. As the family explained, they don’t have the skills to make tea, and they don’t have a processing facility for themselves. They were excited to hear about the International Tea Farms Alliance, where they could potentially exchange knowledge with more experienced growers and producers.
Interestingly, most of the young tea plants in the garden are tea plants from Taiwan. In 2007 a man brought cuttings of a Taiwanese tea cultivar to plant in the area in an attempt to make oolong tea. When the project failed and the man left, he left the tea plants behind. One of Mr. Liu’s neighbors had begun to process oolong tea and let us sample it, and while the quality needed work due to a lack of skill, they are definitely working with very good raw material.
We were so inspired by the visit ourselves – we asked if we could purchase a kilogram of their tea for our personal use, and to help tell their story. While the processing needs much improvement, the tea is already sweet and refreshing, and we look forward to helping them improve their techniques via the International Tea Farms Alliance. If all goes well we may be seeing sheng puerh and oolong tea from Manla Village within 10 years.
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Next story: Longwu Village, Dragonwell
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