; Cwyn's Death By Tea: New Suits and Old Shous: Sessions with the Longrun Company ;

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Suits and Old Shous: Sessions with the Longrun Company

At last summer’s World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Longrun Tea Group based in Yunnan, China. They had a booth set up on the Expo floor, and served shou puerh tea. This booth was not very crowded compared to many other booths, and watching people walk on by I surmised that puerh is still a rather confusing tea for many people, and I suppose typical US restaurants are not necessarily looking for shou puerh. I had the booth to myself which is mighty fine for someone like me.

Longrun Campus
source longruntea.com
Longrun is one of the largest puerh factories in China, and the only large factory with shares traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. (see here for English website) The impressive company campus resembles some of the technology campuses we have in the US. In addition, Longrun funds the Yunnan Tea Research Institute, and Tea College at Yunnan Agricultural University, a think tank, and laboratory. These facilities produce many scientific journal papers flooding the research market over the past few years, many with a "pharmaceutical" bent. I have noticed that our National Institute of Health journal archives contain a huge number of papers from the Yunnan Tea Institute. These papers have some critical issues worth discussing in scientific and academic settings. However, this goes beyond my blog and my blood pressure. Younger people looking for research topics and literature review opportunities will hopefully deal with these. A thorough grounding in statistical methods of analysis at the doctoral level is required.

Suffice to say, Longrun is at the heart and hub of the major puerh industry in China. The company produces well over 200 products a year, according to their website. Shou puerh is a particular specialty and the company boasts modern stainless steel production and no fewer than 86 quality checks performed on their shou puerh teas. If you want clean shou, this is where you go to find it. Longrun reports their tea is one of the popular gift teas and ceremonial teas at the national level served to visiting foreign guests. To me this is indeed wonderful, that puerh tea which is a traditional craft product is proudly served and homage is paid to it at the national level. Government dollars invested in research is “walking the talk” of the importance of tea as an industry and culture in China.

Prior to 2005, Longrun was one of the state-owned factories producing tea under the government label. The company was sold into private hands in 2005, and this coincides with the fall-off of writing among many collectors. The teas mainly of interest over the past decade are mostly those produced by the old factory prior to 2005. More famous factories like Menghai (Taetea) still retain collector caché whereas Longrun might be more comparable to Lipton in the US. Such a comparison is perhaps something of a compliment: past articles on puercn have stressed that a goal of shou puerh factories is to find a way to market shou in the west comparable to companies like Lipton. In the US, Longrun has a branch company called SpringTeaUSA which sells some of their products, mainly wholesale.

The professional corporate image of the company was well on display at the World Tea Expo. This is not “flip flops and a rock” factory business. The three men representing the company wore formal business suits, and one member of the team was an American who said he grew up in California. All three men displayed friendly enthusiasm and repeated what other puerh and heicha sellers said, that they found relatively few Americans interested in their type of teas. I could see all the traffic at the green tea and flavored tea booths. I was happy to reassure the gentlemen that I have undivided attention to give a puerh company and am more than willing to drink everything they have, all by myself. In terms of dollars spent, one puerh buyer easily outspends and generally out-drinks a hundred green tea buyers.

Longrun served shou puerh at the Expo, and the company produces both sheng and shou teas. Surprisingly, the shou puerh is the more expensive product in their online catalog, some teas well on upwards of $150 per beeng. This probably reflects the greater production costs of shou puerh compared to sheng. Their leaves are obtained from plantation farmers who must meet strict criteria set by the company.  Thus, the sheng products are not the super premium old arbor “hike up the mountain” teas, but raw versions of the tea they purchase for shou production. I did not try their sheng, and while they had some on display I imagine these are not considered “ready to drink.” Instead, I drank a decade old shou with surprisingly perfect “old book” dry storage, and not much wo dui flavor remaining. This shou was quite impressive, actually.

I have been storing shou myself for going on a decade, and lately I appreciate more and more a decade or older shou teas rather than younger shou. The wo dui tends to overwhelm other flavors in young shou, and I really like a bit of storage flavor. Dry stored shou gets that old book or old wood flavor, and wetter stored shou can taste like oak leaves under wet snow. Storage flavor is one of the flavors to appreciate in any puerh. Of course the more flavor notes the better, but the storage note is one reason aged tea is so wonderful. Longrun’s aged shou is remarkably well-stored, rather unexpected for a company that produces new and gift teas. My appreciation was very sincere: the only other really decent shou I tried at the Expo was a sourced tea sold by Ito En, a Japanese company who obviously did not produce their tea.

