It’s Hairy Crab Season

It’s the end of October and the fall oolong harvest for tea such as Hairy Crab  ( Mao Xie ) is underway in Fujian Province, China. Hairy Crab is a semiball-rolled, modern-style, greenish oolong made in the villages around Anxi in southern Fujian. It is plucked from its namesake tea bush cultivar, and  is similar  to several in flavor and aroma other oolongs made in this region from their specific tea bush cultivars –Ben Shan, Huang Jin Gui, Tieguanyin and Tou Tian Xiang.

But ask a shopper at a city wet market such as in Shanghai or Hong Kong about the seasonal Hairy Crab and they are likely to point to baskets of fresh crabs that have  begun arriving at the market.  The season  for this  seafood delicacy – Eriocher sinensis or mitten crab, known as ‘ Duaza ha’ in the local Shanghai dialect – has just begun, and availability continues until early February. Fall is when the crabs are fattest and the meat is sweetest. Unlike the Hairy crab oolong which is produced in one specific region of small villages, most of these namesake crabs are the product of freshwater aquaculture ( as are many frogs, turtles and eels in China ) in several locations along the Yangtze river in eastern China. Cooking preparations vary, but many believe that simply steaming the crabs and dipping the meat in ginger, vinegar and soy sauce is the best way to enjoy the sweet white flesh. Hairy Crabs are expensive – as much as $26.00 per crab, depending on where they were raised, so tasting the goodness of the crab meat is of paramount importance.

I can only make and educated guess as to why the tea and the crabs share a common name. Pictorially – and in a highly- imaginative kind of way, these army- grey-green, wrinkly little crabs with their oddly constructed bodies, pointy angles and jutting out arms and legs – do bear conceptional similarity to the irregular shape and color of the Hairy Crab tea leaves.

Hairy Crab oolong

As expected, the fall season is filling the markets with a new infusion of both tea and crabs. Our Hairy Crab oolong is from the 2011 spring season, and is fantastically  aromatic and rich in the cup. The fall version of this tea is more full-bodied and less sweet tasting, perhaps a more well-balanced counterpoint to the taste of the cooked crab. Coincidentally, both of these Chinese specialties carry the word ‘sinensis’ ( meaning from China or of China ) in their taxonomic name.

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.

Firefly Light, Pure Water, and Tea

It’s nearly mid-June and the fireflies have returned to the meadows in my neighborhood. On warm, still, cloud-less nights I sit behind my house when darkness has settled in to enjoy one of my favorite moments of summer – the juxtaposition of the heavenly glow of the stars in the sky and the tiny,  twinkling lights of the fireflies hovering over the hay fields. With a little imagination, one could believe that the blinking lights are the frantic efforts of stars that have fallen from the sky to rise up and return to their celestial domain.

Ricefield-Fireflies wood block print                     by artist David Stone

But fireflies are real creatures – they are members of the beetle family who have a marvelous, bioluminescent ability to emit light from their abdomen which they use to attract mates. When I was a kid we called them lightening bugs, and we tried our darnedest to capture a few each June and keep them in a jar for a few hours for closer examination.

artwork by Mike Lowery, argyleacademy.com

Fireflies are a phenomenon in Japan, too, during the month of June. Firefly ‘viewings’ or ‘gatherings’ along streams and fields are a popular way for many in Japan to venture outdoors and appreciate the natural world. For tea lovers, this also offers the opportunity to enjoy tea in a tranquil, outdoor setting, combining an appreciation of life’s fleeting moments (an awareness that every tea ceremony gathering carries with it is the notion of ‘ichi go ichi e’, meaning, one chance in one’s lifetime, or, the knowledge that such a gathering of guests will never gather again at that monent, on that day, in that year, in their lifetime) with a delicious bowl of fragrant tea.

I recently discovered charming piece on firefly viewing that emphasizes the importance of pure water for both the health of the natural world and for tea preparation and drinking, and which also cleverly contains subtle references to principles of Chado, or the Way of Tea.

