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Looking Back: 2017 in Teas

by Lydia Kung

Some eight months later I still remember waiting for better samples of some spring teas that never materialized. Instead, we heard news about too much rain and cold weather when teas should have been picked in April. This year we weren’t able to bring in a few teas, Yellow teas being the most notable and missed group, because of weather related conditions. Production was down from 20% to 30% for higher-end spring teas in most of China’s provinces, resulting in higher costs.

A brief warm spell in May seemed to bode well for jasmine production, but again, rain dampened those projections, making sourcing very challenging this year for this naturally scented tea. We cast our net wider than ever for jasmine leaf teas, but ended up with producers we’ve know for many years. Three jasmine leaf teas (Hao Ya, 1st grade, and Yin Hao) just in are reassuringly excellent and true to standard: fine-leafed with the natural bouquet from tea that was only flower-scented.

Too much rain was also blamed for uneven production in the higher end oolongs in Fujian in early autumn. And we all see the effects of the work stoppage in Darjeeling that necessitated scrambling for what was already a paucity in supply.

The lament of ever rising costs is a familiar one and certainly not limited to teas. We’ve been hearing about rising labor costs for tea pickers every year, as an ever larger number of workers opt to try factory work in China’s towns and cities. New government policies to protect the environment mean investments in machinery and waste disposal management. More producers are aiming to become EU compliant, a necessity to enter the markets there, and is another factor in rising costs. This also accounts for more attention going towards higher-end teas, teas with better margins that will cover higher garden and factory management costs.

In China’s domestic tea market, Black teas seem to be leveling out, and alas [just my opinion!], Ti Kuan Yin is not gaining back its former pride of place in the scheme of things. White teas continue to be popular.

My guess is that White teas are favored for their supposed health benefits (as an aged cake) rather than taste. Once a mere drop in the bucket (about 5%) of Fujian’s tea output and mostly destined for the export market, more gardens are now allocated to White teas. Some batches of premium Peony White were sold out by the end of June, barely a month after harvesting.

The “hot” teas in China are those from Wuyi (northern Fujian). The photo below shows the iconic boulders surrounded by tea bushes and bamboo that are a defining feature of Wuyi.

This is easy to understand: Wuyi’s name resonates far and wide and is a tea to which consumers aspire. Here we have a preeminent example of teas as an expression of place. Affixing “Wuyi” to a tea name can bump up the price significantly, underlining limited production in a small, scenic, verdant area.

So how do we balance two features of tea, place of origin vs. processing methods? How important is place?

Is it okay to buy from non- traditional place of origin?

We’ve all become well acquainted with the concept of terroir and the cachet of “single origin” teas. The notion of a very place-specific product, of a tea that is expressive of one region, and one that does not yield the same result when transplanted – is an appealing one.

If we make the term more inclusive to embrace local culture, then we are able to take into account local traditions that dictate processing methods and local taste preferences. (For instance, it comes as a surprise to find that Lu’ An Melon Seed green, an expensive tea, is not comprised of single buds or a bud-&- one leaf sets. a choice passed down over many years.)

Keemun and Yunnan Black teas are easy examples. (This photo shows typical house styles in Anhui, and due to limited space in the hills, crops are dried on rooftops in late autumn.)

The former group from the Keemun region in Anhui and the bolder teas from southwestern China, the oldest tea producing region, are distinctive enough to make them easily recognizable.

Some other teas, however, present a more complex picture.

We have all come to associate Dragonwell with Zhejiang province. Yet demand for Dragonwell far exceeds supply, and in recent years we see Dragonwell from areas such as Sichuan and Hunan, although the place of origin bears little or no mention. That would no doubt be a counterproductive move. One clue is the tea’s early appearance, in March rather than late April or May – which is when production in Zhejiang begins.

The same is true of Pi Lo Chun (Green Spiral Spring). Native to Jiangsu, we now see offerings from places such as Hunan from producers eager to latch onto the fame of this tea and the deep pocketed consumers who seek out this tea each spring. From what we see from our vendors, there is no intent to dissemble. A Hunan supplier has never presented to us a Pi Lo Chun from Hunan as one from Jiangsu, and when they have an oolong, they do disclose that it came from Fujian.

So once again, how important is place in the tea context? When it is alright or indeed, even prudent, to pay less attention to place?

For some teas, place is the whole point, as in Huang Shan (Yellow Mtn.) Maofeng. There are better tasting green teas (for the price), but the authentic tea comes from the Yellow Mtn. locale, where craggy cliffs dotted with pines are a huge tourist draw.

White teas from Yunnan are quite distinct from those from Fujian, and from Fuding, specifically, if one is familiar with the latter. White Peony teas from Yunnan look different, but this not an easy tell for consumers to pick up.

With Oolongs, it’s not only the place that counts but the complex processing methods that have been developed over generations in Fujian, and both factors explain why oolongs from other areas (on the mainland) are not very successful. Sichuan and Yunnan, prodigious tea producing provinces, do not offer this category. Hunan suppliers send us oolong samples, but these usually turn out to originate from Fujian.

The concept of “single origin” is easy to understand; it should not, however, rule out many other teas from no-name or lesser know regions. Alongside that prized label, processing method should carry equal weight because that reflects intent, and thus a way of evaluating quality.

At a basic level, we see the marvelous potential of some tea cultivars, their malleability. A cultivar that has always been made into an oolong now gets made into a black tea, with delicious results. (Single Trunk teas, and a black from the Meizhan varietal are examples.) Some green teas are finished in semi-balled shapes, probably inspired by Ti Kuan Yin, and we find that they give those long lasting infusions for which Ti Kuan Yin is known.

Or consider a Dragonwell cultivar that was made not into flat spear shapes but processed as a traditional, rolled green – a less costly process resulting in a cup that when tasted blind, evokes Dragonwell – no surprise here.

At another level of understanding, we can delve into why teas take certain shapes. All (pan-fired) China green teas are processed minimally within the same framework of withering, de-enzyming, rolling, and drying. Yet we see a myriad of shapes in the finished products. I have considered this subject in the past: Why all these shapes? Wuyuan, the first certified organic garden in Jiangxi province, is a beautifully pristine area dominated by rolling green hills. That one area produces several (expensive) extraordinary teas, but they all look quite different. How does that finished form affect or contribute to the desired flavor? In this perspective, place might be a given, but the variations in manipulation of the leaves are the heart of the matter.