The faith in old trees

Before I go on – it just occurred to me that my blog is now six years old. It isn’t a very long time, but longer than I probably thought when I first started this venture. Thank you all for your continued support.

I’m reading this book called “The Plan for Reviving the Chinese Tea Industry” 中國茶業復興計劃, written by Wu Juenong and Hu Haochuan  in 1935. Wu was a patriot and an agronomist, while Hu was a tea expert who specialized in Qimen hongcha. Back then, the Chinese tea industry was in a real slump, losing out to India, Ceylon, and Japan on the world market, and with the economy in poor shape, the domestic market was also shrinking. War, of course, would soon tear this plan (and any other) to pieces, and the Chinese tea industry would go on a decades long decline until more recently. In this plan, they set out to list the problems of the Chinese tea industry, tried to explain the decline, and proposed things that they thought could help revive the ailing state of affairs. It all makes for a pretty interesting read.

One section that struck me while I was reading though is in the first chapter titled “Irregularities in production, sales, and operations”. In the section on problems in cultivation, the authors listed one issue as “the aging of tea trees.” In our view these days, aging of tea trees is a blessing, not a curse, but of course, their perspective is a little different. I present you the section, roughly translated, below:

4) The aging of tea trees

The cultivation of tea has a long history. Many of the tea trees in existence are either decades old, or so old that we no longer know their age. Although currently we do not yet have the ability to determine at what point does a tea tree’s quality begin to decline and turn bad, but the fact that old tea trees produce poorer quality tea is indisputable. An especially known fact is that the production volume declines and is no longer fit for enterprise. This is a topic worthy of serious research. After all, although we cannot say that a perpetual plant such as tea has any type of “anti-local” effect, but it is clearly observable that there are signs of retardation among plants that have grown from seed to plant for generations on the same plot of land. Sichuan is the origin of the tea plant, but ever since the Tang dynasty whenever one names famous teas, Sichuan is not listed among them. During the Tang and the Song dynasties, among the famous producing regions such as Yonghu (modern day Hunan province), Qinmen (modern day Hubei province), Shuzhou (modern day Anhui province), Guzhu (modern day Zhejiang province), Yangxian (modern day Jiangsu province)… they have all faded from the glories of yore. As for Huoshan in Anhui, or Wuyi in Fujian that have long enjoyed their fame, these are rare and unique among tea producing regions. As for modern day Longjing in Zhejiang, or Huizhou in Anhui, are all latecomers. Qimen, which is part of Anhui, only really became famous for tea in the past few decades.

This passage makes me wonder – clearly, productivity is a concern for older trees, and I think the same thing happens for grape vines, which is why vinters replant their vines every few years. In Taiwan, at least, I know farmers often replant their oolong trees for the same reason, to preserve productivity because younger trees yield more. Yet, if we believe what we are currently told, then old trees = better teas, in which case men like Wu and Hu were, in fact, destroying good teas by chasing after yields.

I think the situation here might be a bit analogous to organic food – oftentimes, organic food can indeed taste better, not necessarily because it is organic, but also because it is farmed with more care and attention from the farmer, whereas the industrially produced stuff gets relatively less care and comes out not tasting as good. Yet, if all the farms in the world go organic, then a lot of people will starve, because the yield from such farms tend to be lower, with more losses and less production because of the very nature of the farming method. Likewise, winemakers often advertise when they use old vines for a wine, labeling it vieilles vignes for example, to let us know that it is made from old vines, with the implication that this makes better wine. Tea makers are also doing that, most notably with puerh but also increasingly with other types of tea, telling us that this or that is made with old tree teas. But old tree teas don’t produce as much, which, of course, is part of the reason why they are more expensive.

I suspect that this day and age, especially after the ravages of collectivization, there are very few old tree teas left in many of the major tea producing areas in China. What’s left are likely to be destroyed, unless held in private hands, so comparison between the two tend to be difficult, if not impossible. With puerh, I think it is safe to say that there’s a difference between old tree and non-old tree teas. Whether that difference is good or not, however, is really up for debate, as different people have different theories. Old trees, however, command much higher prices, even as raw leaves. It does, then, feed back into the self-fulling loop because if you were a tea processor, and you have a kilo each, one of which costs a lot more to procure, you’re likely to put more care into processing the bag that cost more. This, in turn, may result in better tea simply because you were paying more attention, thus fueling the speculation that old tree teas taste better, thus further driving up the prices. Of course, this is all speculation, but it is nevertheless worth thinking about. After all, Wu and Hu noted that there were quality issues that are distinct from yield issues; it’s too bad that they didn’t say what kind of quality problems there were with such teas.


Comments

The faith in old trees — 11 Comments

  1. Hello,
    what is your personal opinion on the quality/taste of old trees compared to younger trees? Also, do you perceive a difference in aging potential?

    I can, of course, taste the difference (statistically speaking), however “different” comes to my mind, rather than “better”, when tasting old tree tea… I’m still puzzled by drinking several old tree cakes, which were, I believe, indeed old, but I’d hardly call them much pleasant… Especially when I know several cakes from young trees, which are rather nice and powerful.

