What are Tea Cultivars?
Tea nerds, just like any other strain of nerd, geek or dweeb, have a heart for cataloging and curation. If you have in your collection 20 oolongs, five are yancha, two are ro gui from spring 2019, one is huang guan yin from 2017, and two are 2018 da hong pao from different vendors. You end up asking yourself “What really makes this tea a ‘golden lily’, or why do I have two Ali Shan that are so different?” You end up needing to see tea more from the farmer’s point of view than a consumer’s. Farmer’s don’t just grow tea, they grow tea cultivars.
A cultivar is an artificially selected version of a plant variety, a short way of saying cultivated variety. Within a species there is always naturally occurring variety. It’s everywhere in nature, we see it in dogs, fungus, and even tea plants. Tea varieties have two main presentations; camellia sinensis var. sinensis and camellia sinensis var. assamica. In chinese tea terminology these are called shao ye (small leaf variety) and da ye (large leaf variety). Assamica is the only one that still can be found growing wild in its natural habitat across Southeast Asia. Sinensis is believed to have been historically cultivated as tea farming spread out of Southwest China and into the rest of the country.
Assamica has risen to global prominence only very recently in tea history. Puer tea is de facto required to be made from Assamica plants, as puer must be made in Yunnan, home to assamica tea production since antiquity, to be called as such. Wild Assamica plants were discovered by the British in the mid 19th century near India and this bigger and hardier variety thrived on Indian soil where before experiments with sinensis seedlings had failed. Today Assamica genetic material has had an important impact on the modern tea cultivars of Taiwan and Japan.
Taiwan Cultivar #18
The Tea Farming Point of View
The success of Assamica in India gets the heart of what tea cultivars are and why they are important. Variety is natural, and natural selection pressures sedentary plants to the exact microclimate of where they are rooted. Human beings who identify varieties in one area and then clone and repopulate another area with that variety have now created a cultivar. Finding the best tea cultivar for the geography and economy of a tea farm means the difference between a rich harvest and bankruptcy.
Cultivars emerge out of the inherent contradictions of the farm; the natural needs of the domesticated plants and the man-made environment and pressures to thrive making tea. Farmers have to consider the plant’s resistance to animal pests, disease, and the microclimate. They also have to consider the yield and suitability to processing styles.
Committing limited space to a new cultivar is risky, and in the modern era the development of new cultivars has fallen to horticultural scientists who spend years developing new cultivars. Any cultivar of any tea can be made into any type of tea you can think of. The question is whether its really a good idea to do so. Taiwan’s Tea Research Extension Station cultivar #18 has a very distinctive aroma. Most tea made from this cultivar is black tea, however you can buy white tea made from this cultivar. Having a cup of both of these teas makes it very clear that this cultivar is offering a very noticeable and distinct impact on the final flavor, even with styles as far apart as white and black. One of these two sells a lot more than the other, and this is because the majority of tea farmers who have adopted this cultivar know it is more popular as a black tea, and processing it in another way is risky. Tea cultivars are at the heart of agricultural, creative, and business decisions.
The Growing Visibility of Tea Cultivars
If you aren’t a tea farmer or the tea nerd equivalent of a mint in box toy collector, perhaps the cataloguing of each tea into one of thousands of known tea cultivars might not seem like relevant information. However I would say to you that tea cultivars are showing up more often on the product pages of tea vendors and many teas are named for their cultivar even as production methods for those teas start to differ. A good point of reference here for some readers will be the split between new and old world wine. European wine was labelled with a region, like Chianti or Bordeaux, and the long tradition of wine production in those areas implied what the wine was like. Viticulture in the new world didn’t have centuries of reputation, wineries in California labeled their bottles with the grape variety used, like Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc. Taiwanese tea is in a similar situation, they don’t have centuries of reputation but they do have sophisticated horticulture and unique geography. If you have ever had Ruby 18, Four Springs, Mi Lan Dan Cong, Awesome 8, or Tieguanyin then you have had a tea named for its cultivar.
Cultivar doesn’t exist in a vacuum, processing and geography. There is a limit to what a cultivar can tell you as a tea drinker. Unique geographies like Pear Mountain are going to be a bigger factor and take the spot on the label over the cultivar name, especially if the cultivar is likely just called “oolong”. Tieguanyin drinkers are in a tough spot because of this issue. Tieguanyin grown in mainland China have had very low oxidation and minimally roasting in recent decades. Tieguanyin from Taiwan has been distinctly roasted. As always geography, production, and cultivar form an overlapping nexus of identification for how a tea turns out the way it does. We can’t understand the big picture without seeing the individual pieces, and we can’t understand the individual pieces without seeing how they fit together.
Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea
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