Spirit Tea

Earth Humanity Heaven

An uncommon selection of handmade teas, each reflecting a unique moment in space and time.

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Yunnan Tea Journey Day 1: Kunming

I've been telling people this isn't a business trip, nor is it a vacation. Many tea drinkers must feel it. Yunnan has tantalized me for years. If anything, the trip feels most like a pilgrimage. Yunnan is the cradle of tea, where humanity first made use of the tea plant, it is also its biological origin. There are trees in this province reported to be thousands of years old. Wild forest groves with canopy-high buds and heirloom species of Camellia found nowhere else on the planet.

There's also a mystery to Yunnan—there are many languages spoken here. It's primarily a rural province, many regions didn't have print currency until the 1960s. It's also one of the poorest. There's endless questions of "authenticity" surrounding its products, especially Pu'Er, which has fought counterfeiting since its resurgence. With twenty six recognized ethnicities Yunnan is far and away China's most diverse province. Tucked under the Tibetan Plateau to the north (the name Yunnan means 'South of the Clouds'), Myanmar to the west, and with Laos and Vietnam to the south it is the literal end of China. To truly taste Yunnan tea, you have to go.

I landed in the province's capital Kunming last night after about 20 hours of travel from Chicago. I stepped out of the airport into a cool, misty rainfall. It stormed through the night and into the next morning. Our ragtag tour group assembled in the lobby that afternoon: a collection of professionals, scholars, producers and the tea curious compiling our resources to properly see the region. Our tour is guided by the sagacious Zhuping Hodge.


We went to the Old Town for bowls of Crossing the Bridge noodles, an iconic local dish. Then made our way to Pinyuan, a Pu'er tea house whose courtyard footprint dates back to the Ming Dynasty. It has since been painstakingly restored to its original specifications. A calligraphy scroll hangs in the store which says "The whole house is full of jade and gold." I ask Guo, a young local tea business owner (and regular) who the artist is. "We usually don't tell people this" he says, "But it's Peng Yiluan" First Lady of China. 


In the teahouse, our friend Dong Li plies us with a selection of Yunnan lots: a Lin Cang Old Tree black, Jing Gu Shu Pu'Er 2014, and a 1997 Sheng Pu'er Yung De. A Yunnan coffee also sneaks its way in. Mr. Chen is there, a traveling lecturer, microbiologist, botanist and one of the first minds behind the revitalization of Pu'er culture. He watches as tea is poured and patiently answers our questions about sunlight, fermentation, caffeine and mao cha. As with all things in tea, it only breeds more questions. That's ok because he'll be joining us on the tour.

We walk through the old town at sunset. It's warmer now, with the same heavy aroma—a mixture of incense, gasoline and frying meat. The market stalls are alive. We browse shops and walk through a lane of flower sellers. These are some of the most vigorous succulents I've ever seen. Over dinner, we eat the customarily behemoth assortment of local dishes. The twelve of us take turns introducing ourselves and we talk about the trip—the rest of which veers headfirst into the forests and mountains, rivers and lakes. We fill ourselves up on bamboo shoots, orchid root, sticky rice and get drunk toasting cheap beer and rice liquor. We haven't seen a tea field and it's already starting to feel like a homecoming.




Killing Earl Grey

At S P I R I T, we often disparage the perfectly normal tea types that happen to lie outside of our ethos. Flavored teas, teas that are blends with non-tea ingredients and even (for a different reason) scented teas. Most major tea companies make their millions selling just what I've described. But few titles escape the fury of our lips so often as Earl Grey.

Most of its legend is nonsense. And, for what it's worth, orientalist. According to the most popular legend, white savior Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, saved a hapless mandarin's son from drowning during his time in China. The mandarin was so grateful that he sent a shipload of black tea to England, blended with Bergamot for flavor and preservation in the long overseas voyage. In addition to the fact that Charles Grey never went to China, bergamot doesn't grow in China and a mandarin would never have the financial resources to charter a trade ship to England—the whole story reeks of Western exceptionalism.

And if you've ever seen an actual bergamot in your life or even know what one is, I commend you. The worst part of earl grey is, it is always artificial. Unfortunately, someone didn't just juice fresh bergamot over your tea leaves. That was done with chemical oils.  Most tea companies use these chemical additives which come in giant plastic containers with warning labels printed over the sides. When a little oil leaks over the lid it stains the label and the plastic permanently. 

Some of these companies have labeled it "Natural Earl Grey flavor" or "Natural Bergamot flavor" but nothing could be more misleading or untrue. 

So when most people taste black teas like our Qi Lan, which we've affectionately dubbed "true earl grey", which express strong citrus character—without the aid of chemicals or flavorings, only the natural beauty of the leaf and the land and people behind it—people either find it "light" (compared to the lab engineered synthetic flavoring they're accustomed to) or are amazed to learn that the leaf can possess such naturally beautiful characteristics. Tasting and appreciating a leaf for its simple, understated beauties is a process that takes patience. 

As you can see, we get a little irked when it comes to public lies of the tea industry like this. Not just because it hurts our young business, but because we believe passionately in what we do—and that tea is first and foremost a story of the earth. 

But that's why we're here. To drink tea with you.