Is the Same Tea Really the ‘Same’ Tea?

With the rush of new spring 2017 tea just a few short weeks away it’s a good time to discuss something which I think speaks to many tea enthusiasts – how to get the best tea for your money from a a crowded marketplace of variously priced teas that appear to be the ‘same’ thing.

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Tea producers have an equally daunting task of pricing each and every production run of tea, and in the case of Chinese green tea, for instance, an excess of warm weather can increase the speed with which tea leaf grows in the first few weeks of the harvest. When the weather fails to cooperate, the amount of time for plucking tender bud-only teas may quickly vanish, even before enough of these teas are made.

When this happens tea producers will switch to plucking the next leaf configuration known as a mao feng ( two leaves and a bud) and make tea with it. So the tea in the baskets at the end of the day in the tea factory may be a different pluck from what they had in mind at the beginning of the day. For all tea, the quantity produced as well as the quality of each batch will factor into the price of those batches of tea. So the price of the bud-only tea will reflect a shortage of that tea for the year.

yel-mengmt_sb2-03bea932And so it goes – adjustments to the plucking style are made each and every day as the leaf grows larger. This gives tea producers many choice teas with both small and large grades of differences to sell. Each small batch will most likely have a different price, too.

Tea merchants, on the other hand, have the equally daunting task of finding the right grades of tea to satisfy their customers. The retail cost of any tea is directly related to what the tea merchant paid for the tea, plus a small amount added in to cover freight costs. Tea merchants purchase their teas from a variety of trusted sources – some purchase directly from origin, others from tea importers of varying sizes (in the US) and others from wholesalers (in the US) who purchase teas from larger tea importers. This range of sourcing options can present tea merchants with a dizzying choice of tea in many grades and prices.

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So what savvy tea enthusiasts need to realize is this: all tea is not created equally, even when it has the ‘same’ name. Nor is all tea sold equally fresh and sound or from the same plucking season or year.While this may be quite obvious to some, we know from experience that there are plenty of tea drinkers out there who don’t see the correlation between grade and price, and erroneously believe that all tea with the same name is the ‘same’ tea.

Some tea merchants sell consistently high quality tea and others do not – it all depends on their attitude about tea and the teas they select. If you only frequent shops that sell low-priced tea and shun those you fear are over-priced, you may be cheating yourself out of drinking really good tea. Low priced tea will never be good value in the long run.

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There is frequent complaining in the tea-o-sphere about the price of tea. Of course, those who are complaining about price usually believe that all prices are too high and that every tea vendor is an evil devil who is out to flinch their tea customers. Honestly, while there is some pretty bad tea being bandied about the internet (and that is something to complain about at any price) and a few merchants who mark their tea up to atmospheric levels, the market is self-policing.

So those serious about staying in business know that today’s transparency on the internet will cast them in a poor light. So, overall, I think the problem is not as great as it is made out to be. I sometimes think that posts like the aforementioned are designed simply to attract readership and cause a tempest in the teapot. It’s a known fact that sensational reviews and posts that rant and rave attract more attention than less flammable opinion does. Grousing is in – in fact, it has now become a sport for some!

So rather than have customers fixate on price, we believe that tea enthusiasts should think more about how to get the best tea that their money can buy. Which is not the same as searching for the lowest price. As shoppers, we need to think more like investors, and expect for ROI – return on investment on our purchases.

Thin-Client-Return-on-InvestmentWhat is ROI on tea? Imagine that you purchased 4 packages of Keemun Congou tea from 4 different tea vendors. You steep each tea fairly and uniformly with the same steeping parameters, and rate the teas on the following points. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction that you received from each tea in relationship to the price is the ROI value. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction is a measure of:

  • satisfaction with the taste/flavor/aromatics in the cup
  • freshness of taste/flavor/aroma
  • degree of seasonal flavor characteristics
  • sound condition and good appearance of the leaf
  • tasty-ness in relation to price

Ideally, you want to find tasty tea at a price you can afford – the teas that give you, well, the best bang for the buck. You might end up deciding you prefer the most expensive tea, or if the most expensive tea is 2 x the cost of another selection but only a little bit better tasting, then the less costly tea may be the best ROI for you.

How to find teas with the best ROI? Our suggestion is to invest a little money in your future tea drinking this spring (when the fresh teas start arriving) and order the ‘same’ tea from several tea vendors. Do this with 3-4 teas and order the ‘same’ teas from at least 4-5 tea merchants. This will cost you a bit of money, but what you discover will be well worth it.

