This year, you really had to believe in spring to garner the hope that winter’s cold and wet grasp would finally let go of this tropical island. Today, April 9th, we can finally say that the expected weather is upon us and spring teas are finally happening in Taiwan! Needless to say, this is an exciting time of the year for us as well as many of you who have kept us busy with emails and social media inquiries asking what to expect, and when to expect, the new spring teas on Taiwan Tea Crafts. Here’s our report after a first 10 days of visits to tea gardens along with more in-depth information that we couldn’t easily include in a short email response. We hope this first factual blog entry will help you make informed choices here and elsewhere on the web. For those who don’t want to read further, don’t worry, it’s all good! For the others, it gets even better…
It’s good to be back in front of the keyboard again. It’s been way too long since our last post. Nearly a year and half has gone by! It is not an odd circumstance that this time frame also corresponds to the age of a young little fellow that is now adding another layer of happiness to our daily life in our tea factory/house. It would be too easy to only put the blame on the little guy for the this long blog silence. We’re not such inconsiderate parents to do that! What we can do though is thank the increased intake of caffeine brought about by all the new spring teas that require tasting and evaluation at all hours of the day and night to bring about the spurt of energy required to break the silence. It’s a tough life, we know, but someone’s got to do it!
So, when are new spring teas arriving?
One of our last informative entry on the blog was a similar article introducing a calendar of new spring tea arrivals for 2014. You can find it here. It’s a good starting point to this post if you wish to peruse it. The entry featured a graph that outlined when spring teas from the different tea terroirs of Taiwan were to be expected. Two years down the road, the timeline of this graph is still pretty accurate when transposed to spring 2016. At least, as to how tea from some growing regions become available in relationship to others. In a nutshell, the article introduced the notion that the expected time of availability of Taiwanese teas is greatly influenced by 2 geographical realities: the latitude and the altitude of a garden. It’s colder in the north, so northern growing regions are available later. Similarly, it’s colder in higher altitudes, so tea from higher gardens will be available later than lower elevation ones. This is all good and logical but it also brings about one underlying qualitative point when considering a given tea region: not all teas attributed to one particular tea area can be expected to have the same taste profile in depth and amplitude when there is a big differential in height between its lowest and highest sections. We zero’ed in on Alishan to make our point in 2014. With gardens at 400 m and others at close to 1700 m, it is impossible to expect a similar experience when drinking teas originating from the higher gardens, on which the reputation of the Alishan “brand” rests, compared to teas from lower regions. Unfortunately, this fact is very often not discussed and kept under the veil of silence or convenient ambiguity. In other words, if 2016 Alishan teas are being proposed at this time of the year, they cannot come from the higher sections. Further to this, often these lower Alishan teas command a high price, in the same range as higher elevation ones. This practice is not in line with the actual local market value of lower altitude teas… buyer beware. We may seem to be nitpicking on the Alishan terroir to make a point. This is not the only region that has the same height differential. The same can be said of Shanlinxi, for instance. Unfortunately, our emphasis on Alishan is in good part justified by the reputation this name carries, especially outside of Taiwan. This attention has unfortunately triggered many creative marketing tactics by growers, producers and traders alike that makes our word of warning even more justified. We could discuss this at length, but we’ll keep this for another time, if you don’t mind. On the other hand, it makes sense to briefly discuss Alishan teas since they are some of the first higher altitude teas to be made available in the spring time, being further south to all other higher altitude tea growing regions.
Moving on: This year we’d like to introduce a third axis to our tea availability timeline: this one has to do with the cultivar used to make the tea. Our customers are familiar with the wide variety of cultivars used in Taiwan, our tea listings always make a mention of this detail on the pages of all the teas we sell. This characteristic is very important in defining the taste of a tea. From an agricultural point of view, not all cultivars grow at the same rate or thrive in the same growing conditions; altitude being an important one. This explains why teas made with Jin Xuan T-12 will become available earlier than Qing Xin, for instance, when considering higher altitude teas. Jin Xuan T-12 is a vivacious cultivar that grows quickly and thrives at all altitudes. Although it is widely used in lower regions, from 600 m up, it starts to develop a characteristic “high mountain” expressiveness that culminates between 800 to 1200 m. As soon as you reach the 1000 m mark and moving up, you will find less and less gardens using Jin Xuan as it tends to be replaced by Qing Xin, the king of the mountains. Qing Xin grows at a much slower pace and, as we write this, all higher level gardens in Taiwan have not yet started to harvest this cultivar. This will start around the middle of the month in the Alishan and Meishan areas, followed by Shanlinxi not far behind, and so on, as we move further north.
What justifies the use of one cultivar against another when growing tea at higher altitudes, you may ask?
