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.