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After you conduct your steeping/tasting experiment, you will most likely find that there is a pattern to the quality of tea each tea merchant sells. Tea vendors position themselves quality-wise, so you will find that some tea will be great, and some, just so-so. Reliable tea shops maintain a discernible level of quality because they know what they want in their teas and stay true to these principles.

And this is what tea enthusiasts should look for – a tea shop or online tea vendor that has a well-thought out selection of good, sound tea that turns over seasonally and stays fresh because it sells. Because in truth, great teas do not pop up in unlikely places. Most know that Walmart is not the place to go to purchase handcrafted goods, nor is Whole Foods the right place to purchase distressed food.

The same holds true for tea. The shop that sold you some 2-year old green tea, and some saw-dusty black tea will not be the place to find a mind-blowing Fenghuang dan cong.Choose Two-Way Road Sign - Isolated

OK, so what factors do tea sellers consider (and you should think of these, too) when purchasing tea to sell? The factors that affect grade/price:

  • season of the year and time frame within the season for teas made in the same year
  • age and condition of the tea (if it is an aged tea)
  • the leaf pluck of the tea (bud most expensive; bud and leaf next most costly; bud and two leaves next most costly)
  • amount of hand-work involved in shaping and firing the leaf
  • condition of the leaf
  • quantity of that tea produced
  • the taste/flavor and aroma of the tea

Let’s again use Keemun Congou, a popular Chinese black tea, as an example. Most producers of Keemun sell their tea in 3 categories with 3 price points in each category for a total of 9 different grades of quality.

So, at the retail level the grade of Keemun will account for big differences in the price of the tea. The cost may double, triple or quadruple per kilo from common grades to the highest grade of premium Keemun.  Keemun  Congou has 9 grades for teas – this does not include other Keemun-related tea such as Keemum Mao Feng or Keemun Hong Xiang Luo, which have their own set of grades and price points. And tea workers like to show off their tea making skills by finessing more and more differences from those tiny tea leaves. So it is not uncommon for small batches of special production Keemun to be outside of the normal grading standards.

Tea producers usually assign letters or numbers to their grades such as Grade A or #1 Grade, but sometimes also use terms such as premium grade, superfine grade, Emperor grade, superior grade, etc. While these can be legitimate grades, these terms may also become diluted when they are used indiscriminately by some tea vendors. On the retail level many Keemun Congous are not sold with a known grade. If the specific details about different Keemun Congous are unknown, you should assume that these are most likely very different teas that merit the taste test to ferret out the best ones.

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Chinese spring green teas are manufactured in even more grades and price points, adding a greater level of complexity and confusion for consumers. But there are some clues given at will be of some help in evaluating the quality of spring teas, and these are:

  • season of the pluck (when plucked)
  • where the tea is from (place)
  • configuration of the pluck ( bud, mao jian, mao feng, etc)

Each spring, tea from the new harvest year is sold by tea producers in one of 4 categories based on seasonal divisions/pluck time. Sometimes these markers of pluck time are given for certain teas:

  • Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea (plucked before April 5th)
  • Before the Rains or Yun Qian tea (plucked before April 20th)
  • Spring tea or Gu Yu tea (plucked before May 6th)
  • Late Spring or Li Xia tea (plucked before May 21st)

Each seasonal division has several grades of quality, too. The earliest plucked tea within the division and the most perfect leaf will be the most costly. For XiHu Longjing, a very famous and popular tea worldwide, there are four designated places where authentic Longjing (based on tea bush varietal) is grown: Shi Feng, Meijiawu Village, Weng-jia Shan and West Lake Village. Last year, the 8 grades of XiHu Longjing were listed, as well as the occasional special batch and competition-grade teas.

  • AAA Jing Pin: 100% bud and 1 leaf
  • AA Te Ji: 70% bud and 1 leaf; 30% 1 bud and 2 leaves
  • 1 st Grade: 70 % 1 bud and 2 leaves; 30% 1 bud and 1 leaf
  • 2nd Grade
  • 3rd Grade
  • 4th Grade
  • 5th Grade
  • 6th Grade

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Lastly, for an even more complex listing of grading/pricing, consider a very well-known
yan cha or rock oolong tea – Da Hong Pao. Prices for this tea can range wildly, as can its authenticity, proving a thorny issue for tea merchants. This is an example of last year’s production grades and not counting special small batches; traditional charcoal roasting or not; amount of roasting; new or aged tea; blends of Zheng Yan and Ban Yan, etc.:

Zheng Yan – core production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3

Ban Yan – close to original production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5

When purchasing yan cha (or dan cong) remember this: the best ones can cost $1,000 a lb or more in China so are never cheap. The highest grades never leave China. The older these teas are or the rarer the tea bush varietal from which they are made the more expensive they will be. And if these teas have been given a traditional charcoal-roast this will add to the cost as well. Much of the ‘Da Hong Pao’ that is sold in the West is actually Shui Xian – know your vendor!

