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.