Another title could have been : In praise of relativity.
One recent development in the small world of tea has been the appearance and sometimes a mercantile highlighting of the harvest dates for teas from China, Taiwan or Japan.
I was used to that promotional discourse for Indian Darjeeling teas, especialy for the spring harvests (or First Flush for the connoisseurs). Often associated with these harvesting dates were the ideas of a limited production, very limited stocks and "premium" plane deliveries. Hence the impression of getting rare and indeed expensive leaves.
More and more often I notice a generalization of these harvest dates from numerous vendors of Chinese and Japanese teas, sometimes with very accurate dates. I even have the feeling that it has become a simple and irrefutable criteria to identify a serious seller. One can thus read, here and there, that the absence of this selection criteria should immediately make you suspicious toward the vendor who is guilty of such a breach of its duty to provide necessary information.
But why should this information be so important that one should ban a seller that would not disclose it?
Among the arguments of our small tea drinkers (and tea sellers) community, we can find the following :
- Having objective information on the teas' freshness,
- Being sure to have the best tea, ie the earliest,
- Distinguishing two different harvests of the same tea,
- Proving the perfect knowledge of its products by the seller,
- Being assured of a unique harvest, of high quality and in limited quantities,
- Being able to "show off" with friends that thought it was a sell-by date :)
And there are probably others that I forget (Don't hesitate to chime in and discuss it)...
Finally, what does a harvest date really "guarantees" us? Why should this information be absolutely necessary?
These days, I have sometimes the impression that form takes precedence over content and that some of us forget that raw information should not always be a key concern.
We will soon be in the midst of 2013's new green teas arrivals. As I really appreciate the freshness of green teas, whether I buy a tea from 2012 or 2013 is of strong importance. Given that 2013 is clearly specified, what will I choose between a Long jing from March the 29th at 60$/100g and a Bi luo chun from April the 06th at 42$/100g?
Assuming that I equally appreciate both teas, that I don't have the opportunity to taste them before buying and that I can afford buying one or the other, what will motivate my choice? In this particular case, what can the harvest date indicate us?
Beware, there is a trap (or maybe several)...
Before that, a small precision. We are here talking about dates when leaves are plucked and not when a particular batch of tea is finalized. Depending on the type of tea, country, weather and other numerous factors, tea batches can be prepared immediately after harvesting or as well prepared days later with several different batches of leaves. The latter is the case for the majority of black teas from India and for many Japanese fresh green teas. This seems to be less the case for the fine qualities of chinese green teas. That doesn't mean that those teas are of lesser quality but simply that the process involved in the crafting of these teas is different compared to single batch leaves processed very quickly after harvesting.
Back to our Long jing and Bi luo chun. What does the harvest date indicate us? Obviously that one was harvested before the other. For those amateurs more accustomed to Chinese green teas, one could even say that the Long jing was plucked before Qing ming and the other one after. This "Festival of Pure Light" is an important date for this family of teas since teas harvested before that date (4th or 5th of April) are generally more thought after than those harvested between Qing ming and Gu yu ("Abundant grain rain" between 19th and 21th of April).
Of course, for us, these are just dates. However, the importance of numbers, astrology and calendar symbolisms is such that the date can be as important as the actual quality of a batch of tea. And often the price will logically follow the calendar without fully reflecting the intrinsic quality of the leaves.
A second point to consider is simply... the weather! In 2012, in the countryside of Hangzhou and its west lake where the original Long jing is prepared, the winter chill persisted a little longer than usual and the first spring rains came a bit early. Consequently, the harvest period that provided the best teas was shorter and began slightly later than in previous years. For our Long jing, this resulted in an overall increase in prices and a general lower quality compared to 2011. In addition, in 2012, most of the highest qualities were not harvested before Qing ming but rather a few days after, due to this weather shift. A Long jing dated March 29 was therefore not the best tea of this area in 2012. Yet, being harvested before Qing ming, its price and its "symbolic" quality were probably often comparable to high quality leaves harvested at the best moment, for example on April 6th.
That was for 2012... but for 2013? What were the harvest conditions this year?
And we have only talked about the weather conditions around Hangzhou. Xihu (West lake, homeland of Long jing) and Taihu (Great lake, original terroir of Bi luo chun) are located each other 150 km apart and they have neither the same environment nor the same weather conditions. What is true in Zhejiang will not be true in Jiangsu.
So, which tea am I going to choose? We haven't made much progress...
Let's have a break (in order to have some tea) and we'll continue this long article later on.
See you soon...