One of the main purposes of this trip is to vet additional black tea farms in order to find truly exceptional black teas to blend into our premier iced tea.
Most of the iced tea that is consumed in the US comes from large plantation-style operations in India or Sri Lanka. These plantations produce tea that has a distinctly astringent, Lipton-esque flavor. Our current Iced Classic Black comes from Southern India. But we’re always seeking new relationships and new ideas.
And so now we’re in Pu’er. Pu’er, as many probably know is actually a type of tea, named after the city. Think Champagne in France, or Bordeaux wine in Bordeaux. The place and the tea are inseparable. In the Chinese domestic market, you cannot sell tea as “Pu’er” unless it was grown in this region.
Pu’er is a type of black tea that has undergone true fermentation as a final step in the process, (by heaping tea leaves together in a semi-wet pile and allowing it to rot). This produces a distinctly dark cup of tea with funky, moldy, and fishy undertones. You either love it or hate it. We don’t currently source pu’er tea. But here we are in Pu’er City, looking not for pu’erh, but for black tea to use in our iced tea blends.
And we think we’ve found it. Mr. Dong (董) owns a medium-sized factory and farm nearby. Jingyong, my friend, had met him by chance a tea event in China a few years back and had high praise for the man. Now we are cupping an endless chain of black teas. As it starts, the tea is being poured for us, but before long I am sitting at the head of the table doing my best to craft iced tea with equipment that is not designed for iced tea.
Mr. Dong scrambles to find ice—something not common in China. He resorts to filling a bowl with water and putting it in his freezer. We’ll have to wait until after lunch. Lunch is great—we’re served live ants and boiled larva. It’s salty but otherwise good. Everyone (except me) seems anxious to get back to the shop and make bīng chá (冰茶), iced tea.
Everyone gets their cameras out, iPhones actually, everyone has iPhones. And I make iced tea. Mr. Dong insists that I try to make some with his pu’er tea. I do and it’s awful. Iced tea is best when it’s crisp and clean—slightly sweet and slightly floral. Pu’er tea is none of those things. Eventually we have a breakthrough—we cup a black tea that brews a brilliant brassy color while having plenty of natural sweetness and just enough briskness to make it refreshing when iced. We pack up a kilo of it on the spot—we’ll need to do some more evaluation back home.
The day is deemed a success we make plans to go out. There’s some bars in Puer City that Mr. Dong insists we see—and some “Chinese McDonalds” that he insists we eat. I think he means late night street food, but I can’t be sure. This is our last stop. From here we’ll travel back East to the megacities of Hangzhou and Shanghai for only a few days before returning home. So we’re determine to make it count.
---Puer City, April 23rd 2016