Written by our guest blogger @kata and her tea
When Linda Lin @teafarmerlin posted the news about the 2020 spring harvest, “this year the buds are fat and yummy“, I was immediately captivated. The first tasting left me somewhat bewildered, though. The only JJM I have tasted previously had very distinct alpine hay and dark chocolate notes. How come that now I taste wild rose and lavender honey instead? Granted, the leaves don‘t look as fermented and as pointy as previous JJMs that I‘ve tried. Linda was quick to assure me: ‘This is from the Mei Zhan cultivar! How do you like it?’
Oh, Linda, I like it very much. But I never heard of the Mei Zhan cultivar before! The few sources online* reveal that this little-known cultivar that produces lightly oxidized oolong tea has its origins in Anxi county in Fujian, and was only later introduced to the mountains of Wuyi. Three centuries later, some of its early pickings get labelled as Jin Jun Mei and end up in my teapot. What happened there?
Not surprisingly, the answer lays in a mixture of tea-politics and consumer trends. Without detailing the infamous black tea vs red tea confusion in categorization that prevails in Western circles, let’s just focus on where Jin Jun Mei comes from. Jin Jun Mei is a very young type of tea, as it was developed in 2006. The strictest connoisseurs would claim that anything not produced by its inventor and from that particular cultivar is not considered “original“. This did not stop the market from wanting more of this red nectar of sunshine that lingers in the mouth long after a sip!
Thus, many tea farmers in the Wuyi mountains started to develop their own take on Jin Jun Mei. The most popular Jin Jun Mei is Zhengshan Xiaozhong‘s (a.k.a. Lapsang Souchong) cousin, picked earlier and unsmoked. The Jin Jun Mei in my teacup, however, comes from the lesser-known Mei Zhan variety. The tea farmer who picked and processed it, decided to opt for the currently hyped Jin Jun Mei name, knowing that he can sell it better by doing so. He did adhere to one important factor, though: early spring buds. He is not the only one labelling Mei Zhan as JJM. Indeed, several vendors sell “Mei Zhan varietal Jin Jun Mei“, categorized under their blacks or oolongs.
The unpleasant truth is that by rallying around certain types of teas and showing willingness to pay a higher price for them, we as consumers drive trends in the tea industry that might result in the disappearance of age-old traditions. Will I ever taste the “real” Jin Jun Mei? I don’t know. But instead of pursuing it, I should just savour this tea and appreciate the liquor not for its name, but for what it is: a pleasant brew rich in floral notes, spiciness and umami.
*I’m especially grateful for the thorough description of the Mei Zhan cultivar at teaguardian.com.
Harvest time: Spring 2020
Leaf colour: Dry leaf: dark green/brown, Wet leaf: brown&golden
Liquor colour: Golden red, autumn sunshine
Tea aroma: Floral and umami
Tea taste: Wild roses, lavander honey
Steeping/brewing: 5-6 g in a gaiwan or a round, thin-walled zhuni or zini pot, 90-95 degrees Celsius for 20-30 seconds. To wash the leaves, you can first steep it for 10 seconds with the lid off - do not overcook these delicate leaves right at the beginning! I encourage you to play around with the steeping time and temperature, as the leaves reveal a different taste at each time. For example, the more astringent, umami flavor can be achieved by a longer steeping time with 95 degrees water. We have also tried this tea as a sparkling cold brew and an ambient brew - the results were very enjoyable.
Shelf life: 1080 days