Early, early spring tea

We have all heard of Mingqian longjing, longjing tea that is harvested prior to the Qingming festival. This is supposed to be the pinnacle of green teas, because they consist of the most tender shoots of the tea plant. Of course, in warmer places plants develop shoots earlier. A couple friends of mine who own a teashop here in Hong Kong have recently visited the Chaozhou area to look at the farms there, and to try to find good dancong that are strong and roasted – older style tea, basically.

They were shocked to find the leaves from above – these were leaves they picked from the tea plants they found in Chaozhou area, except they were there in late February to early, early March. Even in the south where it’s a bit warmer, it’s not that warm – normal tea plants in this area shouldn’t really be budding until mid to late March. Yet, here we are, with the tea farmers already beginning to harvest shoots and even leaves in late February. There were already teas that were made, getting ready for the spring season.

This came as a bit of a shock to them, because only a couple hours north by car in my friend’s hometown near Anxi, Fujian, they were nowhere close to harvesting yet. After some inquiries, they found that farmers in the Chaozhou region use some sort of growth boosters. They’re not quite sure what it is, but regardless, they fear the worst. It’s hard not to, given that this is China – food safety, as you may know, is a little bit of a problem there, what with fake milk powder, exploding watermelons, contaminated Chicken McNuggets, even fake table salt. Confidence in the system is, shall we say, low. So when something extraordinary like this happens, it rings all kinds of alarm bells.

While I understand that Gebbrelic Acid is used in other places as well as growth promoters for tea, I’m not sure if this is what’s used – in fact, nobody is, because the farmers themselves are not sure. Gebbrelic Acid is supposed to be safe, but we have no idea if that’s all that’s been pumped into the plants. The farmers buy branded agrochemicals from sales people, and use it on the tea, but usually they don’t know what chemicals are actually being sprayed. The result, at least for dancong producing regions, is what you see above – really fast growing leaves that are basically a month ahead of schedule. As we know, for things like tea, yield generally has an inverse relationship to quality – the more leaves you produce from the same amount of land and tea plants, the worse the tea itself is going to be. It’s the same idea in wine, where production volume is controlled for many appellations precisely because too high a production value will degrade quality. If you want to protect a brand, you don’t do that.

My friends are sufficiently worried that they didn’t buy any tea other than samples. They also said that many farmers from the area rinse their tea twice before brewing, a relatively unusual practice for oolongs, because they are also worried about pesticides residue and things like that. This is not the first time I’ve heard worries about dancong specifically – a few friends from Taiwan with good contacts in the mainland have also told me that I should try to avoid dancong in general, because they’re pumped full of chemicals you probably don’t want to ingest. Funny too, because although I usually don’t drink dancong at all, recently I bought a couple boxes, one of which is really quite good. Your run of the mill dancong, however, is usually quite difficult to brew and is thin on the mouth while having nice fragrance. It was never the best tea, and this is just one more reason to not drink it.

Of course, this isn’t a problem that’s limited to dancong – teas from China in general are often of suspicious quality. The list of worries is long. You can worry about things like pesticides and pollution. You can worry about the tea being fake. You can worry about bait and switch when buying. Unfortunately, the business climate in China is such that one can never be sure of what one’s buying. That’s why buying from Taobao, for example, is such a lottery – what you see and what you end up getting might not be quite the same. When buying loose leaf tea, it’s standard practice to want tea from the same bag that you sampled. When pressing cakes in Yunnan, you never let the tea out of your sight, and most certainly not let anyone do the pressing for you without being there yourself – this includes guarding the bags of tea when you sleep. Trust, unfortunately, is hard to come by, and there are too many cases of fraud of one sort or another to not be cynical when buying tea in China. It’s a sobering thought.


Early, early spring tea — 35 Comments

  1. I’ve always been curious about how much rinsing tea is efficient at removing chemicals. I mean, it makes sense, but I think it would be interesting to see a study with a serious, scientific analysis.

    • My hunch is that it’s not very useful at all. After all, most pesticides are water resistant so they don’t get washed off easily by rain. I don’t think anybody has bothered to really find out what post-processing of tea (frying, etc) will do to the chemicals.

