by kate on July 19th, 2013
Canton Tea Club Week 42: Wild-Grown Long Jing (Dragon Well)
This week’s Long Jing tea is made of leaves picked from trees growing wild on an abandoned tea farm in Zhejiang province. The arrival of this tea got us thinking about wild tea in general: why was this tea farm abandoned? Why is wild tea so revered? And, is this tea really wild?
Let’s start with a bit more information about our abandoned tea field. The trees here are over 100 years old but have been left to their own devices for the past 30. Xiao Yen, our partner in China, explained that there are two main reasons that a tea farm might be abandoned: firstly, the field may be located a remote area and the farmer has decided to pursue employment in the city, secondly, the farm could be previously state-owned and may have gone bankrupt during one of China’s many economic reforms, when state owned properties were liquidated and privatised.
The tea trees continue to grow naturally, and at some point a local farmer may discover a now wild tea field, from which he or she can, with a bit of effort, make a small amount of fantastic tea.
But here we need to examine what exactly classifies a tea as ‘wild’. In the first instance we would suggest the following definition:
Tea made from the leaves of trees that are growing naturally and have not been planted, transplanted or cultivated by man.
But this leaves our tea club tea in a bit of a grey area – the trees are not presently cultivated, but they were once planted as a commercial tea garden, so they are not technically ‘wild’ according to the above definition. Clearly another term is needed – but it’s difficult to express this succinctly. The best we could come up with is ‘non-cultivated tea’, although this phrase still does not convey the sense that the tea has been left to go wild, and was not wild from the start. If you have any comments on this matter, feel free to leave them below.
Let us take a break from the semantics for a moment and look more closely at the history of wild tea, as defined above. Obviously the tea plant originally only grew wild, and the first tea-drinkers harvested their leaves from naturally occurring trees in the forests and mountains of Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan, the native area of the tea tree. Later, trees were specially planted or transplanted into gardens, but the tea from these cultivated crops was regarded as lower quality than tea made from wild-growing trees, as Lu Yu noted in his famous book of tea ‘those in the wild are superior while those in the garden are inferior’ (from the Tang Dynasty, written between 760 and 780 AD).
Wild tea was so highly regarded that most became Tribute Teas (a Tang Dynasty practice whereby the best teas from each region were made as a tribute to the royalty of the time) and one story goes that the most beloved tribute tea of the time (purple bamboo shoot – soon to feature in the club) grew only in the cracks in the high cliffs of Huzhou so that the pickers had to climb the perilous cliffs and spend a whole morning gathering a single handful of leaves.
So, wild tea has a history of popularity and esteem in China, but what about today? Well, a quick search of the web will show that wild tea is thought not only to be good for the liver but to aid weight loss, general wellbeing and give good energy. Whilst we wouldn’t make or support these claims, we have to admit that there is something supremely alluring about wild-grown tea – most likely this is related to the knowledge that wild tea is a rare commodity, and as such we are privileged to be able to drink it.
This is where we can come back to our ‘not-quite-wild’ Long Jing: isn’t the feeling the same for this tea – is it not still rare and special, even though it didn’t technically start out wild? We think it is. The trees may not have started off wild, but they are now left alone, the leaves processed in small batches by hand and without chemicals, and the dedication and care that is taken in their picking processing is evident in every cup. This is what wild tea is all about. When we asked Xiao Yen if she thought wild-grown tea tasted better than commercial-grown, her reply was a simple, ‘of course’. We might be inclined to agree.