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Ancient tree tea (old arbor – gushu)

Ancient tree tea

“Ancient tree tea” (古树茶) is a quality criterion mostly used for high-end Pu’er and Dianhong. The two signs for ancient tree are transcribed as “gushu”. Another synonym is “old arbor tea”.  What exactly is ancient tree tea?  Why are Pu’er Teas made with material from ancient tea trees a class of their own? These are the questions we will be answering in this post.

What does ancient tree tea mean?

To be called “ancient tree”, a tea needs to fulfill both parts of the definition:

  • Most tea plants will never become a tree. This is not a question of age. It depend on the type of tea plant to which they belong. Only tea plants of the big leaves varieties (大叶种) grow into trees.  These grow mostly in Yunnan province, where they can be found both in the wild and in the cultivated form. Regardless of their size, they are recognisable at their larger trunk, their stems (more distant from each other), and their bigger leaves. Pu’er and Dianhong are two tea varieties only made with leaves from this kind of trees.
  • The second aspect of the definition is a little bit more subject to interpretation. The consensus among Chinese tea connoisseurs is, that a tea tree needs to be at least three hundred years old to be called ancient. This a very high threshold and not many tea plants meet that requirement. This is why products made with tea plants over a hundred years are often already referred to as”gushu”.

Why are Pu’er Teas made with ancient tea trees the best?

Like icebergs, only parts of a tree are directly visible. In the case of the tree, it is the roots which are hidden. The older the tree, the longer are its roots. They are the contact between the soil and the plants. With longer roots , the plants are able to absorb more of the soil’s minerals at different levels. This, in turn, gives to the tea made with leaves from ancient trees a more complex and refined flavour.

For the same reason, tea connoisseurs can recognize the mountain from which the leaves of a pure origin raw Pu’er, made from ancient tea trees, come from. Each mountain has its unique soil and climate, which directly impact the taste of the teas.

The flavour of teas made with the big leaves varietal is more intense. In the case of raw Pu’er, tea’s natural bitterness is therefore relatively strong. With raw Pu’er made with ancient trees, this bitterness is harmoniously balanced by sweetness and a complexity of other taste directions. Pu’er Tea made with old arbor has both a strong aftertaste and a thick brew, signs of the highest quality in Pu’er Teas.

As with all other quality criteria, it is their combination that is important. Just because a tea is labelled as “gushu” or “old arbor” is not enough to make it stand out.

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