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Winter into Spring

by Lydia Kung

A brief geography refresher first: the province of Hubei lies in the center of China, north of the Yangtze River. Visitors to the gorges embark or disembark from points in Hubei. On the other side of the river, to the south, is Hunan, and south of Hunan and a little to the west is Guangxi province. All are tea producing regions.

This mid-February 2017 photo from a tea producer in Hubei shows snow on the tea bushes.

About ten days later (Feb. 28th), I received this shot of the first sproutings on tea plants in Hunan, and I had already had reports of early warm weather in Guangxi.

Early spring green teas make their appearance with some fanfare and a price tag to match the excitement. (One example is the 88th night Sencha from Japan, counted down from January 1st each year.) This is a time of close attention to weather conditions, especially for those single plucking teas, with just one window of opportunity each year.

What makes these first flush teas so special?

Camellia sinensis yields tea all four seasons; in Taiwan, there is even a harvest between the winter and spring periods. In most areas, however, as temperatures drop from November thru early March, the tea plants are dormant. Not only are ambient temperatures low but the soil is drier.

Nonetheless, photosynthesis continues, and the plants absorb micro-nutrients from the soil to replenish their almost depleted reserves after nine months of yielding new growth. The period from November through mid-March can be thought of as a “recuperating” stage, and when ambient temperatures reach 14-15° (C), the soil temperature also rises slowly.

I have previously alluded to the “stress” to which tea plants are subjected during winter, especially in a place like Nepal, where the temperature can drop to zero°, yet it is this winter cold coupled with dry weather that cause the enzymes in nutrient reserves in the tea plant to thicken or to become concentrated.

When the 1st flush starts, these properties that inhere in the leaves become more pronounced through various processing methods we know well (withering, rolling, etc.)

Being early does not guarantee great flavor. In some instances, the all-bud teas are beautiful to behold, and explains why they are sometimes brewed in tall glasses, to better appreciate the visual aspect, but some buds do not yield much flavor while other varietals offer up a surprisingly robust cup, even from an all-bud tea.

I wait and hold out for Silver Needles from Fujian, Pi Lo Chun from Jiangsu, and Dragonwell from Zhejiang, which are April – May teas, rather than bringing in earlier versions from non-origin regions such as Yunnan, Sichuan, or Hunan, where exporters have either already offered these or will be doing so soon. (Have to admit, however, that while justifiable, the wait is not easy.)

One tea for which I won’t have to wait much longer is the Organic Himalayan Honey Green. I try each year to contract for the entire first invoice (plucking) and most of the second, as these batches represent the felicitous rejuvenation described above.