The piece was written by Dr. Genshitsu Sen, Hounsai Daisosho, and posted  on the Urasenke.org website under Essays on Tea, Firefly Light. I wonder if others familiar with Chado will recognize within his words the nod to the principles or temae (etiquette) of Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, that I think I see in this piece: wa (harmony – applied here as harmony with the surroundings), kei (respect- applied here as our respect for the environment), sei (purity- applied here as purity of water and nature), and jaku (tranquility- applied here for the ability of nature to calm and refresh us).

This is what he wrote:

” Speaking of fireflies, each year in June a Firefly Light Tea Gathering is held on the grounds of Tadasu no Mori, a wooded site within the Shimogamo Shrine renowned from ancient times in Kyoto. The gathering is hosted jointly by the Tadasuno Mori Kenshô Foundation and Urasenke Konnichian. The gatherings are part of an effort to re-establish fireflies along the Mitarashi Stream that flows through the shrine precincts and to reclaim the purity of the stream. The fruition of these efforts over the past five or six years occurs at dusk in the sixth month. Here and there fireflies wing about. Yearly the number of persons who come to view them increases.  Starting from around six o’clock in the evening, the Firefly Light Gathering attracts not only firefly aficionados but also many who come seeking a few moments of tranquility.

In the same way that fireflies cannot live without the flow of beautifully pure water, tea that elicits gratitude from the heart’s depth cannot be partaken of if there are no sources of crystal pure water. For the task of ensuring the purity of flowing water, each individual must expend his or her energy. Let us join together in creating a world environment that encourages gazing upon the light of fireflies and sharing a delicious bowl of tea.”  Translated from Tankô Magazine by Christy A. Bartlett.

For those interested in celebrating the Japanese idea of nodate ( open air tea ceremony ) or preparing matcha outdoors, this traveling bamboo and silk tea basket is designed to carry the necessary supplies. The basket contains a tiny whisk, a folding matcha scoop, and room for a small chawan ( matcha tea bowl).

So, please join me on some moonless night during June, in the backyard, or beside a meadow along a darkened country lane, with cup of tea in hand, and salute the presence of twinkling fireflies, and the joy of partaking of a cup of tea with other kindred spirits.

Tea Harvesting Timeline

Seasonality in tea is important. Many tea enthusiasts are beginning to understand that some teas are plucked in only one season of the year, while other teas may be plucked over the course of two or three seasons.  In general, some teas are best when plucked and manufactured in the spring, others in the summer, still others in the fall, and so on.  Some teas have a main spring crop and a secondary crop in the late summer or fall. Knowing the season that a tea was plucked can reveal important information about what to expect in the flavor and aroma of that tea.

All teas, even those manufactured in more than one season, have a time of the year when they are at their tastiest best.  For example, for many Chinese tea enthusiasts, green teas plucked early in the spring ( premium teas which are harvested only once a year ) have flavor and aroma that is superior to that of green teas plucked during the summer months (standard teas).  Japanese sencha, too, manufactured from leaf  plucked in early May will have a sweetness and a delicacy that is lacking in sencha plucked and manufactured during the summer.  While seasonal variations in tea will show different flavor and aroma qualities, tea drinkers often have personal preferences of tea from one season over another.

Spring plucked tea implies ‘freshness’ and freshness is important with green, yellow, and white teas, and some oolongs. ( The notion of ‘fresh’ tea or ‘young’ tea does not apply to all classes of tea. Some Chinese oolongs are aged to enhanced flavor, and other teas ( like matcha, for example ) are best when ‘mellowed’ for several months before drinking. Sheng Pu-erh tea can be drunk young, but is traditionally stored for years to develop rich, deep flavors. Many black teas will hold well for several years and a bit of aging can soften their astringent edges). So it pays to know when a tea was harvested as a gauge of its freshness.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the spring tea harvest begins at different times in different countries and regions of each country. In the locations where tea has a dormant period, budbreak ( the re-awakening of the tea bushes after winter hibernation ) is triggered by seasonal weather changes.

Following is a timeline of tea harvesting dates ( for the first 6 months of the year ) in the tea producing countries of China, India, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka and Taiwan based on a normal weather cycle. Of course, these dates are always subject to the whims of nature and the seasonal/unseasonal weather patterns and conditions that affect all farms and agricultural crops. Cold weather will delay plucking, and unseasonably warm weather can speed up leaf growth and the pace of plucking and manufacture by as much as a week or two.

