You heard it right; vintage is as crucial to tea as wine. It logically makes sense when you think about it; tea is an annually harvested agricultural product, so the product should be different year over year based on many factors. In top-shelf, handcrafted teas, we find these slight differences due to vintage to be part of the excitement of the craft. Tea Drunk sources each year individually to ensure we only bring in the very finest of the season from only the most prestigious terroir and heritage farmers.
What is vintage anyway?
At its most basic, vintage is the year in which a tea was crafted. For example, on our packaging, next to the location of the tea, you'll read "Early Spring 2021" or "Spring 2017," etc. This information tells us which season and year a tea was harvested and made. We can learn a lot about a tea's quality by this alone. The best teas are produced in just a short 10-15 day period. This harvest is the caliber of tea that Tea Drunk produces - all of our teas are harvested during the peak Spring season. Industrial production facilities can churn out tea into the summer months or even year-round. Knowing the season and the year is vital information to understanding a tea.
Why does vintage matter?
Vintage matters because it really informs the final tea we drink. A lot more than just weather goes into what makes a vintage what it is. Below is a list of some of the factors we consider when discussing a particular vintage and reasons why it matters:
- Weather: Often the most cited differentiator for vintage. Weather before and during tea season matters for the harvest. Did the region get the optimal amount of rain? Was it raining on the days the tea was produced? Was there a drought that year? Great tea is all about extracting the most potential from the leaves, and each year the weather before and during harvest will affect that potential. Weather also matters for tea making. For example, humidity can make it harder to manage the moisture level in tea during fermentation; but too dry weather can result in tea having a strong aroma but lacking in texture and body. The same pu er sheng cha leaves dried in one day vs two+ days will have a huge difference in quality.
- Cultivars: Different cultivars perform differently each year. This adds another layer of complexity to the vintage of the tea. Some teas taste better in a year not only because of the weather but because of the weather and the unique characteristics of a cultivar.
- Craft: We can’t ignore that skill is a major factor in year-over-year changes. An unskilled tea maker is subject to nature’s mercy, while a skilled tea maker can strategize to minimize the risk bad weather causes. This explains why prices for top-quality tea actually increase during “bad vintage” years. This is because the proportion of teas that are made to be competitive in quality comparison across multiple years is smaller. A tea maker’s ability to work with specific weather of a vintage is a huge element in Tea Drunk’s sourcing expertise. Frankly, not everyone from top terroir are top tea makers. And the top tea makers don’t make the best tea all the time. With all of these factors considered, vintage quality is the matrix of a tea’s potential + the maker’s realization of that potential given the numerous factors that can impact a tea’s quality. For Tea Drunk, it’s never about a singular or oversimplified factor of just the right terroir, right cultivar, or right tea maker. Tea Drunk’s ambition is to bring you the best batch of tea from the best cultivar that the best tea maker made that season from the best terroir.
Does a tea company need to tell me what vintage the tea is?
Technically no, it is not required for a company to disclose the vintage of the tea. But, as we mentioned before - vintage and season are both important quality markers to artisanal tea. When Tea Drunk began, one of Shunan Teng’s intentions was to insist on disclosing the vintage and terrier of all teas. Tea Drunk is a pioneer in setting this standard that more and more companies follow today.
Vintage is less important when discussing industrial-style tea, which is why it is often not expected. Larger companies will blend years and batches for consistency, just like a non-vintage wine. There's nothing inherently wrong with this practice; it's just important to differentiate the product as top-terroir sourced vs. single-origin, cultivar distinguished vs. homogenized artisanally made vs. mass-produced product. It’s about the alignment of information, quality, and price.
For connoisseurs with discerning palates, we get joy from being able to taste the nuanced differences from vintage to vintage of teas made in the same terroir by the same makers. It’s a high level of geekiness in tea, but it provides a connection for us with all of the strategies and techniques that a tea maker must adopt while producing the tea - all through taste alone. It’s a beautiful way to connect with another through our senses and memory.
The fun of vintages
One of our favorite things to do at Tea Drunk is side-by-side comparisons. They teach us so much! We love comparing vintages side-by-side, so say a 2020 tea from the same region or even the same producer as the 2021 tea can teach us a lot about the changes tea can go through with a change in vintage.
Also, with ageable teas like pu er sheng cha, vintage informs us what we're drinking and how long it's been aging. Lastly, don't let vintage get confused with the age of a tea tree. Tea from an 80-100-year-old tea tree is very different from someone trying to sell you an 80-100-year-old tea.
Our 2022 Tea Season Pre-Sale is happening now and is an excellent opportunity for you to dial in on why vintage matters. It's our best deal of the year, and you'll be introduced to many of the new 2022 Tea Drunk teas! We often get asked why we can't announce what teas we will include until they arrive. We hope this lesson on the nuances of vintages explains a bit deeper why it's so essential for us to commission teas and comprehensively evaluate a tea for each season. Having pre-set placeholders for teas regardless of the performance of each tea for this vintage is simply just not the best practice if one truly wants the best each season has to offer. Taste the difference in Tea Drunk standard today!