2014 New Harvest Tea versus ‘New’ Tea

This post is a re-post from last year. Because many new tea drinkers may not know how to evaluate some of the claims of ‘new tea’ that are being touted this time of year, we hope this will help. As well as be a good reminder to those of you who know this but need a little re-fresher on this topic.

Soon the earliest plucks of fresh tea from the 2014 spring tea harvests in China, India, and Japan will begin arriving in the US. In fact, Tea Trekker has already received 3 new 2014 season teas from Western China.

News Clip ArtConfusingly, it is also the time when some tea vendors add ‘new teas’ to their inventory that are not from the new 2014 harvest. So it is important for tea enthusiasts to understand what they are purchasing by paying attention to harvest dates. Some of you know this information, many of you may not, so it is worth repeating:

In the next two months, simply because a tea is advertised as ‘new’ to a store or website does not mean that it is new tea from the 2014 harvest, and tea enthusiasts should not fall into the trap of assuming that it is.

If the tea is not dated, it may be last year’s tea (or tea from anytime, really) that is simply ‘new’ to that merchant or tea vendor. Which does not mean that last year’s teas should be avoided – that is not the point.  Some of last year’s green teas are still tasty; but many are not.

But my point is two-fold:

  1. one should be an informed consumer and not assume that a ‘new’ tea is fresh, new harvest tea unless that tea is clearly identified as such
  2. do not  stock up heavily on last year’s green, white or yellow tea unless that is what you mean to do. Some of these teas will keep quite nicely for several more months or even a year if the weather in that place of production had all of the right elements going for it. But in general, one does not want to purchase large quantities of green, white or yellow tea when the new season teas are just around the corner.

It is helpful to know in what period of spring premium Chinese green, black and white teas are made:

  • a few teas are made from the end of March to April 5th ( pre-Qing Ming teas)
  •  most teas are made in mid-April (Yu Qian)
  •  some teas are made from the end of April to the end of May (Gu Yu and Li Xia teas) when the spring tea season is over

Tea production times follow roughly the same pattern each year with slight allowances for weather, and there is an order to when tea factories make certain teas. It most often depends on when the leaf is the right size on the tea bushes to achieve the characteristic appearance of the tea, and that the flavor components of the fresh leaf is properly developed.

So awareness of when certain teas are made will help tea enthusiasts determine if it is possible for a certain tea to have been made in the new tea season or if it must be from last year’s harvest (or older!) For instance, spring high mountain oolong from Taiwan is not plucked until May, so any spring tea of this type being offered now is from last winter or last spring as it is too soon for 2014 high mountain oolong from Taiwan to be in the marketplace.

Our 2014  eastern China teas ( a handful of pre-Qing Ming green, yellow and black teas ) will be arriving as early as next week, followed soon by an early round of 1st Flush Darjeelings.airplaneOnce the season is underway our tea deliveries arrive fast and furiously.To appreciate the absolute fresh goodness of these tea we will air-ship them to arrive at our store as fast as possible. (Watch your in box for email alerts that the tea has arrived – some sell out quite fast each year!)

Tea from the 2nd seasonal plucking (Yu Qian -April 6th to April 20th) of black, white and yellow teas, oolongs and Pu-erh will follow along as their production season arrives.

The 2014 green teas from Japan (with the exception of Japanese Shincha which will be available sooner) are still 4-6 weeks away from being harvested, depending on the region and elevation of the tea gardens. Weather depending, production in most regions will begin at the end of April or in early May. Which puts arrival of 2014 Japanese green tea to our shop about the middle to end of May. ( Again, watch your in-box for emails).

IMG_7473-1So plan your tea purchasing accordingly and make sure that you understand what you are purchasing regarding the dates of harvest. Tea enthusiasts who know what these dates and differences in freshness will end up with fresher tea than those who are unaware of what they are purchasing.

Hooray for spring and happy fresh new tea drinking!

1st New 2013 Pre-Qing Ming Tea Has Arrived

Yes, the 2013 spring tea season is underway. More new tea from China will be here next week. And the week after that.  And that. We are very excited.

