The suspicion of a drought hitting the tea areas has now been confirmed. The hints received last winter, such as few seeds on the trees, have been confirmed by our current delayed and slightly low-yielded tea harvest. The question is what this implies for tea producers broadly and how Eastern Leaves is going to cope with it.
The two seasons
In the rural mountain, activities are ruled by two long seasons, which slowly blend from one to the next. Against the light pastel coloured sky of the wet season, the rain showers and tempests gradually come to a stop, announcing the arrival of the dry season and the peak of the tea harvest.
The cradle of tea trees is in southwest Yunnan, the areas east and west of Xishuangbanna city where all of the 12 famous pu’er mountains rise. The climate is typically tropical, with a rainy season from June to November followed by a drier one which occupies the other half of the year.
During the wet season, the land stores energy and nourishment from the abundant rain, and with the forest vegetation flourishing, the tea trees join in the bloom. When the rain thins out, the tea trees grow at a slower pace, storing a high mineral content in their leaves. This is why the first flush, which happens right at the end of the dry season, with its first sprouts, is the most rich in taste.
Usually this seasonal dry peak is in mid-March. Then, in the beginning of April, the rain starts, first with a few drops every few days to a week and more and more until it turns into the deluges of July and August.
The 2016/2017 season
2016 has been a very dry year, the driest of the decade. As you can see in the infographic, during the middle months of the year, which provide the greatest source of water for the year, we received about half of the usual rainfall.
Along with the drought came a few unexpected consequences and realities that we must cope with. The first and most obvious is that the harvesting and tea processing must change. We began to pick fresh leaves at a delay of a couple of weeks and in smaller quantities. Although our pace has been slower, our days have been less hectic and our people have definitely been happier. With the harvest spread over a longer time, some light rain showers have created wonderful sprouts. This season has required different patterns of organization and more attentive care as we consider all of the aspects and micro-areas of the tea forest.
The trees and the tea production: logistical implication
Combating the drought, we have doubled our efforts and covered the additional costs. Some parts of the forest have suffered more than others and require extra care, especially the younger trees and the a few of the eldest and most valuable, which have become dangerously weak. But, once again nature has provided for itself, granting the forest a supply of water just in time, allowing for a great spring.
The production process needed some adjustment as well. The leaves now contain less water and, therefore, require different treatment. For example, in pu’er shung pu production one must undertake the process of “killing the green,” a phase in which the leaves are pan-fried. As this process is done by hand, the tea master must sense the condition of the leaves and adapt his technique to avoid either burning or under-drying the leaves. Thus, the process is more delicate and requires more professional skills.
The new 2017 teas roadmap
The first batches of pu’er shengpu will be available shortly, in around ten days in China and slightly later in the international store.
In accordance with our custom, red teas will be released after about two months. With our procedure, we release it only after completer maturation and selection.
The Yueguangbai white tea will be released in about three to six weeks, the period of time we have predicted will be enough for our fresh sprouts.
Quality, quantity, and prices
The Eastern Leaves tea’s distinctive traits are preservations of the unique terroir of the Nannuo and Pasha Mountains. This year, the pu’er shengpu, especially, has a more intense aftertaste than in previous years, and after pressing we expect even more.
Although at the moment it is impossible to predict our yield, we believe that our first flush will be slightly lower than normal. Trees under the shadow of the forest’s canopy did not suffer from as great a water loss than other areas, but the quantity of sprouts even at this point is lower than expected.
All throughout the region, a rise in prices is expected, but we strongly wish to keep our first flush retail prices unchanged.