2012 Long Jing harvest season started with great expectations, yielded some great tea, and, unfortunately, ended too early. This has turned out a shortest harvest season in years.
Due to the cold and dry weather in early spring, 2012 Long Jing harvest season started rather late. Cold and dry weather caused the tea leaves to grow slowly, which was actually very good for the quality of tea. Due to the late harvest, there was very small production of pre-Qingming tea. The price was very high, but tea farmers had lower pre-Qingming income than past years due to the low production. Harvest of the few days after Qingming (Apr. 4) was rather low too. So in Chinese market, tea drinkers have been complaining about Long Jing prices, yet farmers' income actually decreased. And then, due to the rapid rising of temperature and strong sunshine from early to mid-April, tea leaves have been growing faster than the pace of harvest. Then some precious Long Jing leaves grew old on the tree before ever having a chance to be harvested. With a lot sighs, farmers in Hangzhou ended their spring harvest at an unusually early time.
I was lucky to have obtained some post-Qingming (Apr. 6th) harvest from my buddy in Long Jing Village. I think it's comparable to, if not better than, the Apr. 3rd harvest of last year. But I will not be able to get the good deal of pre-Guyu Long Jing as last year's Apr. 8th harvest, because this year, 5 days of high temperature makes much bigger difference than the 5 days of last year (here is a blog post comparing the pre-Qingming and pre-Guyu Long Jing of last year) in terms of flavor change, yet the low production causes the price to remain relatively high.
Here is the 2012 Long Jing that I've got.
Dry leaves on top of 1/3 bowl-ful of water:
(I used the similar "mid-way" method as described in this post, but this time I was stingy and used a small tea bowl and smaller amount of tea leaves :-p Besides, I'm in love with this red shibo set made by Petr Novak!)
With more water:
In China, price of Xi Hu Long Jing has been so high that it's not affordable to a lot of people. Many tea drinkers have switched to other Long Jing districts or switched to other green teas. This has also generated certain degree of resentment among some tea drinkers, who would say Long Jing farmers are so spoiled by their natural resources and the high market prices of Long Jing.
Although Long Jing price is very high to begin with, a more expensive Long Jing doesn't always mean more money to the tea farmer. A few years ago, a tea farmer showed me a selling receipt of their pre-Qingming tea to a brand-name Long Jing company. It was a price equivalent to about $140 per pound. I can't say I could predict the exact market price of a tea, but the above-mentioned tea looked to me comparable to the $600-700 per pound level products offered by a few top notch brand-name companies in China. I wouldn't say $140 is not a fair price, considering a brand-name company would have to hire a lot of people and invest a lot of money all over its operation. But at least, we could see there is much opportunity that tea farmers could grab in the difference between their selling price to large companies and the Long Jing price in the retail market.
In recent years, more and more Long Jing farmers sell tea themselves, to friends, tourists, acquainted vendors and sometimes through family-run tea houses. If my estimation of the nearly $600 market price for the above-mentioned tea is not too far off, then for a tea like that, a price anywhere between $200 and $500 would benefit both farmers and tea drinkers. Meantime, I have to admit this is only a rather abstract and simplified discussion, and brand names sometimes do have their unique values. But there is a lot to explore about the "middle-ground" price for farmers and tea drinkers/sellers/wholesalers. In addition, some local farmers/wholesalers associations are seeking for good ways to get fair prices, and sometimes, such efforts benefit both producers and consumers. An example of such exploration is the price index of Da Fo Long Jing in its local wholesale market.
Below I want to quote some writing from my Long Jing Village friend 家在龙井村. Long Jing farmers are already financially doing well compared with many other tea farmers. But still, life is not easy! The article is rather sad, not because Long Jing farmers can't make a living out of tea cultivation, but mainly because they feel their hard work is not always respected, and their voices are often not heard.
Here is the article, and I added some notes at the end.
Our 2012 Long Jing harvest started on March 29. It was mainly because according to the weather forecast, there would be heavy rain and temperature would drop. My cautious parents were worried that there would be disastrous weather to ruin the new leaves. Therefore, our first harvest was carried out on March 29, with 2 liang (100g, or 3.4 oz.) of tea produced.(*) The real start of formal harvest was on March 31. In the days that followed, my whole family and 20 tea harvest workers worked from 5:30am to 6pm every day and all day in the tea field, exhausted day in and day out.(**)
But this is a bad year for Long Jing farmers. In a regular year, the harvest would end after Gu Yu till around April 25. (***) But this year, the harvest had to end on April 15, as there was already no good tea leaves to pick off. My parents worked hard for a whole year with great expectations on the harvest season, but are poorly rewarded by the yields of tea. They can do nothing but working hard on the tea fields for another year, and hoping the next year would be better. They belong to the most underrepresented group of our society.
What's really outrageous is, the news media are ridiculously enthusiastic about the speculation of ￥180,000 per jin (1 jin is about 1.1 pound, this price is equivalent to $26,000 per pound) Long Jing.(****) The nonsense news reports drove away a lot of our clients, as people don't believe they could afford authentic Long Jing anymore. When we were selling good tea of reasonable prices to some clients, we had to make extra effort to convince them over and over that the tea was authentic, because all they had heard from the media was authentic Long Jing was supposed to be many times more expensive...
* This is not paranoia, as it happens from time to time tea leaves are ruined by disastrous weather right before harvest. However, such concern of weather conditions sometimes would cause tea harvest to be earlier than its "natural time".
** Many tea harvest workers are from surrounding counties and provinces. It's estimated that this year, the typical average cost of hiring each migrating tea worker is about $16-20 per day, and the labor cost is probably one of the largest expenses in Long Jing cultivation. According to some Long Jing Village farmers, a tea worker typically can harvest 1 - 6 pounds of fresh tea leaves per day (1 pound when it's first day harvest, and 6 pounds when it's near the end of the harvest season and tea leaves are larger). About 4 pounds fresh leaves are used to make into 1 pound of final product of Long Jing. The pan-frying of the tea is usually done by the one or a few skillful family members (usually men). The tea is usually fully manually processed when harvest is low earlier in the season, and semi-manually processed when harvest is high later in the season.
*** Traditionally, lower grade tea was also produced in summer and autumn. But in recent years, summer and autumn harvests are no longer carried out because the income of low grade tea cannot justify labor costs.
**** The ￥180,000 per jin price was from a charity auction on first day harvest Long Jing, run by a large tea company before the harvest started. This is not the fist time a super high auction price of a tea is created. I don't know what's behind this one, but I suspect many of such charity or commercial auctions mainly serve for advertising purposes and intend to manipulate public attention. Just my cynical thought... This is not the first time either, that news media are obsessive about reporting the high auction price of a famous tea (probably many of you have heard of auction prices of Da Hong Pao and other teas before). Often in their reports, the media omit the fact that prices of such charity auctions mean to be symbolic (as the money is supposed to be donated for charity causes) and have nothing to do with market prices. Therefore such news reports could be very misleading but continue to draw broad public attention.
***** Long Jing Village is dominated by Jiu Keng Group cultivar, the traditional cultivar of Long Jing. The above-mentioned harvest dates are all about this cultivar. In Haongzhou region, harvest of Long Jing #43 cultivar started and ended earlier than Jiu Keng Group cultivar.
****** This late start and rapid progress of warm temperature affected harvest of quite a few green teas this year. I will write about a few other teas later.
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