Discussion on Long Jing (4b) is here.
In previous discussions, I explained why I think cultivar information is more important than production region information for Long Jing. Here is a comparison between the two most popular Long Jing cultivars, Long Jing #43 and Long Jing Jiu Keng Group cultivar. A third Long Jing cultivar, Long Leaf cultivar is also used by some tea farmers, but not as popular as the first two.
I will first go over the backgrounds of these two cultivars, and then in a later post, I will compare the two cultivars in terms of physical appearance and tastes. However, the purpose of comparison is not to demonstrate how to distinguish one from the other, since it's not always easy to do so by physical appearance. In fact, a comparison may instead demonstrate how similar they look. It's actually easier to detect their differences in taste than in appearance. That's why I believe it's important that producers, suppliers and retailers should always carry the information of cultivar for a Long Jing product.
Long Jing Jiu Keng Group cultivar is the traditional Long Jing cultivar. Long Jing #43 was cultivated through genetic selection on the Jiu Keng Group cultivar. As a result of genetic selection, Long Jing #43 has stronger tolerance to cold weather, it's easier to propagate than the traditional cultivar, and it's leaves and buds are somewhat prettier than those of the traditional cultivar. The cold resistance feature is why Long Jing #43 is the dominant cultivar in most new production regions in Zhejiang province, the home province of Long Jing. However, in recent years, even in Hangzhou, the hometown of Long Jing, many farmers grow Long Jing #43 too. In early spring, even before Qingming (around April 4th of every year), the price of Long Jing varies from day to day. The price difference within a week sometimes can be as much as 300%. Long Jing #43, due to its early harvest (1-2 weeks earlier than the traditional cultivar), is considered more profitable than the traditional cultivar. Meantime, in recent years, expansion of Long Jing #43 and shrinkage of the traditional cultivar growth has made a lot of people cautious, among them many loyal fans of the traditional cultivar. Therefore, some farmers in Hangzhou are committed to growing the traditional cultivar, and many farmers in new production regions have started growing the traditional cultivar to attract more Long Jing lovers.
Among Long Jing lovers, there have been a lot of debates on which cultivar is better, the traditional cultivar or #43 cultivar. But after all, they are genetically related and highly similar to each other. Besides, when it comes to taste, there are always personal preferences.
At the retailer level, #43 cultivar has been adored in the past several years, largely because the tea leaves of #43 cultivar are generally considered prettier than leaves of the traditional cultivar. Dry leaves of #43 cultivar are greener, and look more "well-pressed". But in recent years, many small retailers in China are more committed to the traditional cultivar to meet the demands of a lot of fans.
The early harvest feature of Long Jing #43 sometimes can backfire. For example, last year, when there was severe snow and ice storm in early to mid-March, harvest on Long Jing #43 was greatly impacted and production was reduced a lot. Meantime, the weather impacts on the traditional cultivar, Jiu Keng Group cultivar, were small to none, since the tea buds were not out yet during the snow and ice storms. In such a year with unusually cold March, #43 cultivar, which could bring more profit in other years, would cause great monetary loss for the farmers.
When I was a child, the aunt of mine who lived in Hangzhou was in charge of getting Long Jing for all of us. Every time she sent us many cans Long Jing, she would specify which cans were the highest quality for grandparents or as important gifts, which cans were for daily drink, and which cans were of decent quality. Usually the best tea was pre-Qingming (harvested before early April), and the rest was pre-Guyu (Guyu is around April 19th). Occasionally, in certain years, even the best tea was pre-Guyu, harvested after early April. And Aunt would tell us, "There is no pre-Qingming Long Jing this year, and pre-Guyu is as good as pre-Qingming of last year." Sometimes when there was no pre-Qingmign harvest, the tea could be even better than in other years, because of the cold weather and longer time allowed for tea leaves to accumulate nutrients.
Nowadays, with new cultivars (and probably more or less as a result of global warming), there is always pre-Qingming harvest. Even if cold weather delays tea harvest or damages tea buds, there is usually enough time for more tea buds to grow before early April. I think it's really nice that we can get new tea earlier with the new cultivar. But on the other hand, I think the traditional cultivar is very unique and its production should be maintained.
In my own tea shopping, I would usually buy products of Long Jing #43 from production regions out of Hangzhou, and products of the traditional cultivar from Hangzhou. It's pretty much my personal choice, since there are very good products of both cultvars in and out of Hangzhou. I choose Long Jing #43 from out of Hangzhou, in order to get the earliest harvest at a reasonable price. I'm not able or willing to pay for the earliest harvest of Xi Hu Long Jing from Hangzhou. The price is simply too high, even when the purchase is made directly from tea farmers, because too many people wan it. In some years, I help arrange such purchases for some crazy Long Jing enthusiasts, but I don't want to pay the price myself. Earliest harvest from other production regions (such as the Da Fo Long Jing from Xinchang County) is expensive, but at least the price is more "normal". Then, for the products of the traditional cultivar, I would choose the traditional tea producing villages in Hangzhou. When buying Long Jing of the traditional cultivar from Hangzhou, I would avoid the earliest harvest and wait till the few days before Qingming for the price to drop a little. Although the traditional cultivar is raised in other production regions too, these historical Long Jing villages have the best natural conditions and best processing skills passed on from generation to generation. Besides, as some farmers in Hangzhou have switched to the new cultivar and tea experts start to worry about dwindling of the traditional cultivar, I think currently it's very important to support those Hangzhou farmers who stick to the traditional cultivar.
In the long run, I am not worried very much about the traditional cultivar going to extinct. A cultivar can last only when supported by the consumers. I believe the traditional cultivar will always have a lot of fans. I think both #43 cultivar and the traditional cultivar have unique, nice tastes. But to me, the traditional cultivar has the familiar early spring taste from childhood. Besides, we can imagine, it is the same taste enjoyed by the emperors throughout Qing dynasty :-D
3 weeks ago