Visiting Mengding Moutain for Gan Lu Tea
Sichuan providence is known for it's burning chili peppers, smoldering summers, and lazy days. You'll be hard pressed to conjure images of snow peaked mountains poking their crags through a long rolling sea of clouds. But here, Mengding mountain is just that, and more. This is the backdrop of our Gan Lu (Sweet Dew) green tea, cultivated on the peak of Mengding after the winter's frost has cleared.
Arriving at Mengding Mountain
We set out to Mengding Mountain, located a short drive north of Ya'an, to source our 2017 Gan Lu and 2017 Mao Feng. To get to the mountain itself you must take a "bread car," as the van looks like a little loaf of baked bread!
Once we reached the top we found a small village of teashops, most closed for the winter months. As we discovered, the tea farmers of this region communally bring their tea harvests together to these tea shops who then send the tea off mountain to be processed, and then sold.
Nearby the teashop village is a cable car that will bring you to the peak of Mengding that has vast cultural significance:
- The "empire garden" is found at the peak. Simply, this was a garden from which 360 tea buds were plucked every spring and provided to the emperor of china as a Tribute tea.
- Seven original tea trees are still found at the peak: well over 1,000 years old. They stay the same time as time progresses, no longer growing, nor shrinking.
- This is also the site of the first commercially planted tea plants, in all of the world.
Needless to say, all of this importance has turned a rather unspoiled mountain top in a mapped out public park. This is not to say it has lost any of it's magic.
One small word of advice, if you do come visit Mengding mountain yourself in the winter, bring good climbing boots. The stairs are covered in ice, and are totally unforgiving! We went up on our hands and knees. The locals didn't seem to have a problem with it though...
The Tea from Mengding Mountain
All of this mountain climbing begs the question: what's the big deal? What makes Gan Lu (Sweet Dew) Green Tea so desirable? There are a few factors, all centered around the region. The Mengding terroir has four major points in it's favor: Earth, Cloud, Air, Elevation.
Earth: Mineral. Rocky. Unforgiving. Everything that you want for tea. Lush soils, like those used for Indian Assam tea produce far less prized teas. Like people, raising tea in an enviroment where life is easy creates flawed tea. It needs a tough life to gain wisdom, and character!
Cloud: As Mengding mountain is off the Himalayan plateau, it's covered in rolling clouds that shield solar radiation from the leaves. This actually lessens that amount of catechins in the leaf. A reminder: a catechin is a flavinoid anti-oxidant (studies have show this an anti-cancer agent) in tea that while healthy, is quite astringent in taste. Gan Lu still contains catechins, but slight less, resulting in a smoother tea experience.
Air: Crisp, and clean. The surronding area is 90% forests, meaning fresh oxygen far removed from the pollution of China.
The Best Chinese Tea is the Highest
And finally: elevation. In general: the higher you go, the better the tea. Tea sold at the base of Mengding mountain is still "Mengding Gan Lu", but it's inferior to the "real stuff" you find at the top.
Mengding is nearly 1,500 meters above sea level, so any tea 1,000 meters is going to be fantastic. The only problem: there's only so much tea harvested every year above this elevation level. Our work is going to be cut out for us...
How We Buy Our Mengding Gan Lu Tea
After seeing the mountain, it was time to drink the tea. We met Nie, a tea expert, to sit down with him and learn about the history of the mountain, the process of making Gan Lu and Mao Feng, and just why he considers all other teas inferior to Green tea.
The emerald green, downy covered leaves of the Gan Lu he had added to a glass swirled like a blizzard as he poured hot water over. The leaves sprung to life, turning a brilliant bright green color. The glass smelled unmistakably sweet and toasted, you might suspect rice was being cooked.
This fragrance is the result of the hand made element of the Gan Lu processing, Nie explained to us.
The leaves are toasted over a flame in a large wicker plate by hand, lending the aroma of toasted rice to the Gan Lu.
This smell can actually be removed by baking the leaves two or three times, but this is usually skipped, as the toasted rice smell is the only indication that the tea has been hand processed.
If you have a trusted manufacturer, you can request to have the Gan Lu thrice baked and taste an exquisitely delicate green tea. Us? We love the toasted sweet rice.
I forgot to mention the other tea we tried with Nie, Mao Feng. While less in price and rarity than Gan Lu, and processed by a machine, we were blown away by the taste: Christmas!
It had a nutty, spicy, cinnamon aroma and prickly yet smooth taste that brought a bright cheeriness "of the season."
In addition to the Mao Feng and Gan Lu, two other teas are produced on Mengding mountain, both yellow teas.
Mengding Huangya and the highly prized and difficult to attain Mengding Shihua. We're hoping to get our hands on some 2018 Shihua when the season rolls around, but here's a good article about what makes Shihua so unique.
A Successful Chinese Tea Sourcing Mission
Our time on Mengding mountain was drawing to a close. We picked up a very limited batch of 2017 Mengding Gan Lu and 2017 Mengding Mao Feng to bring back with us to America.
The Gan Lu has a bright character, and very well represents the region. The Mao Feng is utterly delightful - you don't want to miss out on it.
We'll be visiting the remote Mengding mountain again in the future, but for now we'll have our tea to give us quite reminders.