The very first preview of the 2023 season took place in Kunming, in the small room in the photo below. There is our Vivian, together with Mr. Su and Mr. Zhou.
Mr. Su is a famous expert of tea plantation and forest based in Lincang, adviser to many growers, while Mr. Chou is one of the most famous writer and editor in the Chinese tea industry. Vivian calls them both "master".
Master Su's base and tearoom in Kunming
We drank many good teas from previous years, discussing soils and historical trends. There were many rumors about 2023 season: a large factory had just bought a dozen presses for 10gr to 50gr formats, tiny compared to its traditional 357gr., because it seems that its franchisees were not willing to stock too much tea; another reported declining 2022 revenue, and almost none of them were prepaying for fresh leaves, causing a cash flow shortfall for premium mountain farmers who used to start the harvest knowing it was already sold.
The signal is a shift in the market: during the last decade many brands have earned their growth by driving both their franchisees and end-customers to stockpile substantial quantities of tea for ageing, despite a relatively low amount of tea drunk per year; during the covid years some franchisees were unable to cover their costs, the market is generally uncertain, and everything in that moment pointed to a general drop in prices.
At the same time, it looks like the percentage of current drinkers is actually growing, and it is referring to younger brands that highlight the origin of their tea, and focus directly to the final customers: these companies, we think in that moment, can take advantage of the lower prices to establish a good market share.
In mid-March we had few days of rain: nothing big, between 0,2 and 5mm of rain per day, but just enough to breathe and hope.
As Eastern Leaves we started the harvest relatively early, especially in our higher forest, because during the last winter in some areas we performed a turning over of the soil - it is the first time we do it since 2014, and hopefully it won't be needed for a long time. We did it mostly manually to have the greatest control on the depth and on the area around the tea trees, softening the soil and creating better chances of growth.
If during the very beginning it felt normal to be alone on the dusty road that climb the mountain, at the end of March it was clear that lack of traffic meant a wider problem: most of the farmers were harvesting very few, or none at all.
At the very beginning of April most of the younger seasonal workers were gone: they left the mountains, where they hoped for a good 6 or 7 weeks of pay-roll, to go back to their villages and towns, to earn their basic incomes in low-value agricolture or factories.
In the mountains they left behind the older pickers, sometimes their parents, who could pick few kilograms per day - accordingly with the reduced trees output.
From mid-March until April 22nd we had two tiny rains, totally less than 1mm, that signifies a very heavy drought. It is a negligible quantity of water, as it has been from that moment until the moment of writing, the end of May.
According to early estimates, on average in Yunnan it has been harvested 50% of the tea; in certain areas the outcome has been even lower.
There has been an obvious difference of valley and micro-environments: generally, the forested plantations performed better, due to their superior capacity of store the water, keeping it in their life-cycle.
The first assumption of this post talked about an expected decrease of prices, due to some rumours on big-players; the decrease on the output has balanced the slow-down of the big companies, and prices for forest teas and single origin are actually considerably higher.
On average, and again especially in the forested plantations and ancient trees, the quality is considered overall excellent: it is impossible to generalise for each terroir and each parcel of land, but earlier tastings has been encouraging, and early sales are doing very well.
Shadow and sunlight in a tea forest
The spring droughts in Yunnan has been recorded at random intervals for about 60 years, and there is not a clearly visible trend that demonstrate their increase in terms of frequency; yet, the 40 years trend highlights an increase in temperature of 1.2°C and a decrease in the average rainfalls of 28.1%, from 2.011mm per year to 1.555mm per year.
The local temperatures do not have a heavy influence on the rainfalls, that in this area depends on the monsoon, especially the Bengala gulf current. Therefore their decrease is included in an ample continental trend, that risks to be exacerbated at the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024 when the effect of El Niño will be evident: the statistics about the El Niño years in this area of Yunnan do not highlight a clear trend, but they place chances of heavy rain and heavy drought at about the same chance.
How do dry weather impact the tea making?
The freshly plucked green leaves had a relatively lower percentage of water: in the pu'er production, it means they needed a shorter withering time, and also slightly ticker layers during this phase.
During the Shaqing, when the leaves are heated to let the bigger quantity of water to quickly evaporate, they required more care and speed to avoid burnings.
An advantage of a season like this is at least its regularity: the leaves picked in different days had very similar processing, and the weather was generally suitable for sun-drying of both pu'er and red tea, and for the production of white tea alike.
It is difficult to predict what we expect from the future: it is widely debated, but no one has a reliable statistics, and the interactions of the world-climate variables are simply too many to be known and predicted.
Wood-fired pu'er wok for Shaqing at the end of the season
We are certain about the rising of temperatures and the growing scarcity of rainfalls; we also know that rainfalls are changing their distribution, with a slightly wetter dry season, and a dryer and shorter rainy season.
Among the Yunnanese pu'er community of experts, farmers and regulators, there is a public talk on how the environment is changing, and some voices talk about a change that is going to affect both the production methods, taste and prices.
For many observers it is unavoidable to look for a better way to store the water at higher altitudes, and to irrigae the lower bushes-plantations (taidi cha).
It is mandatory to better understand how a forest works, and to promote more and more shaded tea-forest, to lower the risk of loss in case of drought, and to keep quality and prices more stable.