OK, so before you throw up your hands and say ” What’s a tea drinker to do? ” remember, that the best way to find your way to a clearer path of discernment among tea is to do a little homework and taste a lot of teas to develop your palate.

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Keep notes in a book or on your smart phone and educate yourself about the teas you are drinking. Because purchasing tea is not as cut and dry as searching for a specific bottle of a favorite wine by a known producer or finding the brand of chocolate that you like, tea enthusiasts have more work to do to find the right tea vendor for their taste preference and pocketbook. However, once you do, the rewards are tremendous and are well worth the effort required to educate your palate for fine tea.

So, with a new tea season coming, it is time to revel in the fresh new teas that will soon be here. Use a little caution and look for ROI in your tea and you will feel that you have spent your money well for tea that is fresh, tasty and makes you feel good when you drink it. That is the best ROI that we can think of!

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Traditional Tea versus Commodity Tea

TRADITIONAL TEA

Our tea is exceptional. We sell traditionally-made teas crafted by experienced tea artisans. Not commodity tea grown by big business. So just what do I mean by traditionally-made tea and commodity tea? Please read on…..

   

Commodity tea is tea grown by large companies in newly-planted tea fields in areas of the world not usually associated with tea growing and that have no prior tea making history. Conversely, traditionally-made tea relies on well-established methodologies and techniques to do what tea workers and mother nature do best together – make distinctive tea. Traditional tea making utilizes the terroir of each place (soil, geography, climate, weather, etc) and local tea bush cultivars to show a tea garden’s best flavor advantage.

The process of traditional tea making utilizes hundreds of years of knowledge and experience in the crafting of fine tea. No two tea producing countries produce tea the exact same way, and for that we are thankful. It is differences both great and small that give tea a national identity – and many regional differences, too.

Our teas come from China, Japan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Taiwan where traditional tea is made by tea workers who are in harmony with the seasons of the year. They craft teas of exceptional beauty and elegant flavor. We select tea from small family tea farms, small village production, and tightly controlled tea co-operatives. In these gardens, the ability to make great tea is a point of pride for the tea makers, and generations of the same family carry on tea making traditions established by previous generations.

Traditional tea farmers/producers must be in tune with nature and understand the vagaries of weather, soil conditions, how to maintain healthy tea bushes, and how the keen senses of a skilled tea master (sight, smell, touch and hearing ) influence from start to finish the outcome of the finished tea. The livelihood of each family or tea village depends on knowledge of nature and the ability to wrangle with problems and situations that arise during the harvest times. For these people, tea is their life and their life is tea. This accounts for the care and respect they accord their tea.

Traditional tea production is sustainable on many levels.Traditional tea uses methods of pest control ( such as encouraging the presence of birds in the tea gardens and environs and the introduction of plants that discourage the presence of certain pests) and organic farming practices ( soil enrichment, worm production and natural fertilizers made from food sources and manure) that work with nature and not against it. A traditional tea garden does not make use of copious amounts of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

A traditional tea garden is almost always small and is often broken up into patches of tea bushes located here and there. The elevation is high, away from the pests that plague low elevation tea gardens. The garden is comprised of mature tea bushes (which produce the best teas) that are well-adapted to their environment. In such tea gardens local varieties of tea bushes or tea trees will have been growing in that place for decades. This means that the roots of these tea bushes will be well dispersed under and throughout the soil, allowing healthy soil to nurture the bushes through the roots. Local tea bush cultivars add complexity and individuality to finished tea and keep the diversity of taste alive and well from region to region.

COMMODITY TEA

In comparison, commodity tea ( or industrial tea, agro business tea, etc ) is just that – intensively grown and frequently harvested leaf that is grown for high harvest yields, not for distinctive flavors or unique qualities. This tea is grown for wholesale packagers of commercial grade tea, flavored tea blends and bottled tea drinks. The goal for Industrial tea producers is low production cost and abundant yield, a combination that does not result in premium quality tea.

Commodity tea is grown in large industrial tea gardens in flat, low-lying agricultural areas in non-historic tea producing countries where tea growing is a relatively new industry. The techniques used are standardized and mechanized – typical of agribusiness agriculture.

