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Fresh green tea is the ultimateway to welcome springtime

APRIL, wrote poet T.S. Eliot, is the “cruelest month.” His words certainly leave many people scratching their heads. How can that be when April brings us spring flowers, winter’s thaw, mild breezes and, yes, Chinese green tea at its finest?

In China, different regions produce spring teas in slightly different months because of climatic differences, but April is the kingpin time to enjoy premium brews of Chinese green teas.

The teas are not only extremely pleasurable to sip, but they are also healthy drink with their high content of antioxidants, vitamins, amino acids and natural phenols.

Green tea has a crisp fragrance and slightly bitter aftertaste, making it an ideal beverage to pair with sweet desserts and snacks.

The spring teas are best brewed in glassware with water at 80-90 degrees Celsius.

Water at 100 degrees tends to overcook the leaves, robbing them of some of their taste and color.

Green tea is best consumed in moderation because it is stronger than mild dark teas like ripe Pu’er and drinking too much before bedtime can cause insomnia.

Longjing 龙井

Two “solar terms” of spring are traditionally celebrated with longjing, or “dragon well tea:” Qingming, the 15th day after the spring equinox, and Guyu, the period when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of between 30-45 degrees, from about April 20-May 5.

The interval between Qingming and Guyu is the best time to enjoy the highest quality longjing tea, which comes from Longjing Village in Hangzhou.

The top choice is Xihu longjing (西湖龙井), or West Lake longjing. Only teas produced in the designated region can claim this title. Among the most famous come from the villages of Shifeng and Meijiawu.

Qiantang longjing (钱塘龙井) and Yuezhou longjing (越州龙井) are two categories of tea produced outside the West Lake region.

They are less costly because they are lower grades.

The best longjing tea on the market is the West Lake variety, handpicked and roasted before Qingming. It’s called ming qian longjing (明前龙井). The quantity is small because only the most tiny, tender leaves from first buds are used.

In a race against time, tea harvesters pluck the baby leaves before they grow bigger and rush to roast the leaves while they are still fresh, leading to the proverb: Pick the tea leaves three days early and they are treasures; three days late, and they are just grass.

The roasting process of West Lake longjing features 10 steps done by hand, using giant woks. Tea masters constantly toss the leaves in a tradition that requires experience as well as physical strength. Eventually, the leaves lose their moisture and are ready for packaging.

West Lake longjing was once rated according to a complicated system of 11 levels and 53 grades.

That system was later simplified to 43 grades.

In 1995, it was further simplified to just superior, including superior two and three, and grades one to four.

The pre-Qingming time comes at a hefty price. It’s “as valuable as gold,” according to the old saying.

Wuyutai Tea is a notable brand with 130 years of history.

It runs an official online flagship store on Alibaba’s Tmall. Pre-sales of the first batch of West Lake longjing went for a jaw-dropping price of 4,100 yuan (US$596) per 250 grams. Prices in street stores are about the same, with a minimum sale of 5 grams at 16.4 yuan per gram.

On average, the first batch of pre-Qingming West Lake longjing is priced from 7,800-8,800 yuan per half kilo. The price can vary according to location of the tea plantation, harvest time and roasting technique.

The price drops after Qingming and before Guyu.

Biluochun 碧螺春

Biluochun tea produced in the Dongting Mountain and Tai Lake region of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s top 10 most famous teas.

The name translates as “green snail spring” because biluochun has a unique spiral shape that distinguishes it from flat leaves like longjing.

Biluochun has a history dating back more than 1,000 years. It was regarded as a tribute to the imperial court in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907).

To make 500 grams of biluochun tea, 60,000-70,000 tea buds are needed. The freshly picked spring leaves are roasted and dried on the same day to ensure the highest quality.

The spiral shape is the result of a step in the process that rolls the leaves in small clusters while they are being pan roasted at temperatures of between 50 degrees and 60 degrees Celsius. After about 15 minutes, the leaves lose 80 percent of their moisture and are ready for the next round of roasting.

Biluochun has an elegant aroma, complemented by hints of fruity and floral flavors. It’s a very refreshing beverage with a lingering aftertaste.

Zhuyeqing 竹叶青

Zhuyeqing is produced in the Mount Emei region of Sichuan Province. The flat, green tea leaves are similar to bamboo leaves in shape and color, hence the translation as “bamboo leaf green.”

The harvesting time and roasting of zhuyeqing is similar to that of longjing. The final product is green, smooth and fragrant.

It’s best to drink zhuyeqing from glass or white porcelain cup to see the tea leaves hanging vertically in the water. The tea has the hint of a floral aroma.

Yuhua tea 雨花茶

Yuhua tea, which translates as “rain flower tea,” is a local specialty of Nanjing that was introduced in the 1950s.

It is similar to longjing tea and is made using the first new tea buds. The slight difference between the two is that yuhua tea leaves are roasted to tidy pine-needle shapes, whereas longjing leaves are flat.

Tea farmers usually start to make the first batches of yuhua about 10 days prior to the Qingming Festival. The wok roasts only 250 grams of the leaves at a time, making it a rare commodity.

This year, the average price for the first batches of pre-Qingming yuhua tea is around 3,500 yuan per 500 grams.

In terms of taste, yuhua tea has a subtle and gentle aroma with a sweet aftertaste. It’s not as bitter or harsh as many other green teas.

Maojian 毛尖

Maojian is a green tea that originated in Xinyang in Henan Province, where high mountains and four distinct seasons contribute to a unique flavor and aroma.

The premium maojian is harvested and roasted between Qingming and Guyu. Standard harvesting procedure is to pick one bud with one or two adjacent leaves. Roasting 500 grams of high-grade maojian requires more than 50,000 buds.

Maojian is produced from spring to autumn. The spring tea is slightly bitter, and the summer tea is a little tart.

Chinese green tea, Japanese sencha and matcha

In Japan, sencha is the most popular green tea. It is similar to longjing and biluochun, but the craftsmanship in its processing is different.

The technique used is called zheng qing. It originated in China before pan-roasting became the norm. The process steams the freshly picked tea buds for less than 30 seconds to stop oxidization before the leaves are rolled, shaped and dried.

The taste is different as well. The fragrance is not as refreshing as pan-roasted green teas. It is slightly more astringent. Sencha is beloved by those who prefer the grassier, almost seaweed-like flavor of the tea.

The Japanese matcha is finely ground green tea that is often served with hot water and drunk with leaves and all. Matcha is also widely used in cooking to give the foods a natural green color but the flavor of tea.


 

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