The Longrun reps were really friendly guys and they gave me a baggie of tea to drink at home. They said this shou was a pile of tea found in the Longrun factory when it transferred to private ownership back in 2005. The door of the factory closed on full production, and so the new owners acquired everything in it. They found a pile of shou and no idea how long the shou sat there. The tea was dated 2005 coinciding with finding the pile, and the owners kept it since then. Wow, this is quite an interesting find for me!

Old tea nuggets, lao cha tou.
So, I have had this baggie since June and now we are in October. I let the tea stay open in the baggie for a couple of weeks but since June it did not develop much smell at all. My older shous in crocks are more fragrant by contrast. I am guessing this tea is preserved “as is,” but not as actively aged like the newer company productions.

I brewed up some chunks, and the tea is clearly a “lao cha tou,” or the lumps of shou that occur in a pile setting and are normally broken up before pressing into cakes, unless deliberately sold as chunks. This tea took several rinses and a sitting in a very hot Jian Shui clay teapot to open up. The tea is quite lively in the mouth, and to me appears to be a less heavily fermented shou than is usual with lao cha tou, probably evidence that the tea was a project that got left unfinished. It has the wine and mushroom flavors of other lao cha tou teas.

Cloudy brew with yellow ring
shows the fermentation halted.
Two issues with this tea, one is I found some char in the strainer and charred, burnt twigs. The other issue is the tea lacks clarity, evidence of a bacterial imbalance that probably occurred as a result of the fermentation left unfinished and uncontrolled. This is not obviously representative of any of the current products by Longrun, rather this is a historical vintage product from the old days. So nobody can generalize Longrun’s current products based on this shou. This tea certainly appears to match the story of “left in a pile.”

I steeped about eight times before the steep time needed increasing past flash steeps. The tea is not yet fully fermented and can benefit from further aging, evidenced by the yellowish ring around the cup and tinge to the tea, for it is still very slightly raw. The clarity will improve, the tea cleared up quite a bit for the ninth steeping, yet fully clearing will take a long time and I doubt this will ever be a great tea. The brew was not funky or fishy at all, but the wo dui is still strong for a twelve year old tea. In fact, I enjoyed much more Longrun’s later 2007 vintage shou, a cleaner tea with a perfect storage flavor.

Just nothing left after nine steepings, even when boiled.
The tea fell off after nine steeps. I tried boiling the leaves hard on the stove which often yields a nice cup from older shou and lao cha tou, but these leaves were done and I could not get more than just mildly flavored water. But hey, factories do not make premium shou every day and this tea was merely one current project when the factory changed hands. It is what it is. A photo of the wet leaves is difficult to capture the tea, even with my naked eye the lighter brown leaves are hard to distinguish after all that brewing.

A couple of charred sticks, some lighter brown leaves.
What is so special is that this 2005 is a vault tea from Longrun, part of their history as a factory. I am incredibly lucky to taste a bit of this history, for I doubt many people have this kind of opportunity and from such a famous factory as Longrun. I can appreciate the rough character of the old shou because it matches the story behind it, the tea tells that story perfectly well. I can appreciate also that the craft quality of shou tea is now at a new level due to science and improvements in industrial production. A comparison of this tea with Longrun’s newer products illustrates the company’s journey and achievements. The resulting financial and commercial success speaks for itself.

I want to thank Longrun for this rare opportunity to drink a bit of their history. This is a special experience I am not likely to have again in my lifetime. I feel more favorably disposed to consider Longrun teas after drinking their finely stored 2007 vintage. I worry that someday the premium teas may no longer be available in the west. A company like Longrun aiming for excellence and selling in the western market reassures me that we will always have something to drink.


  1. Cwyn, I'll have you know that I love shou puer tea the most... but green is a close second.

    1. You'd fit right in at the Expo either way :)

  2. You are a lucky lady! New contacts for us to explore...