    Also, similar struggle to old/new could be probably fought over wild/non-wild. Of course, plantation tea from plantations with tea trees not having enough natural resources for themselves, being over-harvested and all that, won’t be as good as a tree living wildly, having more resources. On the other hand, the dense planting and overharvesting is not really a matter of wild/domesticated.

    After all, wild-growing fruit/vegetables is generally of poorer quality compared to orchard fruit. I haven’t heard of wild-growing wine either. Of course, fruit and leaves are very different things, but maybe a parallel could be drawn there too…

    Jakub

    • I think they are different, yes. I tend to think older trees, at least for puerh, seem to generate a deeper taste, whereas younger teas are harsher and shallower.

  2. Well.. there’s another explanation to the “quality” issue.

    Overfarming.

    Consider how plantation tea’s are grown. They plant row upon row with only enough room between rows to walk. That means each bush is competeting for what’s in the soil with all the other bushes, that are grabbing as much of the nutrients out of the soil as they can so they are not shaded by their neighbors.

    Before the use of fertilizers, it would be easy and fast to deplete the soil. So, the longer this over planted area is in existence, the fewer the nutrients remain in the soil. So what you’d see is a decline in both the quantity and quality of the tea grown in that spot. By the time the bushes become trees, there would be little left in the soil.

    Now consider what happens to a field that is re-planted. New baby trees are planted, spaced further because they will grow. The small plants can not use up all the nutrients in the soil right away. The leaves of small plants are also not harvested for something like 3-5 years, which gives the soil a bit of time to recover. So, when the young trees are ready for the first harvests, their quality will be better.

    Farmers of corn, wheat, pumpkins, or any other plant that very aggressively drains the soil also see that the longer they grow there, the less productive the land is, even though each of those crops only grows for one year, which is why they started rotations to let the soil recover.

    Now consider what we mean by “old tree” today. These are things that grew in the wild, or abandoned tea farms, where they do not grow so close together because time and competition has culled out the weakest plants, and the growth has had a chance to balance itself with the soil. These trees can produce good quality because they are not racing to grow larger, once they are at full maturity.

    Anyway, it’s just a thought, and of course, I could be wrong.

    • Yes, although if you’re a farmer worth your salt, chances are you’re doing things to mitigate the problem. Wineries will grow stuff between the rows and try to modulate the type of plants grown, so that the soil doesn’t get depleted. Tea farmers who have lots of experience should be doing the same thing.

      Again, it comes down to the question of whether or not we’re just talking about higher/lower yield. The problem is there are really three or four different variables here, but we tend to overly focus on one (age of tree) and not enough on the others.

  3. Hi,

    I recently had the privilege of trying two distinctly different kinds of TGY, one from bushes no more than a year old and one from old wild growing trees, though made by the same farmer. They were quite similar when it came to oxidation and roasting: pretty green but not nuclear and with a mild roast. The young version was high priced while the older one was said to be made for the farmers private consumption and not intended for the regular market (not that it was cheap though). Visually, the most striking difference was the size of leaves: the younger looking no different than most other TGY, while the old had large leaves twisted in irregular shapes.

    Perhaps a comparison can add something to you discussion, though I should mention I’m not especially well versed in TGY teas, as I generally prefer puerh and “darker” style oolong.

    The younger tea gave flavours common (in my experience) to regular slightly roasted TGY teas, immediate sweet and fruity notes with some underlying vegetal flavours, the soup being medium thick and just slightly oily and no real astringency to speak of. The older tea did have some distinct TGY flavours in it but kept them mostly in the background; it felt thicker in the mouth and the flavours were more active in the back of the throat than on the tongue, giving some astringency also. There was not much immediate sweetness to the older tea, but rather a quite sharp bitterness underneath turning slowly in to a shy sweetness. The young tea was, I think, a much better TGY – if keeping with general standards – though for me the other tea was a lot more interesting.

    Age is only one variable among many after all. Some teas, like puerh, dan cong or wuyi yan cha, often benefits from using older trees, given that they are well made and has good terroir, but TGY may not be one of them. Maybe Hu and Wu was referencing only those specific teas to which age is more detrimental than beneficial.

    Best wishes

    • That’s pretty typical of what I would think of as young vs old tasting notes. The tea from older trees would taste deeper, more body, but perhaps less stimulation up front. It’s more interesting, even though it doesn’t present itself as that initially.

  4. If I’m correct in believing that part of the reason pu-erh appeals to people is the idea that something getting old can continue to have value, then I like the fact that old is associated with quality as a reflection of general values.

  5. Anything about chemicals?

    I don’t believe you can taste a chemical off the the bet, but a plantation tea (for the younger tea trees, chemicals are must) is harsh in many ways. If a younger tea is grown naturely, it’s entriely a different story.

    • In the absence of having tea made from the exact same farm, but one with and the other without chemicals, it’s rather difficult to tell what’s due to what.

  6. This post touches on something that greatly interests me, namely the history of the Chinese tea industry. There seems to be little or no trustworthy information about the topic in English. I’m generally curious about tea styles that are currently available, and how long is their history. Also, I am specifically curious about the history of black (red) tea-making, whether it originated in a single place and later spread to its current homes or if it was invented multiple times. If you have expertise and interest to post on these topics, I will be fascinated to read about it.

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