Early Spring Teas

by Lydia Kung

In early March, I wrote briefly about the winter dormant period for tea plants and what that means for the earliest new growth teas.

Taiwan has a winter crop and even one in between winter and spring, but for China, spring is a key season for green, yellow, white teas, and a small number of black teas. Unfortunately, as you can see from the photo here, it’s been a rainy spring in China’s tea growing regions.

“Before the Rain” (yu qian) is a nice turn of phrase for teas plucked and processed before the grave sweeping ceremony (Qing Ming) each year (April 4th in 2017), a period customarily marked by rainy weather. Pre Qing Ming teas are limited and costly. In fact, this year saw a short few days where teas were picked, only to have days of rain that did not let up, resulting in very slow growth of new sprouting and no further tea work for a spell.

We received many emails through the end of March about low temperatures mixed with rain, and apologies for “not the best bud teas.” Messages ran along the lines of …”today we had rain all day which means no teas are being made…so far we only have a small quantity of bud teas…for better quality, then have to wait a while.” Or, “quality is uneven and prices are not stable.”

When wholesale prices break the $100/lb barrier, they really need to be good value teas, and not just to be reliant on a famous name or location. To repeat: these early teas are costly because they come the first plucking, which may last only a couple of days, and some are associated with specific regions. This is a reminder for us to remember the timing of spring across the vast expanse that is China. We first see teas from the southwest, and as April turns to May, we will see more from the central provinces such as Anhui, Pi Lo Chun from Jiangsu, and finally !! new spring teas from coastal provinces such as Fujian.

So one caveat bears repeating: if you are offered a new Dragonwell in March or even early April, do question its origin. We received an offer of Dragonwell from Hunan on March 16th. Our pre Qing Ming Dragonwell from Zhejiang was sent by courier on 4/14, almost a month later. Rain just before Qing Ming had pushed back the picking.

Just because a tea is the earliest does not always guarantee superior quality in all senses, especially aroma and flavor. These are bound to be pretty teas, but depending on weather conditions, the 2nd pluck (bud & a leaf) or even 3rd (bud & 2 leaves) during this small window may be better overall than the first (just buds).

For instance, there was an exquisite Swallow’s Tongue (shown in the photo at left) that was finished in March; the dry tea showed excellent uniformity, a sign of precise plucking. Yet by dint of this being an all-bud tea, the flavor was too mild, leaving no pleasurable imprint on the palate memory. To pay well over $160/lb for such a tea did not make good sense.

Another example is a green named Wild Needles King – again, an early tea produced in very limited quantities, with a wholesale price tag of over $200/lb. The tea was clean and almost bracing in its freshness, but there was little in the way of development in the mouth or in its finish. So, another pass. (Show below at right here.)

I’d be the first to admit that these are daunting prices and present a marketing challenge. I have to keep reminding myself that a pound of tea (454 grams) could yield about 100-150 cups of tea (using 4 grams or 3 g per cup). Doing the math might make it easier to swallow: even the higher priced teas would still be under or around $2/serving for the consumer. And it would be a VERY nice cup (or two) indeed.

This should not convey the impression that the only good teas are those in this rarefied price range. There are many flavorful green teas with interesting leaf styles that showcase various processing methods that will come on the market in May – and are well worth the wait.

It is prudent to bear in mind that when it comes to green teas, our concern is rightly on timing. Even when the tea is made from the 2nd or 3rd round of plucking, it still speaks of a small window of time. Cognizant of the fact that green teas are minimalist, and as we calibrate our expectations of green teas’ flavor accordingly, there are still wonderful surprises – full flavors that belie the notion that these are (merely) minimalist teas.

How well known a tea is, whether it is a big-name tea, how early the tea shows up – these may up the cachet a tea carries, but when it comes to these early spring teas, our focus should remain on freshness, how true to character a tea is, and if the tea represents good value, and there are good values to be found at many price levels.