PICKING of famous Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea has just begun. The quality is high, and so is the cost, but prices are being controlled at last year’s levels.
Last year, the first harvest of prime tea retailed at 6,000-16,000 yuan (US$968-2,580) per kilo, depending on the quality in different production areas.
Picking started yesterday of this year’s first crop of ming qian cha (before Qingming tea), the most precious and said to be of the very highest quality. It is picked before the Qingming Festival on April 5.
The tea picked afterward from April 5 to April 20 is the next highest grade, known as yu qian (before Grain Rain) tea.
Of course, tea keeps growing and getting picked, and prices get lower, though the best Longjing tea is rather expensive.
The prime ming qian tea in the first crop will be on the market in around a week. Production has decreased because of heat and drought last summer and costs have increased, since farmers had to irrigate and fertilize more to compensate for the drought and burned leaves.
The government campaign against extravagance has reduced the buyers for the prime tea purchased by officials and also given as gifts to officials and influential people. The number of government and commercial customers has fallen, as it did last year.
The good news: “The quality of Longjing tea this year is better than last year’s because of abundant snow and rain in winter and nice sunny days in recent week,” said Fang Yuexian, deputy director of the Hangzhou Agriculture and Rural Work Office.
The price of Longjing spring tea will not exceed last year’s, he said, due to the “overall environment,” referring to the drop in bulk orders from the government and state-owned enterprises.
The campaign against extravagance, including excessive gift-giving, caused prices to slump significantly in 2013.
Last year, Hangzhou tea companies sold first-class ming qian tea wholesale at less than 5,000 yuan per kilo, while the price two years ago was around 7,000 yuan.
Declining orders have forced tea companies to seek new sales channels, such as online shopping, and to advertise — this was rare in the past since demand always exceeded supply.
Hangzhou West Lake Longjing Tea Co started selling Longjing tea online last year, creating “a breakthrough on sales,” said CEO Qi Guowei, adding that online sales included both high, medium and lower quality.
“Tea is an everyday commodity and tens of thousands of yuan per kilo is unreasonable,” he said.
In 2011, an auction price of the best ming qian set a record 64,000 yuan per kilo and in 2012, the highest bid was 60,000 yuan.
However, at the annual auction last year a price ceiling was set at 16,000 yuan per kilo, and the highest bid was 14,000 yuan.
Other tea companies are watching their budgets.
“To reduce inventories, we will probably not buy fresh tea, but only wholesale dried tea from planters this year,” said Lu Jiangmei, CEO of Hangzhou Zhenghao Tea Industry Co. Last year the company purchased 350 kilo of fresh leaves.
But where should you buy authentic ming qian tea? How can you identify it?
This year authorities put a GI (Geographical Indication) label and quality testing marks on real Longjing tea products.
If you buy from farmers in Longjing town, look for the green “Tea Farmer” label, and in markets look for the label “GI,” which is also marked with English GI letters or the orange “Hangzhou West Lake Longjing Tea Management Association.”
Green tea is brewed and sprinkled in Hangzhou delicacies, some of which are famous nationwide. Of course, ming qian tea is too expensive for cooking, so other Longjing tea is preferred.
Two tea dishes
Tea-scented chicken (茶香鸡)
This is not a traditional dish, but a new one that has quickly become popular.
Chefs in Grandma’s Kitchen restaurant chain invented the dish, which combines beggar’s chicken with tea.
Beggar’s chicken is wrapped in mud and cooked in a fire, so a clay crust forms as the bird cooks. When the crust is cracked open, the feathers come off with it, revealing juicy, tender, aromatic meat.
To make tea-scented chicken, the bird (minus feathers) is wrapped in foil, roasted and then soaked in a clay pot of Longjing tea, with the leaves.
This is typical Hangzhou cuisine, mild and aromatic. It combines the shoots of Longjing tea and tender shelled shrimp.
Serve it with Longjing tea, eating one shrimp and taking a sip of Longjing.
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Tea dishes you can cook at home
• Tea and tomato soup
Making this is simplicity itself. Peel and dice tomatoes, add some green tea leaves and salt, add hot water and cook. Both cooked tomatoes and green tea contain antioxidants and are beneficial for people with high blood pressure and heart disease.
• Tofu with tea leaves
Make green tea with tender leaves and remove the leaves. Boil tofu gently in tea for three minutes.
Add salt, olive oil or sesame oil, and the green tea.