When it comes to prejudging tea, there are a lot of basic rules. These rules tell you when the best teas are picked, what kind of bud is the best for green tea, and what sort of trees produce the best tea. They ring true across the board, and for a beginner tea drinker they should be learned, understood, and applied to all teas to help kickstart the process of understanding tea.
When you learn these rules, it then becomes important to know when, like every good rule, they can be broken. In the tea world, every now and then, there comes a badass tea: a rebel that breaks the rules, and makes you rethink your fundamental understanding of tea. In this article we will look at some of these teas, and talk about the rules they break.
This seems to be the most universal rule: the best teas are picked in Spring. This is the first rule that almost any tea drinker learns, and is universally true…. almost. While many teas have more than one season, it is always the Spring teas that are the most sought-after, and sell for the highest price — unless we’re talking about tieguanyin.
Tieguanyin is an oolong from Anxi that sells for a high price in the Spring, but also in the Autumn. The Autumn season has drier air, which not only makes the withering stage — a stage were the surface moisture evaporates from the leaf, and is therefore basically impossible on rainy days — easier, but also make the aroma more pronounced. It often said that while the Spring season tieguanyin has more flavor, the Autumn has a stronger aroma. For this reason, tieguanyin is the only tea where the Autumn season sells for as high a price — sometimes even higher — as the Spring.
As Supply Meets Global Demand, Tea Quality Drops
To anyone reading my column, this one probably isn’t news. For almost as long as tea has been around, the emphasis has been on buying and drinking only freshly picked leaves. Then in comes pu’er.
Pu’er is a tea that has gained much of its popularity due to its ability to develop flavors as it ages. Many people say that aged pu’er is better than young pu’er. Young pu’er is often very strong, tannic and bitter. The aging process smoothes out these characteristics to create a softer, smoother tea.
Prizing Pu’er: New Demand for Old Trees
The aging popularity of pu’er has even led to discussions about aging other teas, though none of them quite match the popularity or success of aged pu’er. (It’s important to note that not only are not all pu’ers bitter in their youth, but also that many people do enjoy them young even if they are.)
You can basically judge most green teas by their bud alone. A quick glance at the bud — to determine if it is fat or thin, long or short — will give you a basic idea of the pick time and quality of the tea. When green tea farmers pick the tea, they use the size of the bud to decide if the tree is ready to be picked. That being said, there is one tea that wants nothing to do with buds: Gua pian.
Dry gua pian leaves
Gua pian is a green tea from the Liu’An region of Anhui. The process for picking this tea involves only leaves, no bud. In fact, as opposed to other teas where they want to pick the tea young for a soft, fresh flavor, Gua Pian pickers wait a little longer for the leaves to grow nice and big, thus giving a bold vegetal flavor.
Gua pian leaves in the cup
When the tea is made, it is the leaves alone that are picked and processed without any buds. This is a similar picking to Japanese green teas, and is thus a great tea for those who are used to Japanese teas but want to start exploring China. Gua pian breaks a second rule for pick time as well: while most green teas are preferred before the Tomb Sweeping Festival in mid-Spring, Gua Pian is one of the teas that, due to the desired large leaf size, will never be ready at this time.
What Leaf Size Tells You about Your Tea
We are going to start and end with the soft badass of the tea world: tieguanyin. Especially following the popularity of pu’ers, older trees are becoming a desired trait among teas. One of the basic reasons is that the roots of an older tree go deeper into the ground, and therefore are able to take up more nutrients. The flavor, in turn, tends to be deeper and more complex.
The age of a tea tree is often judged by the width of the trunk — this is the small trunk of a tieguanyin tree
But what if you don’t want deep? Tieguanyin is widely desired for its light flavor and heavy aroma. Young trees produce a refreshing floral aroma, which is like standing in a field of flowers. As the tree gets older, the aroma tends to drop a bit, and a more vegetal flavor comes out. These traits are less desired, and therefore many tea farmers will rip out tea trees after about 5-7 years and plant new ones as a way to keep that light flavor. Tieguanyin is the only tea that I know of where the younger trees are actually more valued.
Cover photo: Long Juan farmer picking tea in October (courtesy the author)
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