The Difference Between Picking Old Arbor Puer and Smaller Trees
Puer tea trees can be divided into several ages and categories, but for the ease of explanation we are going to discuss three different stages: young (xiaoshu), middle-aged (often called qiaomu), and old arbor trees (also called gushu / dashu). Young tea is around 5 to 20 years old. Tea bushes that are younger than 3 years of age will rarely be harvested in Yunnan as they are still maturing. We will broadly define middle-aged as anything from 20 to 80 years old. Any trees older than 80 years old are quite old and are already very mature, so we will lump them in as old arbor, even though that might make some age queens angry. Some of you who frequently read the descriptions scattered around the internet about 1000 years old trees might be scratching your heads thinking, “100 years old doesn’t seem very old!”. I’d like to gently assure you that even 100 year old trees are the minority in Yunnan and produce spectacular quality tea. Don’t get too caught up in claims made about tree ages. It sounds sexy to drink tea from 500 year old trees, but 99.9% of the time the people who bother advertising that as a selling point are selling you an idea rather than the tea in the description.
The youngest trees, which are usually planted as terrace tea, tend to be ready for spring picking far earlier than their older counterparts. The younger the tea, the earlier it is ready to be picked. In certain low lying areas of Yunnan, this might even mean being ready as early as February, however it more likely means early to mid-March. These are general rules which are weather dependent. That being acknowledged, it would be very rare that spring tea, which we can define as the tea that sprouts forth after a dormant winter, would be ready any earlier than February. Middle Aged tea trees will be slightly later than this, you can think of youth and readiness on a spectrum, with increasing age meaning later budding.
The older trees sprout forth much later in the season than younger tea trees. Old arbor Puer is ready to be plucked in late March at the earliest. Weather fluctuations aside, the earliest I have ever seen old arbor Puer tea ready to be plucked is in the March 20’s. In the images above and below, you can see an image taken on March 26th in Lincang. Some of the tea in this area was ready to be plucked, but only a small amount (the image above). Other trees were just past budding and still need several days before being picked. (the image below) Keep in mind, most Puer tea is not plucked as two leaves and bud. The farmers are waiting for an adequate amount of stem length and a third, fourth, and fifth leaf (huangpian). A mere bud is not enough.
It should also be noted that this is just one example, on one mountain in Lincang. As of the writing of this article (March 31st, China time), the old arbor Yiwu teas that are used in Last Thoughts are still not ready to be picked. Last year, they were ready in early April. It’s not a set time, but rather observing the trees and the weather until the farmer determines that the tea is ready, just as one would do with apples, tomatoes, or lettuce.
How does Altitude Affect the Tea Harvest?
Altitude also affects the harvest time, as temperatures are cooler in higher altitudes. As nearly all of the tea that is considered to be highly desirable Puer tea in Yunnan is grown on tall mountains, that means cooler weather and later harvesting. Some of the teas in Yunnan that are grown in low altitude areas producing tea used for green teas, black teas, white teas, and lower quality Puer teas will almost always be ready at least a month before the older growth teas that are in the mountains at altitudes above 1000m (or in some cases even nearing 2000m). This means a wide array of timing for spring teas, but old arbor teas are never ready for spring picking in January and February. Only small bush teas are ready for spring picking so early in the year and are still dependent on the weather.
Are there Earlier Harvests than Spring?
Farmers have increasingly felt pressure to pick tea year round in Yunnan. Much of this is directed by greed of vendors or short term financial needs of farmers, rather than what is best for the tea plants or the long term integrity of Puer. If you closely followed Yunnan weather last winter, you would have seen some images like the one below of ice covered tea trees and snow in Yunnan. Even in Guangzhou, we had snow that was noted as the first snow on record in 60 years. Nothing quite like seeing elder folks on the streets in awe of the snow. Some of my friends parents had never seen snow before! Suffice it to say that the winter temperatures and snow were some of the harshest weather that China has seen in recorded history. Most villages in Yunnan can scarcely recollect the last time winter weather was so brutal.
Regardless of the 2015/2016 winter months harshness, even in a mild winter, picking tea during the winter months is seen by many to be unethical. Think of an old arbor tea tree as if it were a person. If there was an old person who was lifting weights, it could be a very good thing. A bit of strenuous exercise can help to make a person strong. However, our bodies need rest days in order for our muscles to recuperate and rebuild. Any doctor would advise an elder person that exercising is good, but they’d also recommend the proper pace and adequate rest.
When we pick tea leaves, we are stressing (or exercising!) a tea tree. Removing a trees leaves means removing nutrients as well as one of its sources of energy via photosynthesis. The spring and autumn tea pickings are a stress that most any tea tree can handle, even a picking in the summer months if the rain and weather allow. Summer picking is controversial in many circles, but in recent years, the additional inclusion of winter tea picking is making it a full four seasons of stress on the old trees. First, before any further commentary, I will be the first to acknowledge that tea farmers are just people like you and me, and they need to earn a living. However, the revenues from spring, summer, and fall from high quality trees will net them a much larger long term income if they allow the trees to rest during winter. From the standpoint of a vendor, many would consider it unethical to participate in picking/buying/selling winter Puer tea from old arbor trees. The continuous stress on the trees will eventually diminish the quality of the farmers product and their best natural resource for only a marginal short term financial gain. A shortsighted plan at best.
Couple this constant stress of four seasons of picking with weather like we saw last winter and it is the equivalent of making a seventy year old man hit the gym seven days a week with a broken hip. The only old arbor tea that was available to be picked in January, February, and almost all of March in 2016 was from old trees that have been covered in ice and beaten down by snow. After a tree manages to survive a hundred years and a harsh winter, having its leaves plucked seems like a cruel reward. Hardly the sort of tea that is optimal for drinking, and in my view, it would be a mistake to encourage the production of such tea. It’s selling out the future health of tea trees for short term financial gains. Just like our bodies, tea trees must be cared for and rested to stay healthy and continue to provide us with tea for years to come.
When are Summer and Autumn teas Plucked?
Summer and Autumn pickings are the most weather sensitive times for Puer. Their picking time can vary wildly depending on the whims of the rain and sunshine. Summer tea has been picked with increasing frequency as Puer has boomed, but it does not produce a very high quality result when compared to teas from the spring and autumn. The water content in the leaf is usually very high due to the rain of the summer months. However, where there is money to be made and a brief pause in the rain, tea will be picked. In my view, it is more ethical to pick summer tea, as the tree is lush and resource rich during the summer, as opposed to being in a dormant state during winter. That being said, summer tea is usually not very good, and the price reflects that.
Autumn tea is picked around late September or early October. Again, this is weather dependent. The summer rains have to stop and have several days of consistent sunshine in order to result in quality autumn tea. The more sunshine filled days that you can string together, the better the quality of the tea. Again, this has to do with reducing heavy water content in the leaf and coaxing out fresh growth. Some years, this means autumn tea is excellent. Some years, the tea is worse if the weather chooses not to cooperate. Fall tea is usually considered to be the best quality tea after spring, with summer following, and winter bringing up the rear.
Regardless of seasons and tree ages, the best judge of character for any tea is still the same. Do you enjoy it? Does the price fit your budget? If you can answer yes to those two questions, the dates, ages, and stories all melt away and all that is left if you and a cup of Puer to engage with.
See you all after Spring tea with an update on the state of the Puer nation.
Thank you to my friends in Lincang and Nannuo for allowing me to use the first three pictures – much appreciated!