Sourcing Spring Teas in Lockdown

Each spring I source our collection of teas that reflect the excitement of this time of year for tea lovers. This year in every region the effects of COVID-19 are being felt, and for the first time in twelve years, I have not been able to travel to origin to source this collection, known as Spring Teas.

I want to keep you up to date on which teas to expect this year, and on how the current epidemic is affecting the tea industry. To begin, I have written a piece below on how I am sourcing the prime Chinese spring tea crop from my home in London, and in the coming weeks we will be sharing interviews and profiles of producers in different regions. These will focus on the impact and effects of this time on the tea, the producers themselves and their communities.

Hand-sorting leaves of Shimen Green Mountain last year
WHAT ARE SPRING TEAS & WHY ARE THEY SPECIAL?

Spring teas are the first productions, sometimes known as the “first flush” of the new season. They are much anticipated and, in many origins, they are considered the highest quality picking of the year.

Most authentic tea origins are subtropical and the gardens are at altitude, so the winters are cool and the summers are hot. The tea bushes lie dormant in the winter, with only the roots working underground. As the weather warms up, the first buds of the season will shoot up, carrying with them all the energy and nutrients that the roots have been harvesting all winter. It is these first tender buds that are used to make these spring productions.

In such areas, the spring season is very short with high summer temperatures arriving quickly. Some years we have been in Hangzhou (home of Dragon Well, one of the most well-known spring teas) and within just two or three days, the daytime temperature has increased from 10 to 30 degrees. Capturing the buds at the right time, that is before the weather is too hot and they open to become leaves and lose some of their spring lusciousness, is one of the most important skills that a tea producer will ever learn. The qualities of spring teas derive from a fragile cooperation between weather and tea master.

Spring teas will have a delicacy, a freshness and a sweetness to them that is impossible to find at any other time of year.

HOW DO WE USUALLY FIND OUR SPRING TEAS? 

The challenge for us in sourcing these teas is their scarcity. Scarcity in terms of there being such small amounts produced, given the short length of the season, but also scarcity in availability. Locally the best of these teas are considered highly valuable and will sell very quickly – often before a farmer has time to deliver a sample to a western market.

It is not necessarily in the famous tea regions or from well-known producers that we will find the best spring teas each year, given the careful balance of weather and skilled processing that is needed. If we want to find the best ones, it is important to source as widely as possible and build relationships with the producers so that we get access alongside the local market. It is for these reasons that I usually base myself at origin during this production season.

I visit as many gardens as possible, up to 5-6 per day. Those that I can’t visit will send samples on a next-day basis. Being on the ground in the same time zone facilitates quick decision making and buying. It also means that I can give quicker feedback to the producer, importantly within time for the next day’s production. This helps us to get the styles of tea that we are looking for. For example, in Dragon Well we are looking for a less fired batch than what a typical Beijing buyer will be looking for. In the cold Beijing winters, the more fired varieties will be appreciated for their warming qualities. I am looking for lower fire, to maximise succulence and clear delivery of the chestnut flavour and spring freshness.

Every year mid to late March, I will go to Darjeeling in India, for the First Flush and then straight to Hangzhou and the surrounding areas for the best of the Dragon Well production and other Chinese spring teas. Finally in May, I will go to Japan for their spring greens.

Chatting to tea master Mr Song in Jiande, Hangzhou last year
Tasting tea at home
HOW AM I SOURCING THIS YEAR’S CHINESE SPRING TEAS?

I am pleased to share that my work in previous years, spending time with producers, is paying off in a different way in this exceptional year. I have been able to use the relationships I have built to still get a wide selection of teas from different places. This means I can still only select the ones that truly stand out.

For example, last year I visited the hometown of our newest spring tea Shimen Green Mountain for several days and saw with the producer the entire process, from picking in the tea garden to processing in the factory and drinking the teas at his home. We have naturally kept in contact this spring, so I have been able to get samples of the new crop sent to me in London.

I also have a few good teas in mind from last year that didn’t make the cut but showed promise, so I have been keeping in touch with these producers too.

Overall, what will most help to source great spring teas this year is to rely on a group of trusted partners in China with whom we have longstanding relationships. The relationships aids communication and mutual understanding – these are farmers and friends who know exactly the type of tea we like and will put forward options they judge to be suitable. They are long-term and not transactional – we can rely on a little help this year by asking the farmers to hold the tea long enough for me to taste a sample, even though there are ample opportunities to sell the tea locally. Finally, the relationships entails trust – getting teas to market quickly means all steps in the transaction must go smoothly, in which – as with all trade – trust is the essential component.

We hold these values true also in our relationship with our customers. Whilst access to spring teas won’t be at the top of anyone’s list of priorities in these worrying times, I am happy to still be able to share them with you for their symbolic meaning of new growth, renewal and regeneration. I want the hopeful messages from friends in China, who are emerging on the other side of what we are now experiencing to reach you, and may their teas offer you a little succour, solace and joy in the coming weeks.

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