Manufacturing tea is an art, it’s poetry in motion, it’s farmer-chef-craftsman-mechanic-chemist, all melded together.
A few weeks ago, I did it in a conference room in Atlanta, GA.
And “they” were right, even trying this was crazy… but, son-of-a-gun, the teas actually turned out pretty good. You can come to TeaSource Eden Prairie on Sunday, December 8th from Noon-2p and taste them for yourself!
In late October, I co-presented a workshop to tea professionals at the World Tea East Exhibition in Atlanta, GA. This workshop was called Processing Tea: An Experiential Workshop.
The idea was we would fly in just plucked tea leaves from Hawaii by Overnight Air. Then over the two days of the workshop, using these fresh tea leaves we (along with the class attendees) would manufacture: white, green, yellow, oolong, and black tea.
I presented this class with Donna Fellman of the World Tea Academy (part of World Tea Media). Donna and World Tea Media deserve tremendous credit for taking a huge chance, putting up the cash necessary, and providing all the support possible. Donna is one of the world’s great tea educators. For the record, this was the third time we did this class.
In this blog, over the next few posts, I am going to tell the story of what happened.
In Hawaii, Eva Stone, proprietor of Tea Hawaii & Co., supplied us with fresh plucked tea leaves.
Based on experience, Donna has developed a system of packing and layering and insulating the tea leaves using dry ice and coolers: so that when we unpacked the tea leaves in Atlanta, they looked like they had been plucked off the bush about three hours before.
During two, three-hour workshops, over each of the next two days, we were going to try to mimic what happens at a tea factory, as the freshly plucked tea leaves are brought in from the field. By definition, this is kinda crazy.
We weren’t in a tea factory—we were in a conference room at a convention center.
We were going to try to make five different types of tea: all in the same room, at the same time.
We didn’t have any of the equipment available at a tea factory.
The climate was totally wrong and uncontrollable (we were battling hotel-level air conditioning).
And most importantly we are NOT tea manufacturing experts. Donna’s a great communicator, and I’m just a tea merchant. They were right, this was crazy—who the heck did we think we were ???
But we were determined to try and manufacture by hand all categories of tea: except for Dark Tea & Puer — I admit it, we chickened out on this — maybe next year.
And not only were we going to manufacture these teas, we were also going to demonstrate and teach others how these teas are processed.
Over the next few posts I will show and tell details about processing all five of these teas. The bottom line is, the class worked. And on Sunday, December 8th from Noon until 2:00pm at our Eden Prairie TeaSource we will be steeping and sampling all five of these teas we made. I should note there is not much of each tea, so when we run out (and we will) that’s it.
This is almost a once in a lifetime experience, especially if you are unlikely to ever visit an actual tea estate. Also, I will be there just to talk about tea, answer tea questions, and chat about all things camellia sinensis. Stop by if you get the chance.
What is a Gaiwan?
A gaiwan is a small vessel for brewing tea. It is often referred to as a “covered cup.” It takes the place of a teapot. Gaiwans have been used in China since the Ching Dynasty (1644-1912).
A gaiwan has three parts: a bowl, a lid, and a saucer, and is typically small enough that all three parts can be picked up in one hand.
Benefits of a Gaiwan
A gaiwan allows the tea drinker to re-infuse their leaves many times, so they are most commonly used for oolong, green, white, and puer teas (black teas are less likely to retain their flavor in subsequent steepings). A gaiwan also allows for greater control of the steep. Because the leaves are floating freely in the gaiwan, you can watch as they writhe and expand, releasing their full flavor. The gaiwan makes you feel like you are driving the tea experience, not just along for the ride.
How to Use Your Gaiwan
- Put the tea leaves in the bowl. The amount varies depending on the density of the tea and the preference of the sipper. Typically you should use more than you would in a teapot and steep it for less time. Experimentation is encouraged.
- Steep the leaves. Add hot water to the bowl (the temperature varies depending on the type of tea you use). Use the lid of your gaiwan to stir the leaves, and watch in fascination as they swirl and swell.
