This was our first trip to China in three years due to Covid, while we’ve still been very active sourcing in that time, we just couldn’t do it on the ground for obvious reasons! It was an exciting moment to go back at last, with the plan to bring back some really special green teas from gardens in and around Hangzhou, Hunan and most excitingly, Yunnan.
Inspecting bushes with Yellow tea Master Mr Wang
Comparing fresh samples with Mr Wang
The most highly prized teas
Spring tea tends to apply in geographies where there’s a cold winter, where the plant stores up all its resources. Then as the weather gradually warms up, plants very slowly start to produce new buds and leaves, which are the most flavourful part that the bush will put forth in any part of the year. These are usually picked around late March or early April, which is when I’ll travel out there to try them.
After the weather becomes reliably hot in late spring and summer, then the bushes begin to produce new leaves more rapidly, which may yield a lot more weight of tea, but won’t have the same unique character as the first pickings. The first pickings, or first production batches, are smaller in quantity and higher in quality, and come to market in a bit of a flurry. They’re so highly prized that they often remain ‘at source’ - in other words, will be sold and enjoyed within China, without ever making it overseas. They really are that good!
Meeting the tea pickers in Yunnan, China
We usually visit gardens around the latitude of Shanghai, which is where you get an abundance of true spring teas. But this year, we also spent a week in Yunnan, which isn’t really a typical area for this kind of tea. Yunnan is much further south, bordering Vietnam and Myanmar: the climate is different, much more tropical – the spring tea season is spread out over a much longer period, from late January to early May, and tend to be black or pu’er teas which don’t benefit from freshness of flavour as much. Furthermore, they have lots of old trees that come into season even later.
The main purpose of the visit was as part of our organic strategy – to increase the proportion of organic teas in our range – as Yunnan is well-known for its organic tea. As well as visiting several new gardens, I was excited to revisit Ximeng garden where our Red Dragon is grown, an incredibly interesting and unique oolong cultivar that isn’t normally found in Yunnan, which the garden makes into a very fruity black tea.
Making tea in the traditional Gaiwan style
The City of Eternal Spring
The first thing that hits you is that the pace of life is much slower in Yunnan. With a beautifully temperate climate – hot in the afternoon, warm in the evening, but never stifling – the provincial capital Kunming is known as the City of Eternal Spring. Yunnan is also hugely ethnically diverse, with 25 recognised ethnic minorities across the province with distinct lifestyles and cultures, who are the people making the tea in different ways.
It is, however, difficult to get to, and took us 30 hours by plane. Distances are massive, with lots of winding roads and isolated areas – you thought nothing of jumping on a bus for six hours just to travel to the next city, where it would take another three hours to go up the mountain to find the tea garden itself.
The rarest type of tea
I went on from Yunnan to Hunan province, looking for the most famous and traditional yellow tea in China called Jun Shan Silver Needle, which comes from Yueyang on the banks of Dongting lake. In fact, it was Chairman Mao’s favourite tea. Here we met Wang Yueshi, one of only a handful of yellow tea makers recognised at a national level as a master craftsman.
Wang’s teas, from a beautiful garden managed to organic standards, carry on the tradition of authentic yellow tea making, but he’s also an innovative maker experimenting with different cultivars and styles of tea. I hope to introduce these teas in this and future years.
Tom in Yingpan Garden, Yunnan, China
Spectacular views over Puerh National Park in Yunnan, China
The difficult drought
Then we went onto Hangzhou, where we go every year, because it’s the home of Dragon Well, amongst China’s most famous teas. Everyone was talking about last year’s drought, which affected gardens across the country – even somewhere tropical like Yunnan. Often you could see some dead patches in the gardens where the bushes hadn’t survived. This might end up affecting the yield and production prices of the coming summer’s pickings, such as Gunpowder. Luckily, spring tea batches are so small and so carefully produced that the quality impact has been minimal.
The good news is that I tasted some great teas across the trip and in Hangzhou some excellent Dragon Well. It was a great pleasure to renew old friendships and meet new tea masters after a long period of enforced absence. On my return the teas I’ve shortlisted will undergo our rigorous quality control before I finalise orders and rush the special spring pickings into your hands.