Tea was once a local produce
Teas have been consumed in China for at least 2000 years. For a long history they were largely produced and consumed locally as local produce. I still remember the days of my grandmother going to the local farmers’ market to purchase her tea supply. As the result, most of them have been typically named with two components: the name of their birth place and the name of the tea, such as Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao, Anxi Tie-Guan-Yin, Fuding Silver Needle, Suzhou Bi-Luo-Chun, Xi-Hu Longjing, Keemun black tea and Yunnan Pu-erh etc.
It was not long ago that one would have been assumed that it had come from Anxi if Tie-Guan-Yin was mentioned, or Suzhou if it was a Bi-Luo-Chun. Or for example there are a few pocket areas in the Fujian Province of China that produce the exclusive grade Fujian Silver Needle (white tea), Fu-Ding, Zheng-He and Jian-Yang. When Silver Needle was sold, the price was, and still is, ranged in the sequence according to their production areas which are believed to be directly associated with the quality of the teas, Fu-Ding Silver Needle most expensive, Zheng-He and then Jian-Yang.
The increasing interest in premium teas world wide
The interests in premium loose teas have been increasing world wide during the recent years, mainly due to the increasing exposure and the health benefits reported.
Teas once were not known outside of their local areas are now being sold internationally, accelerated by the recent internet and fast, convenient and relatively cheap international transportations.
The art of making the finest teas
The arts of producing the finest teas have been developed over a long period.
For example, Wuyi Rock tea has had a product and consumption history in the Fujian Province of China for at least 1000 years. Da-Hong-Pao has been the most well-known and highly sought after Wuyi Rock tea. The very original Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao was produced in a clearly defined area of the Wuyi mountain of the Fujian province ‘Jiu-Long-Zhai (九龙窠)’ . It is believed there are about 6 of original tea plants (or parent tea plants) are still existing in the wild and producing very limited amount of tea each year.
While the production area is constricted and the demand is growing, the natural approach is to cultivate and expend – the new generations of the tea plants have been successfully cultivated from the original and have been used for extended production.
Top quality Chinese tea production is a work of art, including:
- The special tea plants
- The unique environmental conditions of the tea plantation: the geographical location, the sunshine, the rain fall and the soil conditions etc.
- The processing skills
Ways of increasing the production to meet the demands
The tea plants can be cultivated and the skills can be leant. We are however not able the replicate a unique environmental condition known to be ideal for a particular tea variety. With time, the cultivated tea plants under different environmental conditions will change to adopt their new environment and become ‘not exact the same’.
To further increase the production output, I have recently read a report that the tea farmers in the Wuyi area blend a few local teas together to mimic the Da-Hong-Pao flavor, close enough for the naïve tea drinkers to believe that they are the ‘real stuff’.
For the purpose of discussion, let’s call the limited availability of teas produced from the original site and plants ‘original tea’, and the teas produced from the cultivated tea plants under the similar environmental conditions but elsewhere or blended versions ‘reproduced tea’.
While the prices of the ‘original teas’ have sky rocketed, the ‘reproduced teas’ are far more available and affordable. For example, 20g of Da Hong Pao tea from one of the mother tea plants was sold for ¥208,000 in 2005 – that is ¥10,400 (or $1485 USD) per gram, while one can purchase nearly 15kg of the ‘reproduced tea’ with the same price.
Consumers drink teas mainly for two purposes: to enjoy tea as a beverage and lately their health benefits. There has been no research to suggest there is difference in health benefits between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’.
The taste difference is therefore the focus of the discussion: is the astonishing price difference reflecting difference in the flavor?
Tea consumption in traditional tea consuming countries, such as China and Japan, is very similar to the wine consumption in the west. Time and experience are required to differentiate and appreciate the subtle differences of the various quality grades.
The questions the everyday tea consumers need to ask are:
- Have I had enough experience to differentiate the fine difference between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’?
- Is the difference worth of the extra cost?
The way the traditional teas have been developed and consumed is increasing becoming a thing of the past.
There have been a few relatively ‘new’ tea varieties developed during the recent years. Not so much focus on their birthplaces, but more as a variety/flavor which reflects some unique characteristics, for example:
- Jin-Jun-Mei, a fine black tea developed on the back of the traditional Lapsang Souchong. Jin-Jun-Mei, is not longer associated with the Lapsang area, but more a unique technic developed to produce a new fine tea variety.
- Ying Hong No 9, another top end black tea developed on the back of the traditional Yunnan black tea Dian-Hong. The tea was researched and developed in the Guang-Dong Province by a group of tea researchers over the last a couple decades, using certain carefully selected premium Dian-Hong plant species and optimized over time.
Teas today are becoming more of a flavor/processing type than a local produce. For example, the Longjing green tea is now widely produced in many areas around the Zhe-Jiang Province; countries like Vietnam and Myanmar are attempting to produce the renown Yunnan Pu-erh using the ancient tea trees found in the adjacent forests. Will this expansion inject a new life to this traditional product? Or will it kill the culture and tradition that has developed over a long history? Only time will tell.