This is what has just arrived:

2013 Pre-Qing Ming Yunnan Sweet Green Threads
2013 Pre-Qing Ming Yunnan Sweet White Threads

hei cha

Sushi and Tea

We watched a delightful film last night from Magnolia Pictures titled JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI.

Jiro Ono in JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This is the writeup on Magnolia Pictures website for this film:  JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is the (true ) story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious three-star Michelin Guide rating, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar ($300 per person) for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is a thoughtful and elegant meditation on work, family, and the art of perfection, chronicling Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world and as a loving yet complicated father.

This film is a small window into the mind and soul of a consummate artisan who believes that he has yet to reach perfection in his craft. Jiro has spent a lifetime making sushi, and in doing so has come to understand the texture, taste, and intricate nature of fresh fish and seafood as perhaps only a few other Japanese sushi masters do. He loves his work and believes that we should all love what we do. Simply, Jiro believes: “You have to fall in love with your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.”

Jiro’s goal in his work is not to wow customers with his skills or to concoct some modern new cross-global cuisine, but to serve the most delicious food he is able to. He is not a rock star chef, does not have a television show nor does he insist on pointing the spotlight on himself. For Jiro, the reason for his lifelong journey to perfection and craft is to bring a  ‘sublime’ experience to his customers with his pure, unadorned sushi. He shines the spotlight on the fish and seafood, and other top grade ingredients, not his accomplishments.

We learn in the film that the ‘sublime’ may become the most difficult part for Jiro to achieve in the future. In the past, one of the components that Jiro has always relied on as a steady ally in his quest to create ‘sublime’ tastes is in peril. In a scene with Jiro’s son Yoshikazu and their long-time, trusted fish dealer at the Tsukiji Fish Market, we learn that problems with the supply of top grade tuna are occurring in Japan. Unlike Jiro’s fish vendor, few others in the market handle top grade tuna. For now, the supply of fish is OK, but the future is cloudy. There are several reasons for this.

A scene from JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The first reason given is that there were fewer sushi restaurants (and other types of restaurants that now serve sushi) in the past, and the best tuna was used only by those restaurants. Back then, the tuna coming to market were mature fish that had developed rich and succulent fatty meat. Tuna that would, in the hands of someone of Jiro’s skill, yield a sublime experience. Today, the demand for tuna is high, and fish are being caught younger to supply that demand. So the percentage of tuna reaching maturity is reduced. The un-spoken message in the conversation is that the quantity of younger tuna in the market puts a question mark on the future of mature fish and perhaps even on the sustainability of all tuna. On all fish, in fact.

As I watched this film I began to think that some of the situations facing Jiro are true for those of us selling premium tea, too. I began to think about established tea gardens with mature tea bushes and tea trees such as those found in various regions of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  India and Sri Lanka, too, now have  mature tea gardens that were planted in the mid-to-late 1800’s in various locales. In the early 20th century these tea gardens were considered young and new, but over time these tea gardens have developed unique types of premium black teas which are essential to tea enthusiasts today.

But times have rapidly changed. Today, over 41 countries in the world grow tea. Many of these tea gardens have been planted in the mid-to-late 20th century. The majority of these tea gardens were planted to produce commodity tea, plain and simple. Some gardens were planted by commercial tea companies, other gardens by individual countries. At first this tea was intended to be incorporated into English-style tea blends to balance the cost of high-quality China, India and Ceylon teas.

But today, those same tea companies, and a fleet of new ones who supply supermarkets and quick marts with bottled tea drinks, have simply replaced the traditional teas with less costly teas from new places. It is a rare package of English Breakfast tea today that contains any India or Sri Lanka tea in the blend as it would have at one time – most blends now use tea from Africa and Indonesia.

The continued growth of these tea products requires that these companies concoct their blends without the addition of higher-priced teas. This is because established tea producing countries have neither the quantity of tea available nor tea at a low-enough price to be attractive to large tea companies. In order to secure enough tea for their needs, these companies must go farther afield and develop new tea growing areas and sources of inexpensive leaf. The historic context of fine, hand-plucked, mountain grown tea has becoming a myth in the world of general tea commerce.

