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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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1 thought on “Ancient tree tea (old arbor – gushu)

  1. I love Puer and tea exploration but challenge the reasons for gushucha being special. Firstly, puer is aged and prior to around 1990 (that was yesterday sic) Yunnanese threw away old cakes of ruined green tea. It is the Taiwanese that popularised “old” tea, anathema to the received wisdo of tea storage. Damp storage, blimey, yet this produces the mould that Wodui process tries to copy – badly, in my opinion.
    Anyway, gushu – To say it has deep roots and accesses the parts other trees do not is mot convincing. What is relevent is the massive gene pool that southwest Yunnan produces. Within a locality that gene pool has produced a landrace and as we kn0w (or should know!) the tea plant variety and sub variety and hybrid has more effect than the next influencer – terroir. Tasting a mountain tea is to taste the particular landrace.
    Next comes the good bit – what influences the landrace. Well, gene expression is the biggy.
    (1) If a plant is young it will not have survived major abiotic stresses activities such as scorching summers, freezing winters, high winds but an old tree will so will express genes accordingly which produce tea flavour compounds.
    (2) The plant will produce terpenes to deter insect predators. Clearly, this only happens if young tree is attacked by a jassid for example. Daddy gushu has this happen regularly so expresses the gene very quickly on attack – the troops are ready already”. But the plant conserves its energy for growth and reproduction (don’t we all!) so the expression dies down a little when no attack is around and quickly upregulates when next attacked – baby plant needs to start from scratch. Now, when an occassional predator attacks, say one plague every 10 years, the plant must have memory. We know this happens because plants defend in spring against spring insects then these genes lie low in the summer until nest spring when they will now be ready.The genes are there after the first attack and remain ready to upregulate and express the plant terpene defense. Baby plant has none of this and may be eaten before this defense arrives but gushu is there already. Now this effect happens with many threats so gushu has wisdom genes!
    (3) Plants are sessile so survivors need to communicate. They do this through terpenes. A plague of thripps attack the corner of the garden, Genes take some time to upregulate to defend so some plants are gobbled up but some manage to survive long enough to mount the defense. Trees further away detect these terpene aromas and get their defences in place before the attack.

    This means that the old gushu has changed its genetic structure to defend the local threats, that is, it has formed a landrace. Each mountain will have a different cocktail of threats, different aroma compounds so different tea. The older the tree the more “wisdom” or terpene expression it will have.

    I would love a reply so we can further discuss.

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