Though Chinese tea is available in the market all year round, the real premium teas are not.
Just like wines rated by season, vineyard and year, Chinese tea is also categorized by where it is grown, when it is picked and how it is processed.
Spring is the most exalted season for Chinese tea. Some of the nation’s best and most sought-after brews originate in spring, when the first buds on tea plants are harvested after the winter.
Farmers hand-pluck the small, tender baby leaves before they quickly disappear. Spring tea is really a race against time. Tea harvesters also need to process the young leaves in a timely fashion.
Spring teas, from green to black, all benefit from the moderate temperatures and abundant rainfall during this season. After six months of winter hibernation, the tea shrubs fully recover and produce early harvests that produce rich, soft teas.
Different regions in China produce spring teas in different months, of course.
Some of the teas are best enjoyed after a certain period of aging. Others should be ingested as soon as possible.
Longjing tea, or dragon well tea, is one of the most renowned produced in China. It is handpicked and comes mainly from the Hangzhou area. Dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), this is a green tea made from leaves harvested early in spring. The leaves are roasted after picking to stop the natural oxidation process.
Longjing tea is rated according to 11 levels and more than 40 grades of quality. The highest grade is made from smaller, more uniform flat leaves.
There are three main categories of longjing tea, reflecting the areas where they are grown: West Lake, Qiantang and Yuezhou. The tea can also be sub-classed as pre-Qingming and pre-Guyu, depending on when it is made.
West Lake longjing is the most popular premium grade. After the tender tea buds are picked, the leaves are air-dried on bamboo sieves for half a day to reduce the grassy taste and water content. Roasting procedures require that the leaves not clot up.
The roasting of West Lake longjing involves 10 steps and three periods of roasting in giant woks.
The qing guo (青锅) technique renders the leaves flat in the first 15 minutes, when the leaves are 70- 80 percent dry. Then hui chao (回潮) flattens the tea leaves on bamboo sieves for an hour to regain some moisture. A final step, hui guo (辉锅), re-roasts the tea leaves until their moisture content is less than 5 percent. That takes about 20 minutes.
Spring tea is not just about fresh, green teas like longjing. The fermented and aged Pu’er tea that originated in Yunnan Province also relies on a spring harvest, followed by the autumn and summer teas.
Sansong tea (三宋茶) is the highest grade of black Pu’er tea in China. It is processed according to a strict procedure from harvest and roasting to pressing and fermentation. Aged Sansong tea is as expensive as a bottle of premium wine. The limited tea disks from certain years are priced at over 2,000 yuan (US$310). The raw tea’s value increases by 5-10 percent every year, so it’s also a tea choice for investors.
Sansong tea has a distinct, layered flavor that still remains crisp in the mouth. It has a lighter color than typically dark Pu’er teas.
Wang Wenwen is the owner of the Hong Yitai tea label in Shanghai that produces and exports Sansong tea.
“It’s made using only the first spring harvest from certain species of tea shrubs,” Wang said. “The buds must be picked before the Qingming Festival, and the teas are handcrafted using ancient techniques that combine different kinds of tea leaves to create a perfectly balanced blend that is then roasted, baked and pressed.”
Aside from the complicated processing procedures and the scarcity of workers skilled in handling the leaves, cultivation is limited. Wang said her tea plantation in Yunnan produces only a small amount every year.
“The majority of tea plantations in China cannot meet quality standards,” she said, “so the tea is planted mainly in small plots by individuals. It’s impossible to keep track of all the tea gardens if you want to source leaves from outside, and you don’t know if they have used pesticides or have handled the tea improperly.”
Hong Yitai’s Sansong tea is mostly exported to Los Angeles, where demand is high. Custom orders from China are also filled. Because of the difficulties sourcing enough tea leaves, Wang said she is considering importing leaves from Sri Lanka, where tea plantations are pretty tightly monitored.
The company’s exclusive flower tea blend, designated as a Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritage, was presented as a gift to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited Shanghai in 2015. The blend is made from a mix of tea leaves and flowers from different regions, using a recipe handed down for more than a century.
“Spring is the most important season for making teas,” Wang said. “Most of the best Chinese teas are produced in this season. In addition to Sansong tea and our flower blend, Qianlin tea (a bitter yellow tea blend rooted in Taoism) and Lansun tea (a Shanghai-origin tea) are also spring teas.”
Tea is considered a very healthy beverage, and different teas have different benefits.
Green teas like longjing are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and amino acids. Dark teas like Pu’er are said to raise levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of bad cholesterol.
Raw, or green, Pu’er is much stronger than ripe Pu’er. Drinking it on an empty stomach can cause discomfort. People with weak digestion tracts or heart issues should also avoid raw Pu’er tea. The ripe Pu’er, by contrast, actually aids digestion.
Green tea is best brewed in glass cups with water at about 80-90 degrees Celsius. Boiling water at 100 degrees “cooks” the tea too much and causes the green color to fade. Black teas, by contrast, are best steeped in boiling water.
In China, tea is often enjoyed with sweet or savory snacks, including roasted nuts, dim sums and cakes. Tea leaves and brewed tea can also used in cooking to make popular favorites like green tea cake and black tea-flavored sunflower seeds.
The trick to pair the right snack with the right tea. As a general rule of thumb, sweets go with green tea, more sour tastes marry well with red tea and nuts complement oolong tea.