- Crack the lid. When the steeping is done, this can be as little as 10 seconds or as much as a few minutes, return the lid to the bowl. Tilt the lid so it is slightly askew. There should be an opening big enough for water to flow out, but small enough to keep the leaves from escaping.
- Hold the Gaiwan. There are several ways to pick up your gaiwan. Experiment and find the method that feels natural for you. Try using your thumb and middle finger to hold the rim of the bowl. (Hold just the very top to prevent scalding fingers.) Then use your index finger, or index knuckle, to hold the lid firmly in place. It is acceptable to use both hands and lift your Gaiwan by the saucer.
- Decant into a cup. Holding your gaiwan firmly, tilt it toward your drinking vessel. Do this with confidence and the tea will pour out smoothly. It takes a little practice. Do not practice over a computer or a beloved pet. Give your gaiwan a few firm flicks to ensure all the liquid is out. If liquid is left in your gaiwan the tea will continue to steep and will taste bitter. Sip your tea blissfully knowing you look really cool. When ready, add more hot water to your gaiwan and re-steep the leaves.
As the Tea and Cheese Pairing Class drifts into history, the flavors are still lingering in our minds. On the afternoon of October 26th, Steven Levine, a local cheese Guru, showed up at the Eden Prairie TeaSource with eight exceptional specialty cheeses. Class attendees took their seats as regular customers looked on with curious expressions tinged with jealousy.
The fragrance of cheese was threatening to overwhelm the aroma of tea, so I got the first tea steeping and the class commenced. The pairings ranged in flavor, intensity, and complexity. Some were smooth, decadent, and buttery like the Delice de Bourgogne Brie with Milk Oolong, Traditional. Others sharp and brisk like our ‘Everyman Pairing’: the Collier’s Powerful Cheddar with the classic breakfast blend style tea, Ceylon Lumbini FBOP.
The favorite tea of the evening was the new Fujian black tea, Jin Jun Mei, for its rich depth and unique bold character. This is not an inexpensive tea, but it would make a fabulous holiday gift. The cheese that stole the show, and my personal favorite, was the beautiful Humbolt Fog. This cheese literally tasted like fog. It was so complex that every tea we paired it with pulled another layer of flavor out of the cheese.
Our final pairing was St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese with the exquisite 1999 Sheng Puer, both aged and riddled with active microbes. This Puer comes as compressed cake of tea, a tea-making method new to the West, but with deep roots in China. This tea reminds me of something Aragorn would have carried across Middle Earth and steeped up for the Hobbit’s breakfast on the road to Mordor!
All of the incredible cheeses for this workshop were purchased from Surdyk’s Liquor and Cheese Shop – my favorite place in the Twin Cities to buy cheese (and wine). Their variety and quality is fantastic. Everyone went home full of calcium and caffeine, making it a tea and cheese success story. I speak for both Steven and myself when I say the class was exceptionally fun, filling, and informative. We hope we can teach it again for the spring class cycle.
|Chevre Goat Cheese||88th Night Shincha|
|Collier’s Powerful Cheddar||Ceylon Lumbini FBOP|
|Delice de Bourgogne Brie||Milk Oolong, Traditional|
|Bent River Camembert||1995 Aged Pouchong|
|Spanish Garrotxa||Jin Jun Mei|
|Humbolt Fog||Tung Ting Light Roast|
|Five year Gouda||Assam, Harmutty Estate|
|St. Pete’s Select Blue||1999 Sheng Puer|
Black tea is black tea (as opposed to purple tea) because of oxidation.
If you cut an apple (or banana or zucchini etc.) in half and let it sit, within a few minutes the exposed flesh start to turn brown. That’s oxidation.
And that is what happens to make black tea.
They roll, crush, tear, cut, and/or curl the tea leaves; this is the equivalent of cutting the apple. Thus they expose the interior of the plant, disrupting the cell membranes to air.