      • If one is faced with the choice of buying 2X amount of average tea for some price vs X or 1/2 X amount of much better tea at same price, I’d also say this is another reason to tend towards the former–from what some people wrote and just basic economics, (especially as far as puer is concerned), it’s in the interests of farmers to keep higher quality tea at a high standard–you can’t get away with selling tainted high-end agricultural products for long, even if you can on the lower ends. Or, as you’ve wisely previously written: drink less, but drink deeper.

    • Gibberellic Acid, from what I’ve found so far, seems harmless enough, probably. We don’t know what else they might be putting in though. There’s little doubt, however, that this probably isn’t good for the tea’s quality even if it’s harmless.

  2. As a “teahead” living in the west, I’m a glutton for this kind of information. It’s easy to simply enjoy the tea I can find and not often have thoughts of the potential horrors of production; both because of my distance from the producing areas and the apparent scarcity of available knowledge in this area.

  3. Though cost is a factor if the tea is valuable enough I would think batch sampling using a mass spectrometer could easily ID a large number of nasty toxins including those from fungi etal that give tea it’s appeal. Those molecular fingerprints don’t lie. Dose makes the poison so you’d have to follow up with analytical chemistry to assess concentration in your sample.

    This is what some of the more careful tea vendor have begun doing (eg EoT’s 2014 pressings). Not that you always get what you pay for with a high priced tea but batch testing and a rigorous supply chain pedigree from a careful vendor can go a long way to ease the uncertainty.

    Empty Cup

    • Well, this isn’t a new problem the way EoT presents it makes you think it is – people I know were already talking about chemicals in tea in Yunnan (not to mention other provinces) ten years ago or more. That he only started “detecting” chemicals this year (well, last year now) is a bit misleading. People have been using pesticides in Yunnan for decades, and on older trees for years now. I remember Aaron Fisher taking photos of herbicide cans around old tree teas in maybe 2007.

      Also, growth promoters, unlike pesticides, aren’t detectable, from what I understand. They don’t leave chemical residue the way pesticides do but they still make your tea worse.

      • I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that this was a new problem. Definitely it has become much more prevalent, especially on old tea trees which seemingly for a long time were largely left alone compared to plantation tea.

        We started to send tea for lab testing in 2012, and were a bit shocked with the results. In 2013, we had the same experience and ended up only pressing aged maocha and offering one of the 2013 teas as part of a pesticide tasting set. In 2014, we decided to send all our teas for a lab test, and to publish the results.

        For sure it’s not possible to detect everything, the lab we use has a range of tests to detect up to 400 chemical residues. The minimum test they offer is just for EU certification which, from memory, just covers 30 or so. The costs vary tremendously as the level of detection increases. For this year (2014) we settled on testing for 200 of the most commonly used agrochemicals, taking a couple of handfuls from each box or bag of maocha we were purchasing and mixing them in the sample sent to the lab.

        It isn’t perfect, but I feel it’s a step in the right direction and an honest, transparent attempt to find clean tea.

        • I got that impression from one of your pages. It might’ve been the one where you are selling that tasting comparison, which I suppose is now a couple years old.

  4. On the same subject, I haven’t seen anyone discussing the effect of storing tea in an extremely polluted atmosphere has (e.g. in many areas of China). Less of an issue I guess if the main storage is being done somewhere out in Yunnan, but for those of you selling tea in places like Beijing and Shanghai..I’m a bit wary of the long term implications.

    • Storing tea in a really polluted environment probably isn’t great, but dust and other pollutants should be readily washable if you rinse a couple times. And Yunnan air quality isn’t so great if you’re in the cities. Kunming’s air pollution index at the moment (http://aqicn.org/city/kunming/) isn’t that great. If you’re out in the mountains, sure, it’s probably better, but there isn’t that much tea (comparatively speaking) being stored in the mountains.

  5. Agree with you this is an old problem with tea. Even Japanese tea: it’s moment of truth was after reactor meltdown. As I’m sure you know most Japanese teas are blended. Sourced from brokers who routinely sell and resell, to blenders and ultimately to retailers. Provenance of tea was a very problem that came down to experience, skill and integrity of your source. And random testing with mass spectrometry/analytic chemistry as a back-up. Japanese vendors did this very well. Others, did it not at all beyond the minimum required by Japanese government. In a few celebrated cases of contamination the “QC” was at point of import after customs impounded the tea.

