For the majority of the year, when we taste tea we are tasting the effects of time and the craftsmanship behind a tea’s capacity to be aged. The tradition of crafting tea is often founded on extending the impermanence of leaves whose clarity and vitality will otherwise wane, as organic matter does.
First Harvest Green Teas are an exciting and enlivening exception to this. With first harvest teas we encounter tea leaves in their infancy, and appreciate them for it: for their great concentration of potential energy, and the briefness that they are in this state. The arrival of First Harvest teas signals the hopefulness of Spring, and they help clarify us towards this season of renewal.
It is no wonder that First Harvest Green Tea, called 明前绿茶 in Chinese, is the most prestigious and precious harvest of green tea each year. Tea connoisseurs eagerly anticipate the arrival of these teas that lift us out of Winter. The Chinese name for First Harvest, 明前绿茶, translates to “Pre-Qingming,” meaning they were harvested before Qingming. Qingming, or “Pure Brightness,” is a solar term in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. There are 6 solar terms for the Spring season, starting in early February: “The Beginning of Spring”, “Rain Water”, “The Waking of Insects”, “Spring Equinox”, “Pure Brightness”, and “Grain Rain.”
This year, Pure Brightness falls on April 5th and Grain Rain starts on April 20th. Green teas harvested before Pure Brightness, “Pre-Qingming,” are considered the most precious because the weather is still notably cooler, meaning the tea leaves grow more slowly, and the number of buds are less. The trees have been dormant all Winter; these are the first sprouts of the year. These leaves will have the most nutrients in them, which intensifies the complexity and depth of their taste.
After Pure Brightness the weather grows warmer, it rains more in the mountains, and as such the tea leaves grow more quickly. The period between Pure Brightness and Grain Rain is considered Second Harvest – At Cultivate we carry both First and Second Harvest green teas, both of which offer a very special encounter with tea in its youth: with its intense greenness, and uplifting qualities.
I am always very excited to taste the year’s First Harvest green teas – the crispness and freshness they bring after the long, dark winter. They seem to illustrate for us what reopening to the outer world can be like. I am also always excited to see the tea itself: these tender, young buds and leaves that find their way from the ancient mountains after having been carefully harvested by hand. They are crafted immediately, and with such adeptness, I read First Harvest teas like a message from tea farmers containing the hope, energy, and well wishes that come with Spring. It makes me think of the agility and enthusiasm embedded in the tradition of First Harvest: when, thousands of years ago, ancient people crafting these teas would send them by way of the fastest horse, as soon as they are collected and made, to the emperor, so that the emperor could enjoy a cup of fresh green tea.
This year Cultivate will be offering First Harvest green teas from 4 ancient terroirs: Guzhu Mountain of Changxing, Anji County of Huzhou, Mengding Mountain and E’Mei Mountain of Sichuan. The tea trees from the mountains of these ancient terroirs are heritage trees, around 50-80 years old, found in old groves scattered within the ancient forests. These are places suspended in the clouds, secured by the granite rock of the mountain, and sheltered by the towering bamboo that grows amongst them. These trees are fed by the consistent mist that comes with their altitude. They sleep in the cold winter, and only when the light begins to carry warmth in it, will they consider waking. When they do, it is as decisive as it is delicate – slowly at first, the trees begin producing lime-coloured buds, so vibrant they can be seen through the clouds of winter that still hang in the cool air.
I have a photo (photo credit: Ma Ling) of these tiny green leaves cupped in the hands of a tea farmer, whose fingers are black from touching the damp earth. The contrast between the electric green and the black, and the tenderness and joy expressed in these outstretched hands, encapsulates First Harvest for me. Like the taste of these teas, it contains the excitement of waking, of eyes-opening, of looking at the world anew, and of finding exactly what you need.