Sourcing Spring Tea
April is the most exciting time of year for lovers of tea, for it marks the beginning of picking and producing fresh, delicious teas that truly capture the essence of spring. In China, they say with seriousness that ‘the best tea doesn’t leave the country’. This has a lot of truth because many tea growers cultivate tea exclusively for their friends, families, and the wealthy; it is a gift and cannot be purchased in any quantity.
It’s crucial to have someone on the ground who can speak the language and liaise directly with small tea gardens to build genuine relationships and secure fantastic examples of tea that might otherwise never have left the country. Our buyer, Tom, heads off every Spring with a thirst for tasting thousands of teas to find a small handful of the very finest, heading into China to mingle with those who have keenly anticipated this season as much as he has. It’s hard but thoroughly enjoyable work.
In his own words,
‘It is a privilege to taste, as I do at this time of year, the freshest spring teas produced just days prior and bursting with flavour.’
What does it take to source an exemplary tea, though? And what makes one tea special over another? We talk with our founder, Ed Eisler, on the specifics on sourcing tea.
What is terroir?
There is no direct equivalent in English for the French word terroir. Perhaps the closest translation is ‘placeness’ as it refers to the effect that a particular place’s soil, aspect, climate and cultural uniqueness has on the flavour of a food or drink. It's usually a reference reserved for wine but is equally valid for tea, cheese and ham – any products that derive their uniqueness of taste from the place where they are made.
Wine producers have noticed that vineyards positioned only a few yards from one another can produce wine of strikingly different quality and flavour due to the aspect of each field to the sun and differences in soil composition. It is the same for tea.
All too often, the emphasis on terroir can overlook the small, honed qualities of production that really bring a tea into its own. As an example, traditionally speaking, West Lake is the place where a Dragon Well Green Tea should come from. Apart from having an excellent climate, soil and aspect it also houses the most accomplished Dragon Well processing experts. This is not to say that every person you see hand-firing tea near the city of Hangzhou is an accomplished master, though.
How does processing affect taste?
Beyond terroir, tea is processed in a wide variety of ways, all refined over thousands of years by local cultures, traditions, and families, and so we should not be too attached to the traditionally celebrated terroirs. We have found that fantastic Dragon Well is produced in a small village, which is located a short distance from the West Lake at high altitude. The region is far from any city and many of the tea mountains are organic and foster growth of wild-seeded tea trees. Abundant and varied fauna and floral contribute to a very healthy ecosystem. In terms of taste, the altitude makes the tea more rarefied, mineral and sweet and a little less rich and robust that the West Lake Dragon Well.
It’s all very well to have excellent leaf, produced in a superb micro-climate. However, if the leaf is not processed perfectly, the end product will be ruined. Minute differences to the way the tea is processed including how it is picked, where and for how long it is withered, rolled, oxidised, fired etc. all affect the taste dramatically.
What makes a tea rare, or special?
The short answer is actually quite simple. Just two things: strength of character, and rarity.
Strength of tea taste and character, refers to how clearly the taste and aroma unfurls on the palette.
Rarity makes something fetch a high price whether the substance is gold, diamonds, wine, whisky or tea. But why is the best tea often rare?
Tea that is grown at higher altitudes often endures severe temperature changes and varied sunlight due to cloud cover. The adverse conditions ensure that only strong, healthy trees survive, with each only producing small quantities of leaves that must function perfectly. The cold ensures that the leaves grow slowly, allowing some of the unique qualities of the local soil and weather conditions to manifest in the tea. Low grown teas that grow fast in warm, wet conditions simply do not produce the same quality of taste because the leaves mature too quickly.
Some Exciting Finds
Hui Ming Spring
BRIGHT, SWEET, REFRESHING
Hui (pronounced hway) Ming Spring's bright infusion, beautifully creamy texture and sweet pea and asparagus flavours encapsulate the best of spring green tea.
Produced for us by Mr Lan in gardens bordering the Hui Ming temple that gives the tea its name, he focuses on producing only the best teas he can. Only the first flush of spring leaves and buds are hand-picked to produce this tea.
Hunan Silver Peak
SWEET, THICK, MORE-ISH
Produced at a garden in Migu Hill, Gaoqiao Xiang,Changsha City in Hunan Province, this tea has a very sweet character and thick, creamy texture that encapsulates the best of early spring green tea. It was cultivated by an experienced team in a small factory, with each stage of processing carefully controlled.
Great green teas like this are best enjoyed at their freshest, when the leaves are amazingly sweet and lively, really capturing the essence of the garden.
FLORAL, CREAMY, QUENCHING
This tea combines spring floral scents, sweet sappiness, and a lush, creamy texture. The two leaf and bud sets are are expertly picked and processed from the the first growth of the season, and are the most sought after crop of the year.
A remote region of Zhejiang famed for its bamboo forests, Anji's fertile slopes give rise to the unique white tea cultivar used to make Anji Green.