Sourcing Spring Tea 2017
Does a good tea garden make good tea? Or can a great tea master work magic on average quality leaves to bring about a special result? In the tea trade you’ll find planters who swear that good agriculture is the key, and factory managers very confident in the value of their contribution to the finished product.
Of course it is specious to even try to draw this distinction: the answer is that a fortunate confluence of many factors, including good raw material and good processing, is needed before a tea reaches the quality levels we seek.
But fortune is not the prevailing element, for good gardens and sound processing do reliably produce excellent tea year after year. For this reason, many of our relationships with producers are extraordinarily long-lasting. Our friend Mr. Song has found a mercurial combination of factors that means each season he will produce tea to the standard we aim to buy. I have visited him in spring for the past eight years.
This year sourcing spring teas in China I aimed to visit some new tea gardens and also make sure to visit old favourites such as Mr. Song.
Understanding how both garden and processing interacts to determine tea quality, you’ll see why it’s necessary to source directly. Visiting the garden, inspecting the factory and meeting the tea master are all preliminary activities, preludes to the main event of tasting the tea that will finally decide if we buy.
Focussing this year on what can be learnt during the tea garden visit, I first accompanied sustainable farming experts UTZ touring demonstration gardens in Zhejiang province as part of a consultation with Ethical Tea Partnership.
Thereafter my itinerary took in points as far as Gucheng in Hubei and several other parts of Zhejiang province including Yixing and Mogan Shan. Gardens from these three locations are shown below:
Yixing, a demonstration garden for research of different cultivars
Mogan Shan, a garden certified to China organic standards
Hubei, a typical working garden set in hilly scenery
All these gardens produced good tea. A particularly good feeling came from Mogan Shan, where tea is grown in accordance with organic principles laid down by China’s Tea Research Institute. Among the many environmental benefits, easily visible is the biodiversity present when tea is grown without relying on use of fertilisers or pesticides.
However, organic agriculture is not an easy road. I saw in Mogan Shan fields of bushes damaged by insect infestation that will take years to recover. In many cases I have observed over the years, a commitment to producing organic tea comes not from commercial calculation but the personal values of the tea farmer.
In Mogan Shan, Mr. Lu is also an old friend of JING. This year I bought some of his excellent and extremely rare yellow tea JING Mogan Mountain Yellow Tea. Processed in the traditional manner, involving a yellow stage (menhuang) of several hours, high quality leaf material is processed into a unique tea with distinct mellow and sweet flavour and gentle floral aromas.
Ending my trip in Jiande, I was delighted to visit Mr. Song and taste this year’s crop of JING Organic Dragon Well Supreme. Mr. Song’s gardens are inspected annually by organic certifying bodies in Europe at considerable expense. Such certification is not necessary for sale of his teas in the domestic market but reflects Mr. Song’s values and long-term perspective of harmony in nature.
As always, Mr. Song’s tea has the unmistakable roasted chestnut flavour and decadent, creamy texture of authentic Dragon Well green tea at its best. Is this tea the work of a good tea garden or a good tea master? Naturally it is both.