Our first 2012 China teas have arrived!

March 30, 2012

Yesterday the delivery man lugged 5 large boxes of tea into the store. When he asked us what was in them, and we said TEA he looked unimpressed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how many more of these boxes he will be bringing us in the next few weeks.

So, now, finally, the long winter wait is over! The China spring tea harvest is beginning in earnest.

In Western China teas from Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces are coming to market quickly and in great abundance. Eastern China tea regions are beginning to buzz with energy as the demands of the harvest increase each day.

Our first teas to arrive again this year are from Yunnan. Our ever-popular, fresh, sweet-tasting,and slender Yunnan Spring Buds are back (did I mention reasonably priced ? ) and this year we will have a sweet, flavorsome modern-style Yunnan Bai Mudan white tea once again. This is one of the prettiest we have ever had, and something delicious for the fans of last year’s Yue Guang Bai. We have missed this tea so it is good to have it back again.We expect our first shipments of eastern China green teas about April 5th, or early the following week. All will be pre-Qing Ming teas (early harvest teas that have been picked before April 5th).

Watch for:

  • Longjing: Meijiawu Village, Xi Hu Region
  • Longjing: Xin Chang County
  • Fo Cha
  • early Fujian whites
  •  Gan Lu
  • Mengding Mountain Huang Ya (our stone-sweet, mineraly, sensational yellow tea from Sichuan)

And, our first shipments of 2012 1st Flush Darjeelings should be in the store by the tax day!

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Yellow Teas are here !

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Last but certainly not least, our yellow teas have just arrived from China. Yellow teas are very few in number these days but they remain very important in the Chinese repertoire of classic teas. Yellow tea is most easily described as a variation of green tea, but this suggests that the methodology for making it came after the perfection of green tea making skills. I have a hunch that yellow teas were made before green teas were classified as such, but this is just based on my own thoughts and musings about tea-making history in China.

Anyway, those of you who have never tried a yellow tea ( and those who will admit that you have never even heard of one before now ) are in for a treat. Pre-Qing Ming yellow teas are not readily available in the USA and certainly not when they are this fresh.

Yellow tea differs from green tea by the addition of an extra step in the processing. During leaf manufacture ( which begins with de-enzyming and shaping ) the fresh leaves are steamed very slightly and then allowed to rest. But, as nothing is ever really as easy as it may seem in the complicated world of Chinese tea manufacture, the steaming step is where the genius of the tea maker comes into play.

For example, details such as: how long to steam the tea leaves, how many times to steam or for how many days, how much rest to give the tea in between each steaming, how to wrap or cover the steamed leaves while they rest, will all affect the final flavor of the tea. The tea master decides the answers to these questions and it is only after he sees the fresh leaf and judges its quality and essence that he can determine how he will execute the ‘yellowing step’.

Because of this yellowing step, yellow teas are very smooth and fine flavored. Yellow teas are always made from an early spring plucking of budsets ( buds and one or two leaves ) the crème de la crème of spring teas. They were once made only as Tribute Teas, reserved for the Emperor’s exclusive enjoyment.

 2009 Pre-Qing Ming Mengding Mountain Snow Buds   2009 Pre-Qing Ming Mengding Mountain Snow Buds

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Mengding Mountain Snow Buds

This mountain on the Tibetan Plateau in NW Sichuan Province is likely the birthplace of cultivated tea. Mengding Mountain is northwest of Mt Emei, one of the four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism. Mengding Mountain Snow Buds are a springtime phenomenon: they are big, fat, first-of-the-season juicy buds that are brimming with the vigor of tea bushes that are beginning their growth cycle. Tea pluckers gather these buds in small silk bags, rather than the more common ( and large ) tea plucking baskets. Two people picking in this manner for one full day will gather only one kilo of fresh buds.

This is a very elegant tea with a slightly toasty taste: it needs several steepings to really show off its deep-rooted flavor profile. The overall taste sensation from this tea is sweet, crisp and clean. There is a cool and bracing quality to Mengding Mountain Snow Buds that affirms its high altitude terroir.

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting

 2009 Pre-Qing Ming Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting

Another incredible yellow tea from Huo Shan county in Anhui Province. This tea is comprised of a bud with one tiny leaf. The leaf is covered with a fuzzy down, a trait of this tea bush cultivar and the nature of the leaf. Huo Shan Yellow Sprouting brews a lovely pale golden green color in the cup, and the flavor is slightly warm, nutty and reminiscent of artichokes or chestnuts. These tea gardens, located on Jin Shan Tou, are not positioned at a high elevation – just around 2,500 feet. But the location is rocky, and gives the tea a yen character. The richness of the soil is evident in the buttery flavor.

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Longjing Teas are here !

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It was our goal to have 2009 Pre-Qing Ming Longjing teas here as early as possible, and we made it. Even after our local Post Office sat on our package for 5 days before we knew that it had arrived.

