By Jane Pettigrew
Unusual weather patterns in China in Spring 2010 created problems for growers and buyers alike. Jane Pettigrew found out more by talking to some of those who have been affected.
Under normal circumstances, tea farmers in China expect to be picking and processing their best spring teas during the few precious weeks between late February and the Qing Ming festival on April 5.
Qing Ming, the Clear Bright Festival, also known as Ancestors’ Day or Tomb Sweeping Day, is the turning point in the seasons when people start going out of doors again after a harsh, cold winter to celebrate the return of life and the appearance of fresh green shoots on plants and trees. The cool, early spring temperatures and the first of the spring rains usually provoke the first slow development of tiny leaves and buds on the tea bushes. Teas made during this period are highly prestigious and fetch high prices all around the world. Any disruptions to expected patterns immediately affect the growth of the tea bushes, the quantity and quality of the teas, and the finances of the tea producers.
Late frost and snow in eastern provinces
Imagine then the disastrous effects of the extreme cold, and very late frost and snow that hit some important tea areas this year. Unpredictable patterns of cold, frost, rain and warmth either damage the tea shoots as they form, or they delay the vital spring growth – and either way, the farmers are bound to suffer. This year, Fujian and Zheijiang provinces were badly affected by very late frost and, on March 12, unexpected snowfalls caused the new buds on the bushes to freeze; Jiangzxi and Anhui provinces also had to cope with very low temperatures - in places 3º C lower than normally forecast - and then Zhejiang province experienced unusually heavy rainfall which made the plants grow too fast and therefore lose their quality.
So what was the experience of tea companies around the world when the time came for their normal buying trips and their hunt for quality spring teas?
“The winter dry season and very cold temperatures affected output very much, so over all this year, most teas will see a reduction in quantity and an increase in prices, especially for the early products made before April,” according to Don Sun of Ecrossland, Inc, US distributor of Chinese organic teas. “Spring teas are definitely much more costly for tea drinkers.”
“The frost in the first two weeks of March this year in Fujian, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces destroyed the first flush buds that are usually plucked for high quality white teas and premium green teas,” added Marcus Wulf of Hamburg Tea. “All teas lack sweetness and fruitiness compared to previous seasons, but cost higher prices.”
“The spring cold snap had a big effect on teas we source from Fujian and Zhejiang,” said Edgar Thoemmes, tea buyer for Canton Tea Company in the UK. “There was a big reduction in the amount of good quality teas on the market and this pushed up prices considerably in some cases – Yin Zhen (silver needle) for instance was up nearly 50% on prices for similar quality last year.”
“The weather conditions in spring in China made production very difficult,” concluded Ed Eisler of Jing Tea, explaining the problem to his customers on his website. “Low altitude areas like West Lake were devastated by extreme cold late in March and frosts, which kept appearing in April, damaged new growth…. We source our top China green teas from high altitude gardens where very little new growth had emerged when the frosts struck, thereby avoiding much of the damage. Our customers may notice that the picking date they will see on packs show that picking occurred far later than last year.”
Drought in the South West
Problems in China’s south western provinces of Guizhou, Sichuan, Guangxi, Chongqing and Yunnan are due not to this year’s cold spring but to the continuing effects of the worst drought in decades. Some parts of the region have been suffering from a lack of water for more than 80 years and the conditions have brought misery to thousands of people and have led to a drop in both availability and quality of the teas made here.
The continuing drought “has affected not only tea but the whole agricultural sector in this province,” as Marcus Wulf explained. “Many people have moved away from Yunnan to other provinces in order to survive. Obviously tea growing has suffered a lot; the plants need water to develop sweetness and their typical character and now that the first typical Yunnan black teas are coming in, we are finding that their character is weak and lacking in expected sweetness.”
The drought is reported to have affected 200,000 ha of tea plantations and younger tea trees and bushes are suffering, resulting in a harvest that is reported by some to be down by 80%. However, older, more established trees seem to be coping better with the dry conditions and quality in some cases is better than previous years.