    Same problem in China or more so. Especially for teas likely to counterfeited. Same solution too: how much are we willing to pay for a reliable chain of custody? Most tea vendors ex-Asia seem to think little or nothing at all. But a few vendors, often selling high-end teas, have customers that do understand the value of chain of custody and are willing to pay for it.

    Empty Cup

  6. I don’t want to imply that experience, skill, and integrity can be rolled out of box by anyone who wants to sell yancha or puecha. Or that laboratory testing’s sufficient, easy or cheap (though it has gotten a lot cheaper, so stay tuned on that). This is a very big problem and I think it’s not seriously discussed near enough, beyond blogs like yours. Thanks for that.

    Empty Cup

    • Well the vast majority of the information on tea online are from vendors, who have a vested interest in not stirring the pot, so to speak. Like you said, Japanese teas are all blended, and actually to a large extent the provenance of most Chinese teas are unknown as well. Just because a vendor bought that tea from village X does not actually mean the tea was planted and harvested in village X. We all know that it is very common for famous villages to cart in tea from lesser areas because they sell better with a famous name. The vast majority of vendors (and I’d say 100% of ex-Asia ones) cannot tell the difference. To be able to do so you need to have years of experience and spend months at a time in the production areas. Even then, if someone mixes 20% of tea from an inferior village into a large bag of maocha, it is extremely difficult even for professionals who are very skilled to discern such adulteration. Anyone who claims they can do this very reliably are usually lying – not least because post-processing change the tea’s taste as much as terroir, so just because a tea tastes different doesn’t mean it’s actually from a different place.

      As for testing – there are things we can find out easily, relatively, and things we can’t. The best people can do is to send it to lab and get tested based on EU regulations – my friends in Hong Kong who export to Europe do it routinely. Even then, they fear for things that are not covered by the tests and unfortunately there’s basically no way to know what’s in the tea.

  7. Testing has is far from perfect. Testing methods have detection limits and, in some cases, they can be flawed because, when testing for a certain substance, there can be interference effects with others that suppress the detected levels. Yet, testing with reliable labs (that is, those using well-published methods and protocols) is the best tool that we have at our disposal to control food safety.

    But I think all the testing should be ultimately conducted by vendors and government agencies. It is the grey area into which most of the tea trade has fallen that has prevented this so far. Even in cases where the internet vendors claim they have sent the their tea or teaware for testing (pesticides, heavy metals, mycotoxins, what have you…), I have rarely found the results of the tests on their website. I only know of a few exceptions here in Taiwan, for instance (not that I want to advertise this
    particular vendor, but it is one of the few cases that I know):


    And this is probably because our government agencies have been involved in so many good safety scandals and the controls are so loose that vendors are under a huge pressure from the public to advertise the results of such tests (whether they may be faking them or not is a different issue, but at least one can always confirm them by calling the involved lab).

    • Well, testing is certainly something we can do, and yes, publicizing testing results (instead of just saying “it came back with a clean bill of health” is certainly useful. It is also something to be mindful of, though, because it provides a false sense of security. As I mentioned before, adulteration of tea is quite easy to do. In a big batch of puerh cakes, for example, you can take a sample of tea to be tested, but if out of the 10 bags of maocha you bought 5 were compromised, for example, and you tested one of the ones that were not, it’s not going to help you one bit.

  8. Anxi is a much worse offender in farm chemicals than Chaozhou.
    Much, much, much worse… so much so that most PRC people don’t drink Tieguanyin anymore, they only give it as gifts for some strange reason.

    • Indeed, I have no illusions about Anxi being clean. At the same time, I’ve also never really heard of spring tea being so big and already produced late in February. Even in Anxi it seems they are harvested under the normal window instead of this crazy accelerated timetable. I have no idea what’s going on here and it’s a scary thing.

      Besides, Anxi tieguanyin is so messed up these days with mostly nuclear green teas being produced that are more or less undrinkable.

  9. Point well taken on sampling size. Multiple samples at each point of food chain, from tree to cake, sent to reputable third party lab, with results available for public scrutiny’s the gold standard. Most governments won’t do this so for now it’s up to the vendor to decide if it’s worth the cost. Few think so, even for their private label cakes. Even fewer think so for third party cakes on offer. Test costs have fallen so limited numbers who test suggest reluctance is about desire to maintain status quo.