Needless to say we are thrilled to have this very special and historic tea at the peak of it’s perfection. While I wish that all of us could be in the tea fields in China right now, being able to drink this splendid early-harvest tea is the next best thing. And being able to bring it to all of you as well makes our sipping even sweeter.

Chinese tea enthusiasts believe that the earlier the pluck, the better the tea. And tea enthusiasts in the know are eager for this time of the year as the opportunity for purchasing these special teas is fleeting.

In China, the earliest plucked tea leaves are known as Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian teas. Early spring plucking begins in late February to early March ( depending on the province, region, and weather ) and ends on April 5th. Only teas that are plucked during this short time can be sold as Pre-Qing Ming tea.

Longjing is one of China’s Famous Teas. At one time, the teas on the list, including Longjing tea, were exclusive ’tributes’ or honor gifts bestowed upon and drunk only by the Chinese Emperors. Longjing is perhaps the most famous of these legendary teas, in part because the city of Hangzhou and West Lake became the epicenter of refined and expressive artistic tea culture during the Song dynasty.

The Southern Song ( 1127-1279 ) located its capital to the city of Hangzhou, in Zheijang Province. This cosmopolitan city became the artistic center of a blossoming tea culture and the associated arts in China. Hangzhou attracted a literati crowd who found the pagodas, tea drinking pavillions, tea houses, restaurants and local cuisine to be the perfect locale for their leisurely pursuits of painting, poetry-writing, tea drinking contests, and tea wares collecting.

Hangzhou was also the locale of Longjing tea: sweet, slightly nutty pan-fired tea from tea bushes nurtured in the hills surrounding the dreamy mists of West Lake and watered by the pure spring waters that fed the DragonWell. Today, Hangzhou is still famous for its architecture and still exudes an old-fashioned tea culture based on the artistic, pleasurable and restorative nature of tea drinking. Hangzhou draws on the natural beauty of West Lake and all of the lovely pavillions, temples and gardens located along the shores. There is also an abundance of tea houses, tea shops and many fine restaurants that still incorporate fresh Longjing tea into their regional dishes.

And of course, hangzhou is most famous for Longjing tea. If one is lucky, one might encounter a tea processor pan-firing some fresh leaf in a local tea shop. Longjing tea became famous in the Song dynasty because of the terroir: the combination of good soil, cool air and clean, natural water that are the necessary conditions for excellent tea. It remains famous today because of the dedicated efforts of the tea farmers and tea producers to protect the integrity of Longjing by maintaining careful cultivation and production standards for China’s most famous tea. Visitors to this area can visit some of the tea gardens and processing factories, and of course, drink Longjing tea.

We proudly announce the arrival of our 2009 Pre Qing Ming Longjing teas, both of which are fit for a Chinese Emperor:

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Meijiawu Village tea

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Meijiawu Village tea


2009 Pre-Qing Ming Longjing Meijiawu Village, Xihu District, Zhejiang Province

Longjing is China’s most famous green tea, and it is the most important of the pre-Qing Ming teas. Longjing tea is originally from tea gardens located in the vicinity of West Lake ( Xi Hu region ) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. The most prized Longjing still comes from the original regions, which historically were called Lion, Dragon, Cloud ( Meijiawu Village), Tiger, and Plum. Today, the names have changed, but authentic Longjing tea must come from a place located within the National Designated Protected Zone. This zone is a scant 168 kilometers in area, and all Longjing tea from here is sold under the name of the region or village where it was plucked. The most important places in the Xi Hu region are:

• Shi-feng Mountain

• Meijiawu Village

• Weng-jia Mountain

2009 Pre-Qing Ming Longjing Dafo Village


2009 Pre-Qing Ming Longjing Dafo Village, Xin Chang County, Zhejiang Province 

Delicious Longjing tea has been made here for many centuries. This fine Longjing is made just outside of the Xi Hu designation in Xin Chang county. There is a long history of tea cultivation and tea drinking in this region: much of it began centuries ago to supply the needs of the resident monks and visiting scholars at the Dafo Buddhist Temple ( constructed 4th century BC). Chinese tea enthusiasts seek out Dafo Longjing for its clean, refreshing flavor and lower price. 

Tieguanyin Anxi Monkey-Picked Tea

Tieguanyin Anxi Monkey Picked Oolong Tea

Tieguanyin Anxi Monkey Picked         Oolong Tea

We get a lot of questions about the name of this exquisite tea. And, there seems to be a lot of mis-representation of this tea on the Internet. So, let me explain and try to untangle the confusion. Because, everyone who loves tea, especially those of you who are oolong tea fanciers, must experience the intense floral bouquet and lavish flavor of this highly revered tea.  Click here to buy

First, let me say that this tea is not plucked by monkeys. What is there about the beguiling nature of monkeys that allows otherwise sane and often skeptical human beings into believing that trained monkeys actually pick some types of Chinese tea ?