 

 Tea Harvesting Timeline

  • OCTOBER/NOVEMBER

Fujian Province: October production of Tieguanyin and local Se Zhong varietals

Guangdong Province: November (winter ) production of dan congs

Taiwan: November (winter ) production of high mountain gao shan

  • JANUARY

India: frost teas ( black  tea ) from the Nilgiri region of southern India are  manufactured from December thru March.

Sri Lanka: West Highlands quality season in the Dimbula region is January thru March.

  • FEBRUARY

China: production of green and black tea ( dian hong ) begins in some regions of Yunnan Province

Sri Lanka: The quality season for the Southern Coast districts is February, and in the Central Highland districts of Nuwara Eliya and Kandy it is February and March.

  • MARCH

China: the arrival of early spring weather in mid-late March begins the plucking season for some premium green and yellow teas. In Sichuan Province, Mengding Mt. Huang Ya and Zhu Ye Qing can be plucked beginning in mid-March. In eastern China’s Fujian Province, production of bud-plucked Yin Zhen white tea is from mid-March to the end of March. The earliest plucks of Bi Lo Chun and Longjing occur from mid to end of March in eastern China, and the leafy and bud green teas from Yunnan Province start to appear.

India: the Darjeeling and Assam regions in the north begin their first seasonal plucking ( 1st flush ) of black teas in early March.

Nepal: Eastern Nepal begins to harvest its 1st flush black tea.

Taiwan: early spring semiball-rolled oolong production begins  in central Taiwan.

  • APRIL

China: April is the busiest time in eastern China for premium green teas from Anhui Province ( Huang Shan Mao Feng, Lu An Guapian, Tai Ping Hou Kui, etc ); Jiangxi Province ( Lu Shan, Ming Mei ), Sichuan Province ( Gan Lu )  and Zhejiang Province ( Longjing,  Long Ding, etc. ).  The 1st pluck of Fenghuang Dan Congs are from early-to-mid April. Certain black teas are produced in mid-April: Ying de#9, Bai Lin Gong Fu, Yixing Congou, Panyang Congou ( Golden Monkey ). The leaf  and bud materials for Pu-erh are plucked from old tea trees in parts of Yunnan Province from April to July.

NOTE: the spring season is divided up into 4 periods of time, and the harvest dates of China’s most  famous green teas, such as Longjing, are associated with certain dates on the agricultural calendar. This is the breakdown:

  1. pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea ( leaf plucked before April 5th )
  2. Before the Rains or Yu Qian tea ( leaf plucked before April 20th )
  3. Spring tea or Gu Yu tea ( leaf pucked before May 6th )
  4. Late spring or Li Xia ( leaf plucked before May 21st )

India: spring tea from the Nilgiris are manufactured in April/May.

Korea: the first of the season green – Ujeon – is plucked just before Koku ( the first grain rain and the sixth seasonal division), around April 20th.

Taiwan: spring pluck Wenshan Baozhong comes to market towards the end of April. Production of high-mountain oolong starts in late April. The harvest begins in the lower elevation tea gardens and moves up the mountains as warm weather reaches the higher elevations.

  • MAY

China: production of Lapsang Souchong begins in northern Fujian Province in early May: in southern Fujian, Anxi semiball -rolled ‘green’ oolongs ( Tieguanyin, and Se Zhong varietals: Ben Shan, Huang Jin Gui, Mao Xie, Tou Tian Xiang ) begin to appear in mid-May. Black teas such as Anhui’s Keemun Hao Ya A and Keemun Mao Feng come to market . The base tea for jasmine tea scenting ( zao pei ) is made and stored until the fresh flower blossoms arrive in the summer. Production of leafy  Bai Mu Dan, Gong Mei and Shou Mei white teas begins and ends in May.

India: 2nd flush teas begin to be plucked in Darjeeling and Assam.

Japan: limited early production of the first seasonal plucking of Shincha in early May is followed by the first plucking of sencha – Ichibancha – in mid-May ).

