The tea harvest season is a time for waiting and wondering; we wait for rains and sunshine on our beloved leaves, and we dream and imagine their flavours and fragrances.
It is a time for conversation and sharing: between farmers who exchange feelings and opinions, and all other professional and tea-lovers wishing to know when we will able to have the first glimpse of a new, dreamed of, season.
As every year we have done our roundabout among fellow farmers in China, and we have just shared the results in a public talk together with many of you.
This post collects and summarise all the main points of this talk, with datas on climate, cultivars, harvest and production dates about Xihu-Longjing, Wuyishan area and Yunnan, and we hope it can be a handy guide in your spring time shopping, while dreaming of new travels to China.
The previous year has been crashed by the pandemic; China was badly hit exactly across the harvesting season, and workers and professionals were forbid to travel in the tea areas. As a result, many buds stayed on the trees; yet, in some way nature followed the pace of human society and the potential volume was lower than usual, due to a generalised drought.
The Chinese consumer market was very quick to restart, and - considering that the vast majority of high quality teas is sold internally - the consequences in terms of sales were limited.
This year we are having a regular season: the trees are not endangered and the trend of droughts seems to have stopped, at least temporarily. The harvest dates for us are slightly early than usual, as it is for most of the tea-areas, and we expect a fair volume of dried leaves.
To be called Xihu-Longjing, according to the government standard GH/T1115-2015, the tea should be produced using leaves from one of these three cultivars: Quntizhong (群体种), Longjing 43 (龙井43号) or the less common Longjingchangye (龙井长叶).
The Quntizhong is the most traditional one, rooted in the centuries of history of this production district. The earliest leaves are usually picked up slightly before the Qinming festival in late March-early April, and a pre-Qinming Longjing have a fame of guaranteed high-quality.
About its leaves, in China they say "it dresses like a beggar, but tastes like an emperor": serious Longjing drinkers prefer to wait for it, even if it is harvested slightly later than modern cultivars, and it is a rare find.
The 2021 season in Xihu officially started on March 12th, when the average length of the buds in the area reached 2.5cm ca. This is the first point to take into account: a very early tea can't be grown here due to the cultivar characteristics, besides of course the climate.
Also consider that the tea harvested so early in the season, close to the official date, is produced in extremely limited quantities sold for very high prices, usually to private clients in China. In the meanwhile, as any common research can confirm, the Longjing tea is reaching Chinese private customers only now, about 20 days after the first leaves have been plucked.
Talking about Longjing cultivar a very important point is to be able to recognise the Wuniuzao cultivar, that is a very early-harvested cultivar grown in the outer Zhejiang (Yuezhou and Qiantang area) province, and often marketed under different and not authentic labels.
Its leaves are shorter and fatter, with brighter green hues. It is easy to be confused with the traditional cultivars and needs an attentive check to distinguish it from the here-above mentioned Xihu cultivars; it may make for a pleasant cup, yet its brew is more grassy and less umami than the three accepted Xihu cultivars.
Wuyishan: Yancha and Tongmuguan teas
We are in the north-west of Fujian province, in a land famous for its gorgeous landscapes, rock-towers and gorges, that have inspired centuries of traditional paintings and meditation.
We are only 400 kilometres south of Xihu, yet almost nothing we said about Longjing teas can be useful to guide us here.
The most famous group of teas produced here are the Yancha, or Rock Tea, that are pillars in both the tea-world and Chinese culture. They are produced as wulong teas, with a proper technique that makes a very proficient use of heat and fire.
There is a wide variety of cultivars, and on average the leaves are picked up pretty late in the season if compared to other areas, because here tea-producers need well sprouted and developed buds with leaves.
In August, 2020 this area was hit by a strong flood that damaged several tea businesses, and starting from mid-April, 2021, it is expected a good harvest that brings the area back to its fragrant normality.
The Yancha teas are picked up later than others, and their production is also slower than most of the other categories. Thus it is not possible to see some of these teas on sale together with, for example, green teas, because their processing requires further steps.
Moreover, the local government releases a schedule for all the most popular cultivars, in different areas, and the harvest spams for several weeks.
Wuyishan teas for the consumer market can be baked twice or, as the most traditional way, three times. Some professionals buyer decide to purchase one-baked teas, or even fresh, to bake it on their own.
A finished tea, twice-baked, is released in the market in late July or August; three-times baked in October or November.
Yunnan: Xishaungbanna and Menghai areas
We have moved to the south-west corner of China, in a land rich both of floral and human diversity, with over 20 ethnic minorities officially recognised in the province. We are the boundary with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, in an area where wide and sweet mountain areas immersed in the subtropical landscape create a luxuriant variety of environments.
The altitude and the exposure of the single mountainous area can create several different micro-climates, where obviously the harvesting time varies of few weeks. It is thus very difficult to recognise a single official date among so much semi-wild variety, but surely we can notice some pattern.
The earliest teas are usually from low altitude areas, with a hotter climate, and are often intensive plantations fully exposed to the sunshine.
In Nannuo mountain, where we are based, the eldest tree has been picked up on March 19th: it lives at 1450 meter absl, and it sets a schedule for other tea-forests of the area.
Our Lunan at 1750+ meter absl starts on March 27-28th, a little later than Youle mountain.
The pu'er sheng pu tea production is divided into two main phase. The first one happens in the mountain, as close as possible to the tea trees, and it transforms the fresh leaves in maocha, properly dried and stable. The second part of the transformation is made in bigger workshops or factories, where the maocha is refined, selected, pressed in bricks, dried and, once stable, packed and prepared for shipment. The whole process takes 4 to 6 weeks; if it is transformed in pu'er shupu, we talk about 12-16 weeks, plus at least a year of rest.
From this short journey we notice how, as with all things in nature, each tea has its time and does not follow the chaotic frenzy of mass markets. Early sprouts, especially when it comes to the freshest green teas, are the most valuable part of the harvest and even a few days can make a big difference in the final quality of the tea. As they say: 早 三天 是 宝 ， 晚 三天 是 草; "3 days before it's a treasure, 3 days later it's just grass". But not all teas derive their greatness from young buds: the surprising aroma of wulong teas is enriched by multiple roasts, and only those who are patient enough to wait until late autumn can have a priceless chance to savor their warm tones.
In order to enjoy the finest tea, one must move away from individual thinking, and learn to listen to the rhythm of nature: only then will we be conscious consumers, and passionate connoisseurs.