Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Seasonality of Tea and Nature

One of my favorite aspects of reading tea blogs, which is more evident in some blogs than others, is reading about nature. Among these blogs, one of my favorites is Tea for Today, where Marlena often adds detailed little notes about birds she observed, and often includes nature scenes. I also love Tea Musings, a blog with original poetry; many of these poems focus on aspects of nature and the changing seasons. I very highly recommend both of these blogs if you love nature as much as I do.

The way I view it, becoming interested in and knowledgeable about tea, beyond a certain level of introductory knowledge, requires becoming interested in nature. In this post I want to show how the seasonality in tea is part of a broader trend of patterns that exist in numerous other plants and animals. Here's a picture that, for me, captures this time of year, early fall:

This photo shows a black-and-white warbler in fall plumage. This is a first-year bird. The fall migration season of birds is characterized by an abundance of newly-raised first-year birds, travelling south for the winter. In the background are the yellowing leaves of a hackberry tree, partly bare already. Hackberry trees, of the Celtis genus, lose their leaves relatively early, but this year, many of these trees lost their leaves particularly early. In nature, there are fluctuations in the health and population of nearly all living things, including plants and animals. Just as the tea harvest is different each year, each tree species fares better some years than others, insect infestations wax and wane (attacking stressed trees more easily), and bird populations grow, shrink, and move in response to the abundance of food. These hackberry trees, partly defoliated and full of insects, and also full of ripe fruit, attracted huge mixed flocks of migratory warblers, who help to control the populations of these insects.

The changing of the seasons is evident in this bird; compare its appearance to a photo I took of the same species in spring, in the same area:

The background shows the intact, yellow-green leaves of spring, in this case, on a white oak. This bird has a black throat and cheek, signaling that it is a male. (I'm pretty sure the first bird is male too). You can click the photos to learn more about these birds.

One reason I wanted to share these birds is to make an analogy to the seasonality of tea. Both of these birds are clearly identifiable as black-and-white warblers. The differences between them are noticeable, especially after someone points them out, but they might not be immediately evident to an untrained eye. This difference is a lot like the difference between the different flushes or harvests of tea, for instance, Darjeeling black tea. A connoisseur would usually (not always) be able to easily distinguish first flush from, say, autumnal flush (which, by the way, is coming available right now). But inexperienced tea drinkers often (not always) would not. I think in this respect, seasonal distinctions in the different qualities of tea are a lot like the seasonal differences in bird plumage. There is a certain unity in how nature works and is organized.

Changing of the seasons:

The changing of seasons is a very fundamental aspect to human existence. Some areas, such as the eastern United States, where I am located, have four well-defined seasons, whereas other areas have fewer, more subtle, or different seasons. For example, San Diego has a cool, slightly rainy season in their "winter", a cloudy but generally rainless spell around May-June, and then a sunny late summer and early fall, sliding back into the cooler, slightly rainy winter. Only certain climates produce the familiar fall or autumn with changing tree colors and fallen leaves of diverse colors:

Many of the major tea-growing regions have very strong, well-defined seasons, but these seasons do not always correspond to what most Americans or Europeans know of as seasons. South and Southeast Asia has a strongly pronounced monsoon season, much more pronounced than any of the seasonal precipitation patterns in North America. Most of Asia has wet summers and dry winters. The dry winters produce a greater swing of temperatures during the winter than similar areas experience in North America...but Asia experiences fewer heavy snow events. Some tea-growing areas, including much of Sri Lanka, and parts of Africa, have a bimodal precipitation pattern, meaning that there are two distinct wet seasons and two distinct dry seasons in each year. In many tropical regions, the seasons are poorly defined at low altitudes, where it is warm year-round, but as altitude rises and it becomes both colder and rainier, the seasons become more pronounced. This effect is evident on the west-coast of the U.S., such as in how high altitudes in Southern California show a full four seasons like the east coast.

Unfortunately, our modern society has often disconnected us from the seasons. Carefully climate-controlled interiors of offices, homes, and cars make us comfortable, but disconnect us from the world outside. Year-round avaliability of normally seasonal foods like apples, oranges, or even lettuce, further disconnects us. We lose touch with nature. Is this what we really want? I don't want it at all, and as I've gotten older, I've realized that I'm willing to give up something (i.e. no apples in spring, no plums in winter) in order to be more in touch with what's really going on. I also have found that the food I eat tends to taste better, and also be more affordable, when I eat what's in season. Living this way is also more sustainable, as eating and using what is seasonally available requires fewer resources; it involves working with rather than working against nature.

The following photo of a red Bartlett pear and a Valencia orange looks natural, but is not: Bartlett pears are a fall crop of cold climates, and Valencia oranges, a late winter / early spring crop of milder climates. It's simply not possible that these were both produced locally--not even both on the east coast of the US. One of these was clearly shipped across the globe from a different climate:

The same things are true of tea, to a degree:

Single-harvest teas vs. blends:

Naturally, as the growing conditions of the tea plant change throughout the year, the character of the tea produced changes, sometimes radically. Large tea companies, including the brands of tea owned by Unilever, seeking a consistent product, often blend-out these differences, changing the proportion of teas used in their blends in order to retain a consistent flavor and character of their tea year-round and from one year to the next.

While I can understand the drive to consistency, I resist it. I want to taste that variability. And I want to stay true to production methods that work with nature, rather than working against it. Nature has variability. I want to taste that variability, and I certainly don't want to pay to blend it out.

How about you?

No comments:

Post a Comment