Korea: production of Sejak occurs during Ipha ( the start of summer- around May 6th ); plucking of Jungjak follows during Soman ( full grains season around May 21st ).

Taiwan:  spring plucking of Li Shan Da Yu Ling high-mountain oolong usually begins just after May 21st and continues into early June.

  • JUNE

China: light roast Wu Yi Shan oolongs ( Da Hong Pao, Jun Zi Lan, Rou Gui, Shui Jin Gui, Shui Xian, etc.) are manufactured in early June
( sometimes late May ).  Traditional charcoal roast Wu Yi Shan oolongs ( heavy roast ) appear about the end of June or early July.

Sri Lanka: the Uva district of the Eastern Highlands produces its quality season teas from June-September.

Taiwan: manufacture of Bai Hao oolong begins in early June.

 Tea Trekker’s 2011 Tea Arrival Timeline

Our tea from the new harvest in China will begin to  arrive in early April. We expect transport of our teas from the tea farms to our store to occur over several air shipments, about 4 weeks apart to coincide with the progression of the new teas as they are plucked and manufactured.

We expect our first air shipment of Darjeeling tea to arrive in April. Our Chinese spring green and yellow teas that will be plucked in March and early April will begin arriving mid-to-end of April. The Chinese green, white and black teas, and Japanese Shincha plucked in April will arrive here in May. Shipments in mid-to-late June or early July will bring our new harvest Japanese senchas and Korean greens.

Reading Between the Lines of ‘New Tea’

With the imminent arrival of ‘fresh’ tea ( new spring green teas from China, Japan, and Korea, and 1st Flush black teas from Assam and Darjeeling, India and eastern Nepal) in the next 3-8 weeks, it’s time for a post about tea dating, or the harvest dates of tea. Some of you may know this information, many of you will not, so it bears repeating for all.

For the moment, let us just say this about ‘fresh’ or ‘new harvest’ tea. Unless a tea merchant is selling 2011 winter tea from the few places in the world that harvest a winter crop or selling very early green teas from Sichuan Province ( Mengding Mt.), Yunnan Province or Hainan Island,  China (which have just begun to appear in the markets in China), it is important to know that there is no new tea coming from China, Japan, Korea or northern India… yet. With a few exceptions, it is still 3-8 weeks too early, depending on the location of the tea gardens.

This is an important distinction, because it is essential for tea enthusiasts to understand what the tea is that they are purchasing this time of year.

Right now, at the end of winter (but before the tea harvest begins) many tea vendors are introducing ‘new’ teas to their store and websites.  But the important thing to realize about that is this – simply because a tea is ‘new’ to a store or website does not mean that it is new harvest tea, and tea enthusiasts should not fall into the trap of thinking 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. If there is no harvest date given, then one should inquire before assuming  anything about the time of the pluck.

Which does not mean that last year’s teas should be avoided – that is not the point.  For example, we  here at Tea Trekker have recently added two new fall 2010 Yunnan black teas to our offerings and have dated them as such.

The point is:

  1. one should be an informed consumer and not assume that a new tea being sold right now 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 harvest teas are so close to being available).

Tea vendors who have new harvest spring green teas arrive in their shops right after harvest will have these teas sent by air so that the teas are super-fresh and just a few weeks old. These teas will begin to arrive about the  middle to the end  of April. (  Shipments of tea sent via sea cargo arrive at the historic ‘normal’ time in late July and August).

So plan your tea purchasing accordingly and make sure that you purchase what you think you are purchasing vis a vie the date of harvest.

Over the past year, we here at Tea Trekker ( and a small handful of other vendors of premium tea ) have begun to list the season and year of the harvest on our green, white, yellow, and oolong teas, and some black and Pu-erh teas, too.

While this information is not important for most packaged, branded teas and commercial-grade, run-of-the-mill supermarket teas, it does tell consumers of premium leaf tea some important information. It may be a few years until most serious tea drinkers in the West know to ask about ( or even know to care about ) the seasonal dating of teas. But tea enthusiasts who have learned what these differences mean are better able to make the right choices when purchasing tea.

Next post: harvesting dates