Although you have probably seen Qing Ming (or some variation thereof) appended to the name of one of your favorite Chinese green teas, a lot of people don't know what the phrase actually describes. Qing Ming, pronounced "ching ming," translates as "clear and bright," and it is the name of a traditional Chinese festival. The Qing Ming festival occurs on the first day of the fifth period of the lunar calendar, which is usually April 5th (April 4th on leap years), and is celebrated as a day of remembrance for deceased relatives. Because of this, Qing Ming is often referred to as "Tomb Sweeping Day," or more Christo-centrically as "All Souls' Day." It is a day to grieve for lost relatives by sweeping and weeding graves and tombs as well as leaving offerings. However, Qing Ming isn't quite as depressing as it sounds--it's also an occasion for family gatherings and excursions into nature to contemplate Springtime simultaneously with the passing of loved ones. For a nice article on the significance of Qing Ming, click here.
In Chinese green tea culture, however, Qing Ming has taken on an entirely new meaning: it's the cutoff for the earliest and highest-quality spring green tea harvests! Teas referred to as "Pre-Qing Ming" or the Chinese "Ming Qian" (pronounced "Ming Chien") were harvested before the festival and are the earliest green tea harvests of the year. Although the harvest start date is variable due to weather conditions (it took place as early as February in 2007!), the end of the top-choice pickings is always Qing Ming. Ming Qian teas are always more expensive (sometimes by as much as 4x!), for several different reasons. First, they are almost always superior in quality--the leaves and buds have the benefit of a winter of rest and nutrient-gathering, and they represent the choicest picks that are sweeter, more complex, and less harsh than later pickings. Second, ready tea material can be scarcer in the very early Spring. Later pickings, though they are abundant, tend to be less subtle and delicate since the plants have already given up they best they have for the year.
Ming Qian isn't the only important quality for green tea quality, and not all Ming Qian teas are superb or even necessarily better than later harvests, but it's a really good start--the very best green teas are almost always pre-Qing Ming, and you can't go wrong with the characteristics inherent in early spring tea. Like most aspects of tea culture, there will always be people trying to pass off later-harvested tea as Ming Qian, so it's best to acquaint yourself with the flavor and characteristics of the real thing--in general, there's always a freshness to the flavor, never a roasted or toasty character (often used to improve flavor and moisture content of teas that have sat around for a while), and a visual vibrancy of color that is hard to mistake. The new teas we'll be offering at Miro this July (the ones I've been posting tasting notes for) are all Ming Qian and a great place to start enjoying the quality that Chinese greens have the potential to offer.