The tea leaves get all juicy, just like an apple gets juicy if you cut it.
If they are making black tea, they spread the juicy leaves out on a long flat surface, like a trough, table, or even the floor (using a tarp), and let the leaves turn brown. That’s oxidation. If they leave the leaves out long enough, they oxidize fully and become black tea.
It is relatively easy to stop or prevent oxidation. Apply gentle heat to the leaves, which kills the enzymes in the leaf and prevents oxidation from occurring, or stops the oxidation at that point. No browning.
Why do tea folks bother with oxidation?
Without it, all you would have is white or green teas. I love white and green teas, but if someone took my Grand Keemun away I would go crazy.
The date and origin of deliberate oxidation as a process for making black tea is not certain. Fujian has been making what would now be considered black tea since the late Ming dynasty, but large scale production did not take place in China until the 19th century.
It is important to understand that for all intent and purposes black tea is NOT drunk in China—at all. They make a remarkable amount and variety of black teas in China, but they don’t drink them. It’s not completely crazy to speculate that oxidation was “invented” by mistake.
What happens during oxidation?
The plant gives off H2O (water evaporating) and absorbs extra oxygen from the atmosphere which, with the enzymes in the leaf, triggers a whole bunch of chemical reactions, causing the leaf to turn black/brown, the flavor and aroma to change, etc. etc.
Tea Geek facts about tea oxidation:
- If you really want to be annoyingly literal about it, ALL tea goes through some degree of oxidation, albeit, sometimes a VERY minor degree of oxidation. Because oxidation begins the moment the leaf is plucked from the tea plant.
- -White and green tea both go through probably less than 5% oxidation- basically just what happens during transport and handling– in fact they are trying to prevent and arrest oxidation. Oolongs can be oxidized through a large range, anywhere from 12- 90%.
- Black teas typically go through close to 95-100% oxidation
- Teas going through oxidation smell AMAZING: intoxicating, addictive, intense, sweet, fruity, alive….
- When black teas are going through oxidation, the leaves are spread out on a surface, maybe a table–that’s called the “dhool” table.
- Oxidation is fast, for whole leaf teas it can be up to four hours or so. For a small particled tea (CTC), as little as 90 minutes.
And yes, there is a purple tea. In fact, there are two kinds of purple tea, both are real tea from the camellia sinensis plant- one from Africa and one from China. Watch this blog for more info.
To confess, when I was growing up, all “tea” was “black tea” to me. Boring. And as far as I knew, it grew in tea bags that hung from Lipton trees. When green tea had its renaissance in the 90’s as some form of exotic “cure-all”, I began to take interest (and enjoy it thoroughly). But when I learned black and green tea come from the same mysterious source (a plant otherwise known as camellia sinensis), I realized I had been fooled.
The defining feature of black tea, allowing the leaves to fully oxidize, is not as simple as it sounds. There are innumerable factors that go into the process, beginning with geographic location. Local terroir and the particular tea cultivar planted in that region will have a huge impact on the outcome of that tea before the leaves have even been plucked.
Local traditions and history may be the biggest factor. China, where black tea originated, has its own unique regional styles. But if the tea growing region was initiated by the former British Empire (India, Sri Lanka, Africa), this will have its own particular impact on the methods used. In Taiwan, their modern black teas are often being produced by the same farmers who have been making oolong tea for decades.
Even when the regions are inside the same political border, the outcomes can be wildly different. The Darjeeling and Assam regions of India are not geographically far apart, but produce teas that are nothing alike. Part of this is because Darjeeling uses the small-leaf Chinese tea plant, camellia sinensis-sinensis, smuggled out of China by the British spy Robert Fortune. This sub-species prefers high elevations and cooler temperatures. Assam uses their own indigenous plant, camellia sinensis-assamica, whose large leafs produce thick, lush teas and prefer the tropical climate of the Assam valley.
