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1st May 2020

By Tom Price

Lockdown Latest: Weather the Biggest Factor in China

As I go into peak sourcing season, but am still stuck in London, I speak to many producers daily. Here's everything I learnt this week from the people in the gardens in China who are going into the peak of their spring season. Dragon Well production is down by 33%, but it is set to be a high-quality year for Jade Sword and Red Dragon.

I am sharing these updates with you so that you can find out what to expect from some of the top tea origins in China this year.

It’s all about the weather!

In contrast to origins such as Darjeeling where COVID-19 lockdown is playing havoc with the normal seasonal picking, China emerged from its lockdown just in time to pick spring teas. Instead, the main thing that tea farmers in China wanted to talk to me about was the weather. Hangzhou had an exceptionally short spring, Hunan has experienced no frost so far, while in Jinagxi they are battling with too much frost, and in Western Yunnan they have had the worst drought in 10 years.

What does this mean for the tea?

First up: Hangzhou & Dragon Well:

West Lake Dragon Well crop down 33%

Mr Shen makes tea in Waitongwu village in the Longwu area of West Lake in Hangzhou, the most famous and important area for Dragon Well production. He told me this week that the crop is down by a third because of a cold March and a very hot April: “The weather changed from 5 degrees to 33 degrees in one day”.

This rapid onset of summer temperatures meant that the bushes did not have a long enough spring period to produce the buds and young leaves that are used in high quality production – anything above 20 degrees means that the bushes grow too fast to capture decent flavour.

Mr Shen said that despite the supply being low, prices will only be up around 5% this year, which is a normal kind of fluctuation. This is bad news because producers in the area are already struggling to sell their tea. Usually the West Lake in Hangzhou is one of the most popular destinations for domestic tourists in spring who come to buy their annual supply of tea, whereas this year the town is still empty. Tourists are not there because of the ongoing precautions on travel and gatherings following the COVID-19 epidemic.

Waitongwu village when I was there in 2015
Mr Shen points to his tea garden in Hangzhou’s West Lake area (2020)

So what Dragon Well can we expect this year?

While I am always on the lookout for a West Lake Dragon Well and am excited to try Mr Shen’s tea, I also source an organic Dragon Well from the hilly areas outside Hangzhou. Here, the tea is picked in April, a bit later than low-lying West Lake and so has not been affected by the short spring. Instead, their weather issue is the drought of last summer which has led to the buds being smaller this year.

I am waiting to see how this affects the taste but I’m confident from knowing Mr Wen, who fires this tea for us, that we can still expect the same classic chestnut aromas that he brings out from this skilled firing.

Our batch of Organic Dragon Well Supreme from 2019
Sourcing Dragon Well Supreme 2019

Moving West to Hunan for Jade Sword:

The mild winter & decrease in demand bodes well for a high-quality year

Cooler temperatures can also affect our Jade Sword, which is grown more than 1,000km west of Hangzhou in Huaihua, Hunan Province. The main concern in March is usually frost as this can kill any early shoots on the bushes. I spoke to Mr Liu, who we work with for our Jade Sword, and he told me that this year the seasonal temperatures are perfect for great quality spring green tea.

They are expecting lower demand this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Mr Liu and the garden are reducing the yield from the bushes, and instead enabling a focus on high-quality. This focus on quality combined with the great weather, mean that they and us are optimistic that it will be a great year for Jade Sword.

Mr Liu at the Jade Sword garden in 2020 inspecting leaves
While I seem more interested in the local wildlife! (2018)

Lastly, we go further West again in Yunnan for Red Dragon:

The worst drought in 10 years slows leaf growth and concentrates flavours.

What producer Young Wu (who I work with on Red Dragon) said this week is that the locals are describing it as the worst drought in 10 years. There is a strong feeling from everyone I spoke to in the area that it will have a profound effect on tea production across all of Yunnan this year.

What the team at the Red Dragon garden, Ximeng, are doing is quite different from other tea producers in Yunnan though. Firstly, they are at much higher elevation and use a non local cultivar (it is much more commonly used in Taiwan), but perhaps the best decision that they made that means they are somewhat protected from this drought, is that they do not use any chemical pesticides or fertilisers, and maintain a surrounding forest. This means that their soil is in a much stronger condition to retain moisture and feed the bushes during this drought. In more intensively farmed areas of Yunnan, bushes have been killed by the drought and yield could be down 30%.

The Red Dragon garden in late-April 2020, showing more mature bushes than when I first visited in 2015

Tea master at Ximeng garden, Chen Qiguang, told me that the drought meant that he had to delay picking until 15th April and that the leaves were still very small until then. I would usually be tasting their teas from the end of March/ much earlier in April. This delay means that there will be some reduction in yield, but the good news is that this comes with better quality, and flavours tend to be concentrated in slow-growing leaves. Knowing this, I can’t wait to taste this year’s tea.

As the season progresses, I will continue to bring you updates from the origins and the producers but for now, I am expecting to taste the first samples of Dragon Well shortly and to be able to share Dragon Well 2020 with you in May.

Chen Qiguang inspecting the leaves after production mid April 2020