Beyond the Leaf
Spring is a special time for many cultures. In America we write songs about spring: -Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year -Springtime for Hitler and Germany -Spring Fever -It Might as Well Be Spring In the tea world they make special teas in spring… or do they? [caption id="attachment_216" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The tea bushes from which our 2013 Tai Ping Hou Kui was made. Photo taken April, 2013, Huang Shan Mountain region, Anhui Province, China[/caption] You always hear ‘spring picked teas are the best.’ Like most generalities there is some truth to this, but there are also a lot of exceptions. Why the heck would spring teas be the best anyway? I have spoken to tea botanists about this and their answer makes perfect sense: in most tea growing regions tea plants are dormant during the winter. This means that during those quiet months the plants are recovering from the previous year’s harvest. During that dormant period, and into the very early spring the plants are replenishing those chemicals which in the tea leaves produce those amazing aromas, tactile sensations, and flavors. The leaves will literally have greater amounts of sugars (glucose et al), and various flavor compounds (eg. theaflavins) for that first plucking. If you are a gardener, it is very similar to the fact that the first of the sweet peas or corn or the zucchini or whatever tends to be sweeter, more tender, has increased taste—it’s often bursting with flavor. The same with tea. Spring teas, especially green and white teas can be amazing and truly special. [caption id="attachment_217" align="alignright" width="357"] Tea fields undergoing drought conditions[/caption] But this only happens if a particular region is having an overall good year for tea. If they are having a drought, too much rain, too cold or too hot the spring teas may not be so great—in fact they can be inferior to the same tea made later in the year. Like always, it comes down to the individual tea. But, make no mistake a great spring tea can make your eyes roll back in your head and your toes curl. [caption id="attachment_218" align="alignleft" width="220"] Fresh plucked, plumb, leaves that will be made into Huang Shan Mao Feng[/caption] When I am considering buying/importing a spring tea from a grower, I always check the spring weather conditions for that region. I very closely examine the dry leaf; I look for tremendous color (specifics can vary depending on the type of tea). I often look for plumpness/thickness in the leaf- I am kind of looking for a Marilyn Monroe type of leaf, not a Kate Moss type. But these are just clues- ultimately everything depends on the steeped cup. Some of the names you will see associated with spring teas are: -88th Night Shincha- a Japanese first flush green tea, plucked on the 88th day of spring -Before the Rain Teas; picking of these Chinese teas begins in late March just before the Qing Ming Festival (around April 5th) and up to around April 20th. -Green Snail Spring: aka Pi Lo Chun, this Chinese green tea may be made throughout the tea season, but traditionally the very best is made in early spring. [caption id="attachment_219" align="aligncenter" width="604"] TeaSource 88th Night Shincha, 2013[/caption] For most Japanese and Chinese white, green, and oolong teas it is assumed that the spring teas of any particular type of tea will be superior, more aromatic, sweeter, and more flavorful (and more expensive) than a tea from later in the season. And this is often the case. But, you have to taste the tea, you can’t assume a “Spring tea” is going to be better. That is a major part of our job at TeaSource, tasting and evaluating - making sure any “Spring tea” we carry, is worthy of the name. What about black teas? Well, the term often used to describe spring black teas is “first flush” which literally means the first picking of leaves. And this term is most commonly used with Darjeeling teas. Great Darjeeling first flush teas can be amazing. They are usually made in March/April. They can be light, very bright, astringent, somewhat fruity, aromatic, and enlivening. In an interesting marketing twist, black tea growers are starting to use the “flush” terminology to market other black teas, besides Darjeeling. I’ve started to see first and second flush Assams, and even China “first flush” black tea. First flush black teas, while very aromatic and tasty, usually do not have the body or weight of the same tea plucked later in the year. For instance, first flush Assams often are very bright, even crisp, but they tend to be thinner (they don’t have as many bass notes), but second flush Assams are those more traditional Assams with heavy, thick colory, liquors, though they may lack the delicacy and complexity of a spring black tea. It can be a trade-off. But, there are some black teas, particularly from China, that are in their glory as spring harvest teas. For instance, Jin Jun Mei, one of our new spring teas. This black tea is harvested around the Qing Ming Festival and has a truly amazing flavor. [caption id="attachment_220" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The bushes from which our Jin Jun Mei was made, photo taken March, 2013, Wuyi County, Fujian Province, China[/caption] [caption id="attachment_222" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The golden leaves and golden liquor of Jin Jun Mei in a Chinese traditional gaiwan.[/caption] If spring teas are so great, why is TeaSource featuring them in the fall? Even though it is the 21st century, it still can take 1-4 months to get teas from origin to Minnesota. Some spring teas we air-ship and get them within a few weeks of harvest, and we make them available immediately. Other spring teas, for various reasons, we have to ship by sea and this can easily take 2-4 months. Chinese teas have been particularly challenging the last few years, as the Chinese government has tremendously increased the inspections on any export food item, like tea. This means Chinese teas are some of the safest in the world, but it really increases the amount of time it takes to get them to Minnesota. So, all September, we are featuring most of our 2013 spring teas. Remember we’ve already weeded out the ones that weren’t Marilyn Monroe-ish. All that is left are those spring teas that stop you in your tracks, take your breath away, and leave you struggling to find words. Enjoy.