My original (and ignorant) assumption was that black tea was somehow boring and homogenous. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The variety is staggering. A well made first flush Darjeeling tea from India and a first grade Keemun from China are so different that it’s hard to recognize both of them as black teas. But that is why it is so fascinating.
I love it when an experience totally takes me by surprise; especially over the course of a wonderfully fun night.
TeaSource manager Jess Hanley and I recently spent an evening planning, tasting, and schmoozing with one of the Twin Cities best known cheese geeks, Steven Levine. This was in anticipation of an upcoming workshop, Tea & Cheese: A Perfect (and Unexpected) Pairing, at our Eden Prairie store on Saturday, October 26th.
We figured we better get together and play with some cheeses and tea for a while so we had an idea of what we would do on Saturday.
Steven brought along eight different cheeses that we were going to try match with teas then narrow them down to five or six cheeses for the workshop. We started working our way through the cheeses, basically taking a lightest to heaviest approach.
We went in thinking we would just try to pair cheeses and appropriate teas: choosing teas that complimented, contrasted, or provided a base or background note for the cheese. It didn’t work out that way.
It started with the first cheese: a very fresh, lovely, mild, local, goat cheese. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t just a question of whether this tea tastes good with that cheese. The teas were actually changing the taste profiles and flavor notes of the individual cheeses. And the reverse was happening. We nibble a cheese, take a swallow, taste the cheese a 2nd time and all of a sudden there were all these notes from the cheese that weren’t there on the first nibble. It was NOT subtle changes; it was like a whole different range of notes.
It would happen in the other direction too; try the tea first, then the cheese, then the tea again. And the tea would literally taste phenomenally different than the first sip: sometimes it would become muted, sometimes, individual notes would shine at the expense of others, and sometimes there would just be tastes that weren’t there the first time.
This happened with all eight cheeses (and teas), to varying degrees-sometimes dramatically so.
All three of us were knocked over by this phenomenon.
There may be gastronomes (old speak for foodies) out there to whom this is a common experience. But I wasn’t ready for it. Again I stress, it wasn’t simply a case of two things tasting good together. It was the combination of these two foods within your mouth, changing the way the palate experiences the flavors available to it. It was wild.
My favorite pairing was a five-year-old Gouda with a crumbly almost cheddar-like texture, matched with our Jin Jun Mei (an incredibly rich, sweet, velvety, black tea from Fujian). The taste sensation even changed depending on which direction we went: tea first then cheese, then tea again. Or vice versa, letting the cheese lead.
We ended up not being able to eliminate any of the eight cheeses, they were all so good. So, on Saturday, October 26 we will be cupping up eight world-class cheeses with eight world-class teas— and turning people’s palates upside down.
There are still a few slots left open, but I expect the class to fill up fast.
If you’re not in the Twin Cities try this at home: seriously it’s amazing. After the class I will post the actual pairings we worked up.
You’ll experience tastes you’ve never tasted before, and that’s a pretty rare experience.
We’re pretty excited right now down in Atlanta. TeaSource has just won first place at the Taster’s Choice Awards at the World Tea East Exposition in the Black Tea category for our Golden Dragon tea. World Tea East is a gathering of tea professionals from around the world and part of the World Tea Expo, the largest tea exposition/convention in the world.
All teas that placed in the North American Tea Competition are lined up for dozens of tea professionals to evaluate and then vote for the best tea. It’s actually pretty cool. The people evaluating are tea growers, tea brokers, tea-tasters, tea scientists, tea merchants, and tea journalists, from India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Europe, and more. Some of these folks are the people I admire and respect most in this crazy industry I’m in. And Golden Dragon knocked their socks off!
The leaves of this tea are golden, thick, luscious, and downy with a rich aroma. The steeped liquor is deep, complex, very sweet, with tremendous mouth-feel. This is an incredibly high-grade tea, almost never seen outside China.
After winning, of course, I had to deal with all the glam and glitter of being a tea champion; the paparazzi, the all night parties with all the adoring tea groupies and over-the-top debauched behavior. It’s a wild life we tea people live.
