For a few weeks already, various kinds of freshly harvested green teas have been flowing into Kunming tea markets from tea farms in Yunnan and other Chinese provinces.
Here’s what the leaves of freshly brewed Huangshan Maofeng look like
Late March was marked by the arrival of zhuyeqing from Sichuan, tieguanyin from Fujian, and a wide variety of Yunnan-grown green teas. Some of the more sophisticated greens, such as longjing and huangshan maofeng, took a couple more weeks to get here. As usual, their supply was limited and price – well above the average pain threshold. April saw the arrival of the bulk of greens that one generally expects from a spring harvest. Now we are just waiting for a few more green teas from some remote provinces to complete the spring 2013 collection. Local tea industry has been affected by climate change too. In many parts of China, winter season has shifted by about a month, which pushed the first plucking sorties accordingly.
Spring is the prime season for green tea. As winter loses its grasp, tea trees come to life and start growing their young and tender buds. Depending on location, tea varietal, and weather conditions, farmers let the buds grow for two to six weeks. The buds are then plucked and processed carefully to make the first and the most treasured batch of the year’s green tea selection. Tea aficionados around the globe rub their hands in anticipation of this highly sought after produce.
For most green teas, freshness is particularly important. It’s best to drink them as soon as they hit the market. Harvest season is also a key factor. I personally prefer green teas harvested in spring, although summer and autumn seasons can often yield very nice teas too. Spring-plucked tea leaves are particularly gentle and full of life. Think about all that life force that’s trapped in the plant for several winter months and is suddenly released with the rays of the spring sun. I also believe that the best tea is hand-picked, sun-dried, and manually processed with minimal or zero reliance on electrically powered contraptions.
Purchasing and storage
Now is a good time to stock up on green teas. By early May the market stabilizes significantly and prices settle at a generally accepted level. Unless you are buying small quantities of tea for immediate consumption, you should make sure that you know how to store your greens properly. If you are planning to finish your tea within a month or two, you can simply keep it on a shelf. Just keep it from direct sunlight, moisture, and odorous substances (such as spices). If you have green tea that you know will last you awhile, you should package and store it properly as soon as possible. If it’s a neatly curled wulong or biluochun, feel free to put it in a vacuum-sealed bag and store it the fridge. If it’s some fragile tea that gets easily crumpled, just put it in a couple of ziplock bags, a tupperware container, or a heat-sealed plastic bag. Storing tea in a freezer compartment is acceptable for some wulongs, but most greens will do just fine in near-zero temperatures.
Why vacuuming and cooling? In this way, you can limit the fluctuations in the temperature as well as exposure to moisture and oxygen, and thus extend the life of the green tea. If all this storing and packaging sounds like a hassle – don’t worry about it. Just keep your tea on the shelf and try to finish it sooner. Green tea is not meant to be stockpiled.
Freshness of tea is of course a relative concept. It is impossible to preserve tea leaves in their pristine state and shape. After the tea is harvested, it undergoes a number of processing steps: sun-drying, stirring, mixing, wilting, oxidation, killing the green (shaqing), etc. The order in which these steps are performed as well as their length and intensity determine the final flavor, aroma, and outlook of the tea. Needless to say, the art of making good tea is no easy undertaking and sometimes borders on outright magic. After the tea obtains the desired characteristic it is dried in special ovens. By tea industry standards dried tea leaves should contain no more than 5% of water. A higher moisture content will undermine its shelf life.
Preparation of green tea
There is no single best way to brew green tea. Most instructions on green tea packaging say that lower water temperature is recommended, but that’s about it. So, it’s important to try to ‘get to know’ different types of green tea personally. I almost never look at brewing instructions. Instead, I’m prepared to sacrifice up to 50 gr just to experiment with it. Only when I feel confident that I know how harness all of its goodness, will I serve the new tea to others.
I don’t drink green for health reasons. I couldn’t care less about all these polyphenols and antioxidants that are mentioned in so many tea descriptions (click here to read an article about Research into green tea and preventing cancer). And although I appreciate the invigorating effects of the beverage though, I mostly drink green tea because I like the taste. I also enjoy preparing it. Especially when I have enough to use my gear: the tray, gaiwan, pitchers, filters, small cups, etc. Most importantly, I like sharing it with a good company that often gathers around my table.
Which greens do I drink? When I get tired of wulong, black, or puer, I now reach out for one of these:
- Xuelong (Yunnan) – green with gentle wulong touch. Otherwise typically Yunnanish fruity.
- Liu’an guapian (Anhui) – Interesting tea because the inner part of tea leave is taken out during processing
- Longjing (Sichuan) – very pleasant autumn and chestnutty flavors.
- Huangshan maofeng (Anhui) – tender and gently sweet. What a treat.