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Now make no mistake, I enjoy a colorful yarn as much as anyone, and Chinese folk legends are especially fanciful, emblematic and richly-embellished by those who add news twists and turns to the story with each retelling.

But it it time to declare the enchanting tea legend of Money-Picked tea as just that – a legend. Unfortunately, there are several tea websites today that claim that their Monkey Picked tea is…..plucked carefully by hand by trained monkeys. Second and third generation trained monkeys at that. Pleeeeeese…..if I hear this nonsense one more time, I will scream.

Where did this notion come from ? Perhaps it stems from the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, the main character in the book Journey to the West  written by Wu Ch’eng-en, a scholar official in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). This book is a renowned classical Chinese story about an allegorical journey, that is complete with Chinese tales, legends, superstititions, popular beliefs, and Buddhist and Daoist ideals.

Monkey King is a bit of a scamp, and his adventures are a thinly veiled political/social satire layered with meaning and innuendo. He is a simple creature who gained powers far greater than those of Superman – he attained the level of a Chinese Immortal – and he gets himself in and out of a peck of trouble.

Or perhaps these ideas harken back to the late 1700’s during the early days of the China Tea Trade with England. Spice and tea traders, explorers and visiting dignitaries underscored everything about this far away place as exotic, colorful and fantastic. The notion of ‘fantastic’ is certainly true in early illustrations, prints and watercolors that present delightful images of small monkeys scampering up and down tea trees in idyllic locales, nimbly tossing fistsfull of tea leaves to humans standing below among tea baskets lined up waiting to be filled.

As engaging as these images are, anyone who has encountered monkeys in the wild know that it is far more likely that these mischevious animals will lob fruit at your head, and that bands of audacious, barking resident monkeys frequently harrass visitors in forested wildlife areas, demanding food for passage. Such experiences debunk any notion that co-operative tea plucking ever occurred between monkeys and humans. It is an outlandish notion, even in a ‘fantastic’ time.

Or perhaps the term just meant something different to the Chinese than to Westerners. The first teas exported to the West came from the Wuyi Mts. in northern Fujian Province, and were most likely early versions of what we know today as oolong and black teas. Later, a differennt style of oolong tea was developed in the south of Fujian – Tieguanyin tea – so named for GuanYin, the Chinese goddess of Mercy. Tieguanyin teas have always been highy prized, and as with all Chinese tea, many grades of quality of this tea exist.  When tea producers bestow the term ‘Monkey Picked’ to his tea, it is a designation that means unrivaled quality because one of two reasons:

1. that this particular batch of tea came from a tea garden located at a very high elevation ( the higher the elevation, the finer the leaf and the finer the tea )                                                                                                                                                                   2. that the tea was plucked from tea bushes growing in difficult to reach places; ie. nearly inaccessible places that require the tea pluckers be ‘as agile as a monkey.’

I also think that there is a third, veiled meaning to the term ( don’t all Chinese legends have a veiled meaning? )  During the Song, Ming and Ching dynasties, tribute gifts ( offerings to the emperor ) included rare and costly teas that were cultivated, plucked and prepared exclusively for the enjoyment of the emperor. Perhaps the term began to be used to signify tea that was ‘out of reach’ of the average person. Tea for the emperor and his court would never be available to the average citizen – hence, out of reach in cost and out of reach in availability.

Or perhaps the story was ( and I like this idea as well ) quite simply an easy joke played on the naive European traders by the worldly, tea-savvy Chinese back in the 18th century ! Could they ever have imagined that 300 years later, there would still be those amongst us who ……still believe this story to be true ?

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2008 James Beard Foundation Conference on Cuisine and Culture

This weekend, Friday and Saturday November 14th and 15th,
is the annual James Beard Foundation Conference. The topic this year is China –
Dumplings & Dynasties: The Evolution of Modern Chinese Cuisine.

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I will be participating both days, representing the fascinating world of Chinese tea. On Friday, I am speaking on a panel titled: Liquid Culture, and on Saturday, I will be conducting a lengthy Chinese tea tasting at the Astor Center in NYC.

It promises to be a wonderful conference – other notable presenters include authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Fuchsia Dunlop, Nina Simonds, Grace Young; Saveur magazine Editor-in-Chief James Oseland; restaurateurs Margaret Kuo, Anita Lo, Shuliang Cheng; historians Sidney Mintz, Andrew Coe, as well as many other experts.

This conference consists of presentations, panels, and discussions with experts from around the world on a wide range of Chinese food topics, from its historical roots and regional variations to its evolution and translation around the world.

Hope to see you there ! For more information, visit: http://jamesbeard.org/?q=node/354