Qimen are one of those teas that Arnaud and I are really keen on. These are teas that we prepare regularly for a tasty breakfast or a tea break in the afternoon.
A century and a half ago, they conquered the West and supplanted Fujian black teas for a good reason: their delicacy appealed to the English and the Dutch... Yet today, in the Western world, Qimen is more synonymous with Blend for breakfast, or even simply teabags. Indeed, unfortunately, we have generally only access to very low quality Qimen, mass produced in summer and fall when productivity is the most important.
Today, in China, more and more producers are questioning this productivist logic and are moving towards the production of quality tea which also allows them to live comfortably on a family farm. Indeed, Chinese connoisseurs do not hesitate to pay the necessary price to have quality teas, much more than Europeans. In fact, the prices of beautiful Qimen are increasing and reach wholesale prices often higher than what a European store can offer. Hence Europe often only has access to poor quality mass production. And the productivist reputation of the Qimen makes these teas very attractive to European amateurs who are not looking for such high quality black teas... A vicious circle.
And yet, there are more and more beautiful, high-quality Qimen. And we are happy to offer some nice examples.
But what are the criteria that define the quality of Qimen? If we forget the small variations in terroirs in Qimen County, the quality criteria are first of all the technique used, then the grading, the harvest period, the formula and the tenderness of the leaves.
To make Qimen, there are two techniques which give two completely different shapes of leaves: straight leaves in the shape of a needle, just rolled up on themselves like Qimei, and more worked leaves, rolled in a spiral like Xiang Luo. These two techniques give two different aromatic profiles, the first finer and flowery, the second more tastefull and full bodied.
Then there is the grade. It should be kept in mind that the Qimen are hand sorted leaf by leaf at the end of production into different grades. The operators will therefore separate the leaves according to their size, their shape, imperfections (badly rolled leaves, broken leaves). On their sorting table, at the end of their work, there will be three types of leaves: the most perfect for the best teas, an intermediate grade and the rest will be used to make basic teas.
There is the date of pickup. Let's remember the vegetative cycle of a bud: when the vegetative bud is ripe, it opens forming a first leaf in the shape of a fish scale and a twig which will develop. This twig is formed of a terminal bud and leaves which appear one after the other up to about 5 leaves. When the twig has developed all of its leaves, it becomes dormant for a few weeks before resuming a new vegetative cycle for the summer, then for the fall. If leaves are picked from the twig, it will reform a bud and continue its cycle until it has produced a total of 5 leaves on average.
During the spring picking, there will therefore be three to five possible pickings per tea plant: a first before QingMing, a second just after, a third before the Grain Rain Festival and potentially two after. Each harvest is separated by about a week. This is true for all tea plants and all vegetative cycles. Let us not forget that the initial bud produces the most fragrant teas, it takes longer to develop and is thus gorged with all the vital power of the plant, and that the successive leaves receive coarser material to make the plant grow. twig. So the quality of the teas will decrease from one picking to the next.
From there, we can define the last two criteria which are somewhat related, the picking formula and the tenderness of the leaves. The formula is the choice of picking a bud and a leaf, a bud and two leaves or a bud and three leaves. It is easy to understand that a “one bud, one leaf” pick will be more aromatic than a more mature pick. Also for Qimen, only "one bud, one leaf" teas is harvest. There is another point to take into account: we can pick a bud and a leaf when the twig has already produced two or even three leaves and we will ultimately have more mature leaves, less tender, and a tea in the end less aromatic.
Tenderness is a very important point for the aromatic profile of teas, but also very difficult to control. For a quality tea pickings, it is important to be able to harvest the tenderest leaves, if possible before the second leaf appears. However, nature is not so regular, the buds appear at different times, a new leaf then grows every one or two days, and economically speaking, there cannot be picking of the same garden every day.
Gathering "a bud, a leaf", when the first leaf is already well developed, but before the second appears, requires a good control of its gardens. Otherwise, there will be also in the picking more mature leaves. And to have the best tea, you have to have the softest leaves possible. This control becomes all the more difficult for later picking, but as these are producing less expensive tea, less care is taken on the picking.
Here are the quality criteria in the choice of leaves
In our selection, this year we have two Xiang Luo:
- Our Qimen Xiang Luo comes from an early picking, before QingMing, where special care in picking very tender leaves was taken and where a slightly higher grade was selected,
- Our Qimen is also a Xiang Luo, but picked after QingMing and made from a base material that is a little less tender. We can also see some rolling defects in the leaves, but this is still a quite high grade with a later picking.
To achieve a quality, very aromatic Qimei, you have to limit picking to the tenderest leaves, before the appearance of the second leaf. The tea which is only rolled on itself in needles, and not in spirals like the Xiang Luo, is therefore less oxidized especially as it spends less time in the oxidation chamber after rolling. This gives teas which still express their floral side.
On the contrary, XiangLuo are more oxidized, which brings out the tasty notes and gives more body. This greater oxidation also makes it possible to use less tender leaves. This partly explains the price differences in the Chinese market.
We are far from the basic summer teas, rejected during grading, which forms most of the Qimen in commerce.