Thanks to all the people who voted for us.
There is nothing better than clutching a hot cup of tea in autumn: the air is crisp, the leaves are changing, and the world is readying itself for winter. One of the perks about living in Minnesota is experiencing all four seasons, and our famously long winters make tea a necessity. Whether I am sipping a cup of puer on Sunday morning or making homemade chai for my family at Christmas, tea will always have a seat at my table.
Gong fu style tea preparation is a simple, comforting, and generous way to drink tea. Translated, gong fu means “to do something with great effort or skill” (not to be confused with “kung fu,” although the Chinese characters are similar). I also like to think of it as doing something mindfully. Gong fu is a traditional method of preparing, serving, and drinking tea in China and Taiwan, and has evolved over many hundreds of years. Some styles of gong fu can be described as an art form, and from an outsider’s perspective even the most casual gong fu methods may seem labor intensive and well, intimidating. In reality, it is very simple and there is no rulebook. You get to decide what feels comfortable.
I believe there is real joy in a cup of tea and gong fu embodies this to a tee (I’ll do anything for a good pun). Personally, I enjoy using a Yixing clay teapot with matching cups on a bamboo tray at home. I have been known to watch YouTube videos about gong fu to try and emulate the pros, and let’s just say there was a lot of spilled tea in the beginning (be sure to check out the links at the end). I am also starting to get comfortable handling a gaiwan, which is quickly becoming my preference. Admittedly, it has taken me years to adopt gong fu as a routine, and until recently I was always hung up on the idea that there was a “right” way to do it. Well guess what? There isn’t. Gong fu isn’t meant to be stuffy or rigid – in fact, most often it is an informal gathering of friends and family who are enjoying tea together. It reminds me of the Danish word “hygge” (pronounced hu-gah), which means “to relax with good friends or loved ones while enjoying good food and drink.” In short, gong fu is that warm fuzzy feeling you get from a good cup.
The first hurdle to clear if you want to start doing gong fu at home is getting used to a small teapot or gaiwan, which will typically hold 5-7 oz. of liquid. It’s hard for most of us to wrap our minds around the idea that such a tiny vessel can produce enough tea for one person, much less 4-6 people at a time. A good rule of thumb is to fill your teapot half full if you are using an open leaf tea (like Oriental Beauty) and about a third full if you’re using a semi-ball tung ting style leaf. Steep the tea for 30-60 seconds and decant it into a serving pitcher or directly into the cup. For subsequent infusions, add 30-60 seconds to the steep time. Over the course of 6-8 infusions, you will not only discover the wonderful nuance and complexities of a single tea, but you will have consumed a substantial amount along the way. I think you will find, as I have, that you are interacting with the leaf on a whole new level by preparing your tea this way.
If you’re a beginner, there are some common tools used for gong fu to get you started, from gorgeous porcelain gaiwans to handmade Yixing clay teapots. These beautifully crafted items add a true aesthetic element to the experience of drinking tea. I spend a lot of time reading about tea and have developed an insatiable curiosity for this incredible plant. I find it fascinating, for example, that certain tea implements have been used in China and Taiwan for thousands of years. The first major book on tea, the Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea), was written in 750 A.D. by the notable Chinese author and tea expert Lu Yu. This ancient text goes into great detail about tea cultivation, manufacture, and preparation (some excellent reading for any budding tea geek). Lu Yu used to carry a traveling tea kit containing many of the tea implements that are still used today: a tea pot, cups, a water bottle, and a fire fan. There is something so humbling about engaging in history with something as simple as a cup of hot water and a few tea leaves, don’t you think?