Who would think tea professionals would ever get into disagreements that escalate into shouting matches? Certainly not I. But I’ve seen that when tea industry folks talk about white tea. I’ve even seen this at trade fairs and tea discussion panels at conventions. Thank goodness no punches were thrown—although with tea geeks like me, it probably would have been limited to ineffectual slaps? For the whole month of August TeaSource will be shining a spotlight on white teas, so this seemed the perfect time to talk about a fundamental tea difference of opinion.
Freshly plucked leaf for white tea
The first question is: what is white tea? In terms of production: white tea goes through the simplest of production processes. It begins with a unique gentle solar withering step, which can extend many hours, even into days, where they are using sunlight to help wither the leaves. Second, very limited oxidation occurs with white tea. This step is typically eliminated in the production process. But a minimal amount of oxidation occurs naturally over the course of manufacture. And thirdly, white teas typically, have no physical manipulation of the leave itself during manufacture: no rolling, twisting, panning, shaking, jiggling, caressing, tickling, etc. So stated very simplistically the production process of white is: a very long sun-wither, followed by drying. In terms of history: white tea traditionally is made in and around three small locales in Fujian province of China, the counties of Fuding, Jianyang, and Zhenghe. And naturally it would only be made from tea plants native to those locales. Some people say only tea made from those locales and those plants can be called white tea.
And this is where the fight begins. Is white tea defined by production process? Or is it defined by geography? This is very similar to the argument over Champagne. Does it have to be from the Champagne region of France? Or is a sparkling wine, made with the same production process the same grapes, and tasting roughly the same, but made in regions outside of France, still Champagne? I tend to not to take these kind of arguments too seriously, but to be fair this is a very legitimate question; especially for those small tea farmers in Fujian who have been making white tea for generations. All of a sudden white tea has grabbed worldwide attention and consumer interest. After more than a century of hand-making a wonderful little tea, mostly for their own local consumption, finally there is a larger demand for their product. This is their chance to get ahead. Is it right for folks who have only been making white tea for the last 5-10 years, to cash in on this sudden interest in white tea? But on the other hand these newbie white tea producers are typically using the exact same Fujian production processes, often using the Fujian tea plant cultivars, and not infrequently bringing in Fujian tea growers and manufacturers themselves to new regions to make these teas. In many cases this new white tea production has added a much needed spark to local tea industries outside of Fujian. And their white teas may look and taste as close to a Fuding white tea, as Fuding white tea tastes compared to a Zhenghe white tea. As I said, we are now in the realm of tea geeks.
