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  1. When you read about Pu'er tea in the news or in general-purpose reference articles, you usually find discussion of its compressed forms, such as cakes, blocks and so on, with little or no mention of these teas in their loose-leaf form. So I thought it might be fun to remedy that oversight and introduce you to loose-leaf Pu'er; it has lots to recommend it. The two main kinds of Pu'er tea from a flavor standpoint are the fully-fermented ripe 熟茶 ones and the un-fermented raw ones 生茶。Both types can be found compressed into cakes 饼茶,bricks 砖茶,bowls/bird's nests 沱茶 as well as a few other forms, such as balls 丸子 and even gourds or melons 瓜子。Here's a cake 饼 of ripe Pu'er 熟茶 from my tea cupboard. It's easy to see how dense it is. Similarly, this brick 砖 of raw Pu'er 生茶 shows the same tightly-compressed structure. Tea which is compact, like these, is easier to transport, especially if one were moving it hundreds of miles over rugged mountains along a narrow "tea-horse" trail, 茶马古道 from South Yunnan all the way to high Tibet. It's also easier to store for prolonged, controlled ageing. I didn't have much loose-leaf Pu'er on hand, so before being able to present this topic adequately, I needed to make a trip to the wholesale tea market for supplies. That is definitely no hardship, and I always welcome any excuse to go there. Just ride city bus #25 for 25 or 30 minutes, arriving where 二环北路 enters 金买小区。 Kunming is one of China's three main "tea capitals" or tea trading hubs, alongside Shanghai and Guangzhou. We have two main wholesale tea markets, one in the north and another in the south. I visit both, but prefer the north one mainly for ease of access. This market has between 500 and 1,000 tea stores clustered together in two blocks of medium-rise buildings on both sides of the street. Most stores there have a three-tier business model: most income derives from selling large lots of tea in bulk by freight or by mail. This tea goes to other smaller wholesaler distributors as well as to some large chain retailers. Some of their sales are direct, to regional retailers who visit every so often and carry their goods back to their shops in bulk and sell them there at a mark up, often packaging the tea nicely. And last of all, there are the small-scale walk-in buyers, such as me. We are only one step above beggars in the overall scheme of things, but Chinese hospitality prevails, and the merchants welcome us, sit us down and brew us cups and cups of their best tea. And what's more, they typically regale us with tales. That's the best part. Before long, they are flipping through photos on their phone that show them posing in front of huge ancient tea trees way back in semi-secret mountains. "When the rain cleared, we found ourselves just beside this one, which was 1,200 years old, and has been in the family since ..." The white elephants flanking the market gate above are a reference to the (diminishing) wild herds in the hills of Xishuangbanna, where lots of great Yunnan tea originates. One enters any one of several such gates, and winds around inside, where steep warrens of tea stores are stacked three-stories tall. Photo above right, shows "melon/gourd-pagoda tea," stacked as an entry-way decoration to one of the many shops. The large cartons of tea behind it are stacked everywhere. These shops seldom have a polished feel, and serve mainly as storage space for bulk tea. Some stores mainly sell Pu'er and some mainly sell red tea 滇红茶,while others specialize in Yunnan's green teas and others feature Yunnan's little-known white teas. Most, however, have some overlap. It's delightful to wander from one to another, tasting this and that. You can usually depend on these sellers to know the best way to brew these teas, absent any hokey showmanship or flourish. They are not "performing a tea ceremony" for unwary tourists in Beijing's scam alleys, but they are still using kung-fu methods and utensils. These shopkeepers are not playing games with tourists, they just want to let you share their appreciation of their wares and hopefully buy some at the end. But there is never any pressure. After visiting one store where I could not understand the heavy dialect of the boss man, I wandered around several other venues and eventually found a top-notch, mellow loose leaf ripe Pu'er 熟普洱散茶, bought 150 grams of it; and likewise settled on a bright and balanced raw loose leaf Pu'er 生普洱散茶,bought the same amount of it. These two large bags of tea are enough to last me several years unless I wind up giving some away (which often happens.) Cost was 230 Yuan together, and the seller threw in a handful of balls of red tea 滇红茶 to lure me back another time. And I probably will return; could not have been more pleased with these purchases and the overall experience. Thus equipped, I rode the bus back to my apartment. Looking forward to showing you how the shopping expedition worked out, but am afraid of loosing what's here already, so I'm going to post as is and then add to it. (Sometimes the forum software fails and the browser swallows it all without a trace. This can cause a grown man to cry, which is not a pretty sight.)
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