Tea gardens such as these exist throughout most of Africa and parts of South America. Whereas most English and Irish tea companies once used China, India, and Ceylon ( Sri Lanka ) teas in their blends, these tea sources have been replaced in the last 20 years by teas grown in newly-planted tea gardens in unusual places. Part of this switch is based on simple supply issues ( there is not enough traditional tea in the world for large companies to use even if they wanted to pay higher prices ) and price issues ( these new modern teas can be grown and harvested at far less cost than traditionally-made tea.

Because there is no rich soil for the plants to depend on, large amounts of pesticides and commercial fertilizers are required to maintain such tea bushes. Because of this artificial condition, the roots of these plants mass together in a ball just under the surface of the soil, which means that what is nourishing the plants is the applied chemicals, not the soil.

There is no sustainability in this scheme – without the continued heavy application of fertilizers there is no ability for the soil to sustain the tea plants. And, there  is no diversity among the tea bushes – all the plants are clones of one type and genetically the same. So, there is no effort made to ensure layers of flavor or subtle differences in these teas.

And lastly, commodity tea has no history, culture, inherited knowledge, high-elevation location, cooling clouds and mist, or moisture-laden weather, seasonal differences, or other historical or cultural elements that are part of traditional tea making culture. It is business-grown tea, pure and simple.

Commodity tea is not the type of tea that we want to drink or sell to our customers. But it is the reason that we are committed to selling traditional tea and supporting the efforts of artisan tea makers who produce delicious, awe-inspiring tea.

So, given the choice, which tea do you want in your teacup?

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Yellow Teas are here !

Last but certainly not least, our yellow teas have just arrived from China. Yellow teas are very few in number these days but they remain very important in the Chinese repertoire of classic teas. Yellow tea is most easily described as a variation of green tea, but this suggests that the methodology for making it came after the perfection of green tea making skills. I have a hunch that yellow teas were made before green teas were classified as such, but this is just based on my own thoughts and musings about tea-making history in China.

Anyway, those of you who have never tried a yellow tea ( and those who will admit that you have never even heard of one before now ) are in for a treat. Pre-Qing Ming yellow teas are not readily available in the USA and certainly not when they are this fresh.

Yellow tea differs from green tea by the addition of an extra step in the processing. During leaf manufacture ( which begins with de-enzyming and shaping ) the fresh leaves are steamed very slightly and then allowed to rest. But, as nothing is ever really as easy as it may seem in the complicated world of Chinese tea manufacture, the steaming step is where the genius of the tea maker comes into play.

For example, details such as: how long to steam the tea leaves, how many times to steam or for how many days, how much rest to give the tea in between each steaming, how to wrap or cover the steamed leaves while they rest, will all affect the final flavor of the tea. The tea master decides the answers to these questions and it is only after he sees the fresh leaf and judges its quality and essence that he can determine how he will execute the ‘yellowing step’.

Because of this yellowing step, yellow teas are very smooth and fine flavored. Yellow teas are always made from an early spring plucking of budsets ( buds and one or two leaves ) the crème de la crème of spring teas. They were once made only as Tribute Teas, reserved for the Emperor’s exclusive enjoyment.

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Mengding Mountain Snow Buds

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Mengding Mountain Snow Buds

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Mengding Mountain Snow Buds

This mountain on the Tibetan Plateau in NW Sichuan Province is likely the birthplace of cultivated tea. Mengding Mountain is northwest of Mt Emei, one of the four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism. Mengding Mountain Snow Buds are a springtime phenomenon: they are big, fat, first-of-the-season juicy buds that are brimming with the vigor of tea bushes that are beginning their growth cycle. Tea pluckers gather these buds in small silk bags, rather than the more common ( and large ) tea plucking baskets. Two people picking in this manner for one full day will gather only one kilo of fresh buds.

This is a very elegant tea with a slightly toasty taste: it needs several steepings to really show off its deep-rooted flavor profile. The overall taste sensation from this tea is sweet, crisp and clean. There is a cool and bracing quality to Mengding Mountain Snow Buds that affirms its high altitude terroir.

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting

 2009 Pre-Qing Ming Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting

Another incredible yellow tea from Huo Shan county in Anhui Province. This tea is comprised of a bud with one tiny leaf. The leaf is covered with a fuzzy down, a trait of this tea bush cultivar and the nature of the leaf. Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting brews a lovely pale golden green color in the cup, and the flavor is slightly warm, nutty and reminiscent of artichokes or chestnuts. These tea gardens, located on Jin Shan Tou, are not positioned at a high elevation – just around 2,500 feet. But the location is rocky, and gives the tea a yen character. The richness of the soil is evident in the buttery flavor.