TeaSource Bai Hao Silver Needles, from Fuding, Fujian, China on left, and Silver Peony White tea, from Yunan Province on right
But nonetheless this is an important question, and you should consider it as you buy white teas. You should know where you tea vendor stands on this issue, and exactly where their white teas are from. I believe the “process” defines white tea, not the geography. So TeaSource may carry white teas from many different regions. But we will always identify them when that is the case. In the past if we didn’t say otherwise we assumed people knew it was from the traditional regions of Fujian. In the future we will always try to be more specific, even about teas from the traditional areas. We hold this position (of white tea being defined by the process) because we believe the world of tea is constantly changing and evolving. And we think this is a very good thing. There are many teas that didn’t exist a few years ago. For example, Ruby 18 from Taiwan didn’t exist five years ago. White tea from Ceylon didn’t exist about 15 years ago. Shou puer didn’t exist 40 years ago. Tea from India didn’t exist 175 years ago. This kind of change and evolution is part of what makes the world of specialty tea exciting and vibrant. As with any change there are some who like it and some who are dismayed. We feel this kind of change is part of the natural processes in the world of tea. So who the heck else is making white tea? Many other China provinces, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Malawi… I had the privilege to purchase the very first white tea ever produced in Sri Lanka, almost 15 years ago. I was visiting the Lumbini Estate in southern Sri Lanka (one of our favorite estates and favorite tea growing families), when Chaminda, the son of the Lumbini founder and now manager of the garden, showed me something special he had been working on, a small batch of Bai Hao Silver Needles. Needless to say his dad was very skeptical of his son’s ‘far-out” tea-making efforts. The tea was FANTASTIC. I bought all of it on the spot, about 40 kgs. When I got back into Colombo, on the way to the airport I had to stop and buy two gigantic duffle bags (think hockey equipment bags) to stuff this tea into and bring onto the plane as additional luggage. This was pre-9/11 when you could get away with this kind of thing. Although getting through Customs in Mpls, took some explaining. Unfortunately this Bai Hao Silver Needles from the Lumbini Estate has become so popular in Japan that the price has gotten out of the range of TeaSource.
Before long I think this fight about what constitutes white tea will start to fade away. For better or worse I think this horse has left the barn. The good news is that then when everyone stops talking about the definition of white tea, we will focus more on the tea itself. For white tea is a unique gift to the world of tea. The dry leaf is stunning, a botanical work of art. And the steeped cup is soft, shimmering, sweet, creamy, and evokes calm, peace, and grace. All through August we will have white teas on sale and tons of info and sampling available. And expect some additional posts about white tea.
I’ve been doing tea a long time, but I just recently learned a delicious secret about Japanese teas. Here it is... [caption id="attachment_203" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Ponzu sauce. This stuff is great. I recommend getting the Kikkoman brand.[/caption] I think this may only work on certain Japanese teas. But it works amazingly well on our brand new Kabusecha green tea. Kabusecha may be a less well-known Japanese green teas, but our new lot is getting rave reviews. Some people call Kabusecha ‘Gyokuro’s Little Sister’—which is a pretty good description, assuming you know what gyokuro is. Our new Kabusecha is INCREDIBLY fresh-tasting with sweet notes. We recommend steeping it like a gyokuro; use a little more tea than normal, around 170 degrees, steep for no more than a minute. And you will be able to re-steep these leaves for multiple wonderful infusions. [caption id="attachment_195" align="aligncenter" width="300"] When steeped, the Kabusecha liquor is a deep, almost brilliant, green.[/caption] It’s worth noting that this type of Japanese green tea is one the few teas in the world that is not supposed to be clear. Most Japanese teas come out somewhat cloudy in appearance. This is a result of how the Japanese blend the different grades (and sizes) of tea leaves to make the finished tea. [caption id="attachment_197" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Freshly steeped Kabusecha leaves[/caption] When you are done steeping tea pour a few drops of Ponzu sauce over the leaves and chow down for an absolutely delectable treat. As a reference for westerners, it is similar to eating “greens” (turnip, collard, kale) with a lemon zest. There is no bitterness or edge, and the sweet, fresh notes come bursting out. Deeeeelicious! [caption id="attachment_196" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Kabusecha leaves with a touch of Ponzu[/caption] This idea came from Eri, who is the backbone of our wholesale staff. [caption id="attachment_194" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Eri packing a wholesale order for shipping[/caption] The world of tea is amazing because it can take you to such unexpected places. -Bill