The golden rule is as follows: although all cultivars grown in Taiwan can grow and be harvested for tea at low altitude, many will develop a different character, become more expressive and bloom to their full potential as you move higher up in altitude. Essentially, there are 2 criterion that justify the use of specific cultivars at higher altitudes: 1/ the distinctive character it develops from a qualitative point of view and, 2/ the price a tea made with a particular cultivar can command.
This is why you will rarely see Jin Xuan grown passed 1000 – 1200 m. We assess that it has reached its best high-mountain character around 800 to 1000 m. There is no point in using it at higher altitudes as it will not improve the tea significantly. Furthermore, Jin Xuan teas grown at higher altitude will be sold at the same price as the ones coming from 800 to 1000 m range so there is no financial advantage in growing it higher. It is more economically feasible to use higher parcels to grow Qing Xin that commands a higher price, despite the lower yields.
Why are we mostly hearing about Jin Xuan and Qing Xin when considering high mountain teas?
Essentially, not many cultivars develop the expressive character discussed above when planted in high-mountain gardens. At least, not many, if at all, will command a higher price when grown in altitude. And that’s the crude reality.
So now you know why you will systematically see Jin Xuan teas being made available weeks before Qing Xin high-mountain teas are, year in, year out, and, you might exert caution when you see other cultivars being proposed as high mountain teas.
If we had to describe this past winter in a few words, we would say: long, cold and wet.
It would be impossible to write this post without discussing the weather. It’s already a feat that we didn’t discuss it until now! Many of you have seen images of snow covered tea gardens and heard that snow had fallen in Taipei earlier this winter and consequently contacted us with worried messages concerning tea plantations. Let us explain a bit: If we had to describe this past winter in a few words, we would say: long, cold and wet. It was noticeably colder than usual with unusual consistency in the long duration of these cold spells. For Taiwan to have temperatures around the 10 C mark for days on is quite unusual. We had several of these spells this year. This, of course, translates to way colder temperatures (under the freezing point) in the higher elevations. Think Lishan, for example, which got both snow and freezing temperatures. Combined to these successions of cold fronts was rain; plenty of it. Quite the opposite of the drought of last year’s winter! How does this fare out for tea plantations? Not bad actually. At least, it is not a cause for concern. Let’s qualify that a bit more, if you don’t mind: Tea bushes are hearty little fellows. They will resit to non-extreme freezing temperatures. Sustained cold will actually have a beneficial impact by prompting the plant to expand its root system and dig deeper into the soil. This will not only help it reach new layers of mineral content in the soil but also stimulate the repair on the damage done a year ago with the drought we mentioned earlier. In periods of drought, most of the damage is done under the ground. Weaker sections of the root system will die and rot and the common wisdom among tea people states that it takes at least two good picking seasons to repair the damage. In the case of high mountain teas, that means a full year cycle. So, a colder wet winter isn’t bad, after all!
What about the snow covered tea plantations?, many of you have asked.
This was not a problem, or should we say, this was not stated as a cause to be alarmed as it was last year. This difference between this year and last year is the type of precipitation that fell on the gardens. This year it was snow: the white stuff. Last year there was a lot of freezing rain and very little snow. Snow acts as an insulator and melts rather quickly. Freezing rain, however, is heavy, causes fragile branches to break, and when a thick layer of ice covers the aerial part, especially the newly formed tender buds that are already present before the plant goes into hibernation you get leaf burn damage. How can there be burning when ice is concerned, you will ask? Quite simply: a thick layer of ice melts more slowly than snow. This ice that covers the leaves becomes a true magnifying glass for the sun rays that follow a period of bad weather. The rays become so concentrated on the leaf, especially on the edges, that it only takes a few hours to impart permanent damage, especially to tender young buds. Last year, many high mountain gardens suffered from this phenomenon, from Lishan down to Longfengxia, with spring tea yield losses averaging 20 to 25% of the spring crop. This year (fingers crossed), none of this has occurred according to our sources and everyone is anticipating a very good spring season!
What can we expect this spring?
There is a true feeling of excitement among tea growers and producers all around the island about this spring. Optimism is sustained as the first areas are picked and processed into tea. Yields are good and the quality of the leaves is high. In a nutshell, what we’ve witnessed and experienced in the cup are very generous teas. There appears to be a higher level of aromatic material making the teas richer in intensity and texture. The teas are very bright and vibrant and we expect they will mellow very well. This is a general comment made 10 days into the season with many weeks remaining and only a few styles and areas tasted. But all in all, we can conclude that the gods (and the odds) seem to be in our favour this season since catastrophic weather is less and less likely to come and mess things up at this point. Optimism is warranted, and being optimistic in nature, we will end this here on such a positive note.
So long for now. Time to put the kettle on for a quick one before heading out again!
If this blog entry triggers questions, comments, or just praise ;-), don’t hesitate to submit your thoughts below. We’d love to hear from you and promise to reply to all submitted questions.