TeaSource has been highlighting some exceptional oolongs from Taiwan this year, which work particularly well for gong fu because they are designed to be infused multiple times. Having the opportunity to taste these amazing teas has only spurred my interest in this ancient style of tea preparation. One of the unique things about gong fu is that it highlights all aspects of the tea leaf: the aroma of the dry and wet leaf as well as the aroma and taste of the steeped leaf. With each infusion these elements change and all of your senses are engaged. It is a wonderful educational and aesthetic undertaking to see how the layers of flavor shift over time. Taiwan produces some of the most sought after oolongs in the world, so whether you prefer the luxurious, woodsy-honey notes of Oriental Beauty or the sweet lilac aroma of Pearl Pouchong, you’re bound to fall in love along the way.
Want to learn more?
Why Taiwan tea? If you had to ask the question, you haven’t tried them. Taiwan has tens of thousands of small tea growers, many of them family operations, and the industry is almost synonymous with oolong.
Making Taiwanese oolongs is a long process and requires a lot of experience to get it right. After witnessing how oolong is made on a trip to Taiwan in 2011, I realized I am a very lazy and impatient person. I also realized I’m really bad at tea producing skills such as “rolling” and “withering” (which involves staring at the leaves for about 14 hours – it takes forever). Though few of my instructors spoke English, they knew how to yell “No” just like my father, and show me again how to do it right. To know when the leaves are done withering, they simply pick them up and smell them – and I couldn’t tell the difference at 6 hours, 10 hours, or 14 hours – which is when they said it was ready.
But I did learn a couple things while I was there. The first thing I learned was an immense respect for the wisdom and discipline to master what is essentially an art form. I also learned that when I was not ruining their tea leaves, the Taiwanese are otherwise very nice and welcoming people. I was amazed at their patience with my lack of Chinese speaking skills and their inclusiveness of total strangers. I also learned a little bit about the basic styles of Taiwanese teas, and what to look for. Here are a couple of my notes:
Pouchong or Bao Zhong (translation: scented variety) – loosely defined as a lightly oxidized oolong with long, twisted, emerald green leaves, typically from Wenshan in northern Taiwan. The Chin Shin cultivar is commonly used to highlight the very fragrant nature of this tea. Look for a spectrum of sweet, strong-floral tones on top and bright, but subtle vegetal flavors underneath. The complexities of pouchongs will fade quickly once exposed to air so buy vacuum sealed if possible and store airtight. (Try: Pouchong Extra Fancy)
Tung Ting or Dong Ding (translation: frozen peaks) – Though Mount Tung Ting is covered with tea plants, modern usage of “Tung Ting” often refers to a style of tea grown in Nantou county by which the leaves are rolled and compressed into “semi-ball” or “bead” style rather than the long twisted leaves of pouchong. These teas are often distinguished by what mountain they were grown on, which cultivar was used, and what degree of baking they went through (note that not all teas of this style will be referred to as Tung Ting – yes, it’s confusing to me too).
Tung Ting styles that are lightly oxidized are often referred to as “Jade Oolongs” for the bright green color. Other times the tea may be “baked” at the end of the process to deepen the character. The flavor profiles of these teas will vary widely depending on any of the above mentioned factors, ranging from soft and floral to deep and toasty. (Try: Tung Ting Light Roast)
Oriental Beauty, also know as Bai Hao Oolong or Silvertip Oolong, is one of Taiwan’s most famous (and expensive) teas. The tea is made only in mid-summer when the “Green Leaf Hopper” arrives to feed on the new growth tea leaves, which are then immediately harvested. This “feeding” causes a chemical reaction in the plant meant to drive the insect away, but it is also responsible for the sweet honey notes of a great Oriental Beauty.
When buying an Oriental Beauty I look for teas with sparkling, floral, apricot notes on top; and honey-woodsy-spicy notes in the bass. The leaves should have a stunning contrast of bright silver tips over twisted bronze leaves. It is called Oriental Beauty for good reason. (Try: Oriental Beauty Supreme)
I could go on forever (I already have). This only scratches the surface. All I’ve learned so far is that I have a lot to learn, and besides the tea itself, that’s the best part.
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
-It Might as Well Be Spring
In the tea world they make special teas in spring… or do they?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.