The reality is that in these newly developed modern tea gardens tea plants are placed close together, fertilized heavily, and plucked intensively. Most are planted on pretty flat land. Much of this tea is harvested completely by machinery that cannot select  a specific leaf pluck – the machines simply shears off the amount that the machine is set to shear. As a result of all the above factors, these teas have a consistent style throughout the year but little in the way of flavor or distinctive characteristics. The objective here is high productivity, not sublime flavor. We know that Jiro would not be happy with those teas, and neither are we. However, we too, are determined to seek out and support as many artisan tea makers as we can, so that hopefully premium tea will continue to be sustainable far into the future.

Conversely, most tea from established tea gardens is plucked by hand over the course of one, two or three seasons. (Much high quality Japanese green tea is plucked using hand-held machinery, but that is another story for another time). Tea manufactured on a seasonal calendar brings a unique set of stunning flavor and characteristics to the tea table. Working with nature and not in opposition to it has always produced the tastiest foodstuffs. Tea bushes that grow at a natural rate, and develop good root systems deep into the ground, and that are pruned only as needed to maintain good plant health yield tastier teas than plants that are force fed to grow rapidly and over-produce fresh leaf.

Like Jiro, we still believe in sublime tastes and sensations. And authentic, traditional tea. We throw our hat in the ring of the top grade producers who make seasonal tea. We know that every tea enthusiast who falls under the spell of flavorful, traditional tea is another small victory for handcrafted, conscientious manufacture, and meaningful tea, and we support that.

Our first 2012 China teas have arrived!

Yesterday the delivery man lugged 5 large boxes of tea into the store. When he asked us what was in them, and we said TEA he looked unimpressed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how many more of these boxes he will be bringing us in the next few weeks.

So, now, finally, the long winter wait is over! The China spring tea harvest is beginning in earnest.

In Western China teas from Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces are coming to market quickly and in great abundance. Eastern China tea regions are beginning to buzz with energy as the demands of the harvest increase each day.

Our first teas to arrive again this year are from Yunnan. Our ever-popular, fresh, sweet-tasting,and slender Yunnan Spring Buds are back (did I mention reasonably priced ? ) and this year we will have a sweet, flavorsome modern-style Yunnan Bai Mudan white tea once again. This is one of the prettiest we have ever had, and something delicious for the fans of last year’s Yue Guang Bai. We have missed this tea so it is good to have it back again.

Basil Magazine.com features Tea Trekker

We want to give a shout-out to Basil Magazine ( http://basilmagazine.com/) for featuring a story about Tea Trekker on their website. Stacy Cox got right to the heart of our approach to seasonal teas, and does a great job illustrating which teas come to market during what season of the year.

Read her article bellow:

Tea Trekker

by Stacey Cox

For most of us, tea is something that sits on a cupboard shelf. It’s there year-round. Tea may be iced in the summer and hot in the winter, but other than that it doesn’t change much with the seasons.

Robert and Mary Lou Heiss, the duo the New York Times called “The Professors of Tea” are committed to changing all that by bringing seasonal teas to America.

The Heisses , co-authors of The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide ( Ten Speed Press, 2007 ) and The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas ( Ten Speed Press, 2010 ), frequently travel to China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan to source premium, seasonal, artisan-made teas for their shop Tea Trekker

Teas of this distinction are prized by tea aficionados, and should be thought of in the same manner as fine wines, aged cognacs, hand-rolled cigars, and craft cheeses. As with wine, tea is influenced by terroir and weather. The weather patterns of each season contribute flavor and aroma characteristics to the tea that cannot be duplicated other times of the year.

Seasonality in tea refers not just to the particulars of the four seasons, but to a more precise timeframe of days and weeks within each season.  In essence, all tea has a time at which its flavor and aroma is best, and many of the most distinctive teas are made just once a year.