    Absent rigorous government regulation/enforcement as you have in EU it’s up to retailers to watch your back or not: the retailer’s desire and abilities. Cited EoT only as example of a vendor making this a priority and who appears to have improved on delivering on that priority. Retailers doing this tend to be very high priced with tightly focused offerings aimed at small segment of tea market.

    Empty Cup

    • Empty Cup, just curious: Can you point out where on the EoT website the results of their tests can be found?

      I have seen they mentioned those tests in their website, but never found the actual tests posted there. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place.

        • Xiao Bai: There’s a link to the test report at the bottom of the relevant product pages, for all our 2014 puerh teas excluding the Guafengzhai which we only pressed a couple of tongs of & didn’t send for a test.

          MarshalN: I’d never thought of my management of our website as aggressive – it’s interesting that you have that impression. I moved the old blogspot blog, which was more of a personal journal to redirect to our business website at one point and removed the posts which weren’t really applicable to our business. Apart from that, I clean up the website, removing products that we no longer stock from time to time.

          • I’m referring to things like sold out items and what not – once they disappear they seem forever gone. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to see what used to be offered, but of course how you run your shop is your prerogative.

  10. Hobbes’ reviews brought EoT (then “Nadacha”) to my attention years ago. I began reading David Collen’s blog most of which is archived at EoT website. As I’m sure you know most EoT pressings have been reviewed extensively by Hobbes, who has praised them highly but in recent years has criticized their high prices.

    Seldom mentioned in tea reviews are the added costs vendors incur to establish and maintain a reliable supply chain including audits of that supply chain, such as random testing by vetted labs. That requires a strong desire on the part of a vendor to know the truth about his offering. And an equally strong desires on the part his customer to value that truth highly enough to pay for it.

    Empty Cup

    • As you may know, I have a pretty dim view of reviews, especially of newer pressings. That’s why I rarely write any type of review anymore – although you will find older ones on this blog. The fact of the matter is nobody actually knows how any particular tea will age, although it is quite possible to tell what tea will not age (due to wrong processing, etc). Hobbes is much more concerned with the here and now when he reviews newer cakes anyway, so if you are buying a tea wanting to consume it immediately or in the near future, go right ahead. A great tasting tea now in no way promises that the same tea is going to age into a great tasting tea in the future. As for the truth of a vendor’s offering, well, I guess I have much better access to various types of vendors than those of you who reside in Europe or the Americas.

  11. I don’t much care for aged tea but I do care about quality of tea. Many industrial toxins have very long half-lives. When they are in our tea they are often in for keeps. Your remark on rinsing tea is spot on: many agrochemicals adhere to plants to resist water. Dose matters especially in children and elderly. For many toxins dose is cumulative because they are fat soluble. Ingest them and it’s with you for years if not the duration of your life.

    You certainly do have better access than most of us in Europe and US which is why I read your blog (when you’re not writing about tea in the China Heritage Quarterly:-). But access to what? It has never been easier to access expertise and products anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world. It seems less a question of access and more the old question how to evaluate product and expertise. It’s more than a cliche (though it’s certainly that) that when the student is ready the teacher must appear….

    Empty Cup

  12. MarshalN: this came across my desk few hours ago and thought I’d pass it along apropos this post: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf is the WHO’s press release declaring glyphosate a possible human carcinogen based on a meta analysis of extant scientific studies. It’s a small step but maybe important as glyphosate aka “Round-up” is probably the most widely used weed killer in the world. It is what Aaron Fisher photographed in 2007 (that you mentioned in an earlier comment).

    For any who have not seen the photograph or read Aaron’s comments this is where they can find it: http://the-leaf.org/Issue1/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/romancing-the-leaf-2-by-aaron-fisher.pdf

    Thanks again for raising this issue

    Empty Cup

  13. This is interesting! I feel like there are so many different factors that could contribute to this. I bet there are chemicals in use, but other things could be contributing as well. The last few years the El Nino has been especially strong which has created some weird weather and plant trends around the pacific. Also when I was in Darjeeling some bio-dynamic farms were using Boron to encourage new shoot development. I was only there during the first picking though so I don’t know if it was used on the bush before or after the first shoots had been plucked. But Boron only works if the plants are facing a deficiency (which is likely in the practices of almost all tea farms)

    It’s super lame though! I work at a tea shop in the US and this season some of our green teas were ready to be shipped way early in the season! When we got them they all tasted more mild and somewhat flat :/

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