“We were not too badly affected by the weather problems this spring because our tea trees have roots that are much deeper and longer than younger bushes,” said puerh manufacturer Master Liu of Jin Damo in Xishuangbanna, who makes his teas from 500-800 year old trees. “They can drink and absorb water from deep underground. However, we are getting much tinier leaves than before. Last year’s leaves were beautiful, but this year’s buds are much smaller and the shape is not so attractive. But this has been very good for quality - the superb taste and aroma this year are both much richer because of the stress caused by the dry weather. Our customers are very excited by this but of course, the teas will be more expensive than before. Tea makers and shop owners in Yunnan have said that puerh and other tea prices will be up between 30% and 100% this year.”
The effects on tea companies
Instead of making the regular scheduled visits to the Chinese tea regions this year, tea companies have had to wait, sometimes up to an extra month, to start their buying trips. And even then, it has not been easy.
Canton Tea Company has had to “rejig our product range this year as some teas are just not available in the quality we require. We still haven’t found any Wuyi oolongs that meet our high standards. But we’ve managed to keep the majority of our prices in line with last season (although one or two prices have had to rise) and we have absorbed most of our losses.”
“We have cut back on some of our teas, eliminating a few all together,” confided Dan Robertson of The Tea House, who travels widely in China every year to buy from both small and large producers. “I would rather be without a particular tea than sell a substandard quality. I expect a lot from the teas that I buy and our customers do too. Some teas we buy were not even made this year!”
Surely Robertson expresses the concerns of many tea dealers when he describes how hard it is sometimes to meet his customers’ requirements: “I don’t like not carrying teas but we have many different teas to offer buyers,” he said. “Sometimes, I have to work a little harder at introducing something new to buyers or explain to them the features of different teas that they may also enjoy but don’t yet know about.”
“There is no master plan for an export company to secure what it needs,” admitted Marcus Wulf. “Our success depends on quantities required, speed in making decisions, the contacts we have and the teas we’re looking for.”
Similarly, Edgar Thoemmes explained that “we have had to be agile this year!” and instead of sourcing Canton Teas Jade Sword Mao Jian from Zhejiang this year, their supply has come from Guangxi province instead.
Germany’s large wholesale tea buyer, Mount Everest Company GmbH, managed the problem by using forward contracts.
“Due to our long experience, we work in cooperation with reliable suppliers and forward contracts allow us to maintain our high quality and availability,” we were told. “But the weather conditions have been extreme and have had an effect on both quality and prices.”
And earlier this year, in Paris, Pierre Lebrun of Parti du Thé didn’t know if he was going to be able to obtain his usual high quality teas and in particular had problems finding a great Long Jing. He was eventually relieved that “we have managed to find everything we need but we have had to give up certain teas and replace them with other, different lines.”
But there may be other longer-term effects of this year’s freak conditions. Don Sun warned that, because prices have gone up, “the competition will bring many small vendors into the market and buyers should be careful as some of their supplies may not meet quality control requirements.” As far as managing the situation themselves is concerned, Sun explained that Ecrossland’s plan is to raise prices accordingly but to “try to maintain the best possible prices for long-standing customers so as not to shock them!”
Long Term Effects
Supplies and prices do now seem to be stabilizing in eastern regions although the drought continues to cause problems in the south west. Late spring and summer teas are now in the market, and Dan Robertson has found that “sources are optimistic, and late spring and summer teas are already in the market at lower prices. I expect prices to continue to come down to more reasonable figures.” Mount Everest are less hopeful and have been aware that “even the prices for average teas have increased.”
Yunnan continues to suffer and prices of puerh have shot up from an average of RMB700-800 (US$103-118) per kg to RMB1,100 -1,200 per kg and some prices have quadrupled.
The cost of raw leaf for puerh has gone up between 10% and 20% and Master Liu suggests that “the drought has already seriously affected small to medium factories and shops and some of the big puerh factories will give up making new teas and sell some of what they already have in store.”
Marcus Wulf has already found that “China’s domestic market has swapped its high demand for puerh teas to black teas and high quality green teas and are paying higher prices compared to the export market. This puts us under even greater pressure and in fiercer competition than in previous years.” Everyone is hoping for rain in the south west and a return to more predictable weather patterns through the rest of this year and into next spring but, as is the case around the world today, we are in nature’s hands and will simply have to wait and see.