Premium, seasonal, artisan-made teas such as those selected by Tea Trekker are highly anticipated by tea connoisseurs worldwide for the tea drinking pleasure they provide. Thanks to the Heisses, tea enthusiasts here in the United States can now enjoy tea of the same high quality that tea connoisseurs in Berlin, Hong Kong, Kyoto, Paris, and Singapore are drinking.

High-quality teas such as these provide an important, viable economic resource for the experienced tea artisans who produce them, while supplying a delicious, culturally-rich beverage of modest cost for the consumer. On a cup-by-cup basis, premium tea can be enjoyed for less than 75 cents per cup.

Here is a listing of some of the seasonal teas you will find offered at Tea Trekker:

Summer Tea – not the season for premium tea!

Fall Tea:

China: Autumnal Oolong and Yunnan Black Teas

  • Oolong plucking begins anew, with fall crops that deliver teas with breathtaking and complex floral aromas: Fenghuang Dan Cong; Tieguanyin; Wu Yi Shan Rock Oolongs ( yan cha )
  • Buttery smooth Yunnan black teas (Golden Needles, Golden Tips) that deliver stunning flavor and aroma.


Winter Tea:

Taiwan: High Mountain Oolong (gao shan )

  • These are the teas of primary significance during this season in East Asia. Tea gardens that produce gao shan oolongs are located at altitudes of 6,000 feet or higher, and produce just two tea harvests each year: one in the winter (the most prized) and one in the spring. Gao shan is very difficult to obtain outside of Taiwan.
  • The cold, thin air of this high-altitude environment produces teas that are chewy, juicy and that are a delicious combination of sweetness and slight astringency. Gao shan oolongs are intensely floral and mouth-filling, yet they have an austere, slightly ‘chilled’ aspect to their flavor.

Spring Tea:

  • India: 1st flush Darjeeling Teas
  • These teas are from the first spring plucking, the most anticipated ( but smallest ) harvest of the year.
  • 1st flush Darjeeling is highly prized for its clarity in the cup, outstanding crisp flavor, and distinctive spicy aromas.
  • China:  1st Spring Teas
    • Mid-March ( Pre-Qing Ming): the arrival of early spring weather in mid-March begins the plucking season for several premium green, white, and yellow teas such as Longjing, Tianmu Shan Snow Sprouts,  Mengding Mt. Huang Ya, and Yin Zhen.
  • China: 2nd Spring Tea
    • Early to Mid- April to Mid-May ( Before the Rains tea): green tea production continues for teas such as Lu Shan andTai Ping Hou Kui; black teas such as Bai Lin, Golden Monkey, Keemun Congou, and Yunnan Curly Golden Buds.  This is the season for distinctive Puerh tea, as well as oolong tea ( the single malt scotches of the tea world ) that are celebrated for having the finest flavors: Fenghuang Dan Cong, Tieguanyin, and Wu Yi Shan Rock teas.
  • Japan: Shincha
    • Shincha is plucked in May and is the first tea of the new tea season in Japan.  Shincha is vivid green in color, intensely vegetal in aroma, and pleasantly balanced between sweetness and astringency in taste. The Shincha plucking season is short, approximately 10 days, so tea lovers who await the production of this tea each spring must act quickly!

Tea Trekker was the first tea vendor in the US in 2011 to announce the arrival of Indian and Chinese spring teas. In some instances these teas were only several weeks old when they arrived at the Tea Trekker tea shop.

About Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss:

Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss are adventurous tea trekkers, tea educators and retailers of premium artisan tea.  They are the co-authors of: The Tea Enthusiast Handbook: A Guide to the World’s Best Teas ( 2010, Ten Speed Press); The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide ( 2007, Ten Speed Press ) which was nominated for a 2008 James Beard Foundation Book Award and a 2008 IACP Cookbook Award; and HOT DRINKS ( 2007, Ten Speed Press).  When they are not traveling the world sourcing tea, Mary Lou and Bob are often found teaching tea classes in various locations, or at work in their premium tea shop Tea Trekker in Northampton, MA.

For more information, visit Tea Trekker (www.teatrekker.com)

For more in-depth information on Tea Trekker’s blog about seasonal teas, please click here.