Hello. My name is Rui. I’m from the mountains of Guizhou in Southwest China.
As a girl, when I wasn’t climbing, I spent my days floating amongst the water buffaloes in the river, watching the fishermen on their bamboo rafts and their hungry pelicans diving for fish. The beautiful Karst mountains – unique to this region and home to ethnic tribes that remained unknown to the developed world until the late 1980s – are as wild and alive today as they have been for millennia.
Without roads to travel and machinery to farm, the people of Guizhou have always lived in tune with nature, taking only what the seasons offer them. For the last two thousand years we have sustainably harvested the wild teas our mother mountains have generously offered us.
Since moving to London in 2008 I’ve been our tea’s messenger, sharing many stories of my home through the gentle yet uncompromising voice of tea – and others I’ve met have shared with me their extraordinary stories, too. There simply cannot be a better way to enjoy tea than to share it. Through tea we can connect with one another, with ourselves, and with the rest of the world.
Northeast Guizhou is home to the ancient Tai tea tree. Ranging from 800 to 1500 years old, the Tai trees tower between three and ten metres high. Their extraordinary deep purple leaves are a mark of their ancient origin and healthy habitat, and the rich nutritional benefits they bring.
Every year, as spring sets in, I set out with my friends from a local Gelao tribe into the mountains to hunt for the very best the season has to offer. Using tall ladders we climb to the very tips of the Tai trees, where the leaves are lushest. Once our baskets are full, we carefully carry them back to the village and deliver them into the arms of the Deng brothers.
The Deng brothers’ expertise in Tai tea-making has been renowned in the region for generations. But they’re more than clever craftsmen. They’re guardians of Shiqian and its people – teaching the tribes how to protect the land and its ancient species, always paying the villagers fairly and offering apprenticeships to aspiring young tea-makers. The Deng brothers’ belief in making the very best of nature’s gifts makes them true leaders in their community.
The Tea Master’s family teas – which were enjoyed by the emperors of China throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the aristocrats and royals in 18th century Great Britain – are made in the very same way today as they have been for over 400 years. The first time I met him the Master shared one of his green teas with me. Despite being brewed for 50 minutes it was strong and intensely floral, but still refreshing, with an almost minty aftertaste. So impressed was I by that tea that I followed the Master into the mountains in Southwest Guizhou to discover what it takes to craft a brew that doesn’t bitter.
Through their long practice, the Master’s family has recognised and respected the natural goodness and living energy of fresh, wild tea leaves. The secret to their craft is in keeping the energy of the leaves active throughout the whole tea-making process. Such a task – in contrast to the modern industrial way of quick-drying huge quantities of leaves at high temperatures – demands time and dedication. Carefully watching, smelling and touching the leaves as they dry in indirect sunlight over 20-28 days, the Master expertly judges whether or not the leaves have enjoyed enough sun. Mountain weather is, of course, famously unpredictable, so each small batch of leaves requires his constant attention.
This slow, careful sun-drying allows the leaves’ circulation to remain healthy and active long after they’re made into tea. The process requires immeasurable skill, but is immensely rewarding. No matter how it’s brewed, The Master’s tea simply doesn’t get bitter. Stored correctly, it’ll slowly change in colour and flavour and remain alive for years – just like the Master’s tea legacy itself.
In Chinese there are three parts to the word “tea”.
sits at the top; “Tree”
forms the bottom; and “people”
sits in between.
The word originated with our ancestors 2,200 years ago, of the belief that tea narrates the moment when “all (three elements) become one”. When I asked the Master how to make tea he told me:
“Treat the leaves as arms, and the stem as the body, keep them as a whole and let the sun flow into its blood. This is the only way you can taste the sun through tea, and the only reason you can taste it is because the tea hasn’t stopped breathing since it was found and picked. Quite simply, to make tea is to acknowledge and respect the fact that nature does most for us. Practice patience, and learn its language when it speaks to you. The rest is easy.”
Just like hundreds of tribes who have called the inaccessible mountains of Guizhou home before us, The Tea Master’s craft is a heartfelt tribute to the nature he breathes with. Tea has always been our most treasured harvest – and each and every one of our ancestral tribes have had their own ways of picking, preparing and enjoying it. Over the years they’ve learnt not just to overcome the many adversities they’ve come up against but to turn them to their advantage, developing new knowledge and skills each and every time. They’ve resolutely responded to nature’s pace, never rushing their careful craft which has been and will continue to be passed down through generations.
On behalf of Grass People Tree I‘m so excited to share these precious, clean teas with the rest of the world. They’ve been proven to be incomparably beneficial to our health, and I hope that everyone who drinks them will feel better for it. Through sharing our tea I also want to show Guizhou's people that the stories of our ancient produce, unshakeable commitment to our environment and traditional craftsmanship can bring people across the world closer to their own heritage, and each other. Ultimately, we want to encourage a healthier, friendlier and more responsible circle of tea drinking that benefits us all.