As Spring rolls around each year, tea enthusiasts become increasingly curious about the intricacies of the harvest season: when are teas plucked, how long does processing take, and what regions produce the best teas? In response, we have crafted a comprehensive guide to help shed light on these topics.
First, let’s dispel a myth: earlier is NOT always better when it comes to harvesting tea. In fact, early harvest often indicates warm weather and fast growth, and both are attributes of mass-produced plantation teas. Most teas in the market fall into this category, and there are still variations of quality within this vast production. However, as the Chinese saying goes, “深山出好茶,” “the best teas come from the deepest mountains.” At Tea Drunk, we focus on this rare elite group of teas from China’s most historic tea mountains.
A fundamental concept we want to clarify is that an early harvesting season is not to be mistaken for harvesting early for an individual tea tree’s growth cycle, which can come later due to the colder climate in a particular terroir.
Many complex factors must be considered when determining the optimal time to pluck tea in a region. It is essential to understand these nuances and avoid oversimplifying the process.
TERROIR & CLIMATE:
Terroir plays a pivotal role in determining tea season. High-latitude and/or high-elevation regions tend to have harsher and colder climates, which are essential for sophisticated and complex raw leaves. They welcome their spring (and tea season) much later than warmer locations - due to either low latitude and/or low elevation.
Micro terroir factors such as temperature fluctuations, plant orientation, and soil composition must also be considered. Understanding the above-the-ground factors and below-the-ground factors of a specific terroir is the next step for one to keenly investigate why a specific piece of land produces more desirable tea than the next. This is outside the scope of this guide, but you can hear Shunan explain this in-depth in the Tea Fundamentals Course on the Tea Drunk Academy.
One will notice that even in the same terroir, different tea trees can bud at different times. This is the variation of harvesting time due to cultivar differences. On a general level, we can divide cultivars into heirlooms (sexual production, seeded) and clones (asexual production, often saplings). We will explore next in the context of these two categories of tea trees.
Let’s first start with heirloom teas, which are often the older tea trees of given terroir, planted by past generations with seeds. These are tea trees how nature intended them to be and are best adapted to the land. Collectively, they often have a longer growth cycle, resulting in the leaves being ready to be harvested at a later date.
Because growing tea trees from seed is not a common practice anymore, heirloom tea trees are becoming fewer and rarer each year. But heirloom teas are the pinnacle of historic terroir because they give us a taste of the most authentic representation of the land and are the same tea trees that gained a terroir its fame in the first place.
To dive deeper into how heirloom teas taste differently from clones, and the sentimental value they provide to connect us with past connoisseurs, read the article Why Heirloom Teas Are So Prized here.
A vast majority of the teas in the market today are harvested from stabilized single cultivars, AKA clones. This was an essential practice for industrializing tea for higher volume, easier processing, and repeatable taste. These are often tea trees planted from saplings.
While plantations have almost exclusively clone tea trees, we also see single-cultivar clone tea trees co-exist with heirloom tea trees in historic tea mountains. Depending on the region, there can be from a couple of different cultivars to numerous types of cultivars. Wu Long regions are where we see the most diverse showcase of cultivars as Wu Longs are often made from single cultivars, and connoisseurs cherish the difference in each cultivar's profile.
Different cultivars mature at different times during spring, even in the same terroir. For example, in Phoenix Mountain, where Dan Cong is from, the cultivar Bai Ye is one of the earliest to harvest, while the cultivar Ba Xian is one of the latest. Even from the same village, these two cultivars can harvest more than 15-20 days apart.
Even though there’s no set rule, there’s a strong correlation between cultivar harvesting time and their prices. Cultivars harvested later in the spring tend to demand higher prices, given the same terroir. Bai Ye and Ba Xian are great examples of this, with Ba Xian often doubling or tripling the cost of Bai Ye.
The most common way that we classify tea is based on how tea is processed. Hence, the categories: green, yellow, white, Wu Long, red, and black. We can consider these bulk categories the most remedial division of processing methods. And processing methods start with harvesting standards. There’s another common myth that the more tender the picking, the higher the quality of the tea. Each category of tea has its own desired picking grade, and often times a more tender picking deviates from this desired maturity; therefore, it’s not the best practice. For example, China historically did not make single-bud green or red tea, and the technique and the quality of these teas have not stood the test of time.
Below we have listed the starting picking grade for each category of tea:
Green: one bud and one leaf
Yellow: single bud
White: single bud
Wu Long: open-face leaves (when the top bud becomes a leaf)
Red: one bud and two leaf
Black: leaves and stems
Please note that historic tea mountains each specialize in one kind of tea only. Therefore, a common situation you see on plantations where different maturity of leaves from the same place are being made into different types of tea; this does not happen in traditional tea regions.
This is why we do see white tea regions usually have an earlier harvest time than green tea regions, and Wu Long regions are often times the last. In Wu Yi Shan, farmers will purposely wait until the leaves reach the desired maturity for Wu Long. This can be from early to mid-May.
So What About These Specific Dates We Hear About?
Some dates have been celebrated and tracked for tea harvest in some historic tea regions. Many of you have probably heard of these dates, like Chun Fen, Qing Ming, and Gu Yu. Notes that these dates, while globally known, are ONLY relevant to tea regions in the provinces Zhe Jiang and Jiang Su.
These terms and dates are not blanket applicable to all tea regions in China. Even in Zhe Jiang and Jiang Su, they are only specific to the influential and historically famous green teas in the region, Bi Luo Chun and Long Jing are the two most prominent. If you hear these terms used for green teas outside of these provinces or for other categories of tea, such as Wu Longs, the information is not applicable and can be misleading.
CHUN FEN: March 20, 2023
Chun Fen translates to “Divider of Spring” and marks the first day of spring. While it’s not an official marker of tea season, it is significant to understand the following Qing Ming, which is an important date for tea harvest.
Only 15 days between Chun Fen and Qing Ming make this short season truly precious! Chun Fen is the earliest bookend of harvesting heirloom tea trees for Long Jing of Bi Luo Chun from their historical origins. Any harvesting before Chun Fen is either not from historic terroir and/or not an heirloom cultivar.
QING MING: April 5, 2023
Qing Ming falls between April 4th and April 6th, depending on the year. Most commonly, it will land on April 5th. Aside from being a holiday, this date is also widely used as a cut-off date for the prime harvest of Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun.
Chinese ancient wisdom suggests that it usually rains on Qing Ming. The rain matters more than the date of Qing Ming.
The short picking window before Qing Ming, often called Ming Qian, which means Pre-Qing Ming, only applies to heirloom tea trees. As explained above, clone tea trees harvest earlier; for these tea regions, the harvesting season can start in early March. By the time of Chun Fen, when the heirloom barely starts harvesting, the clone tea season is already wrapping up. By Qing Ming, clone tea trees were way too mature to be desired.
GU YU: April 20, 2023
In a lot of ways, Gu Yu is an important date for most historic green and yellow teas in China. Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun harvested before Gu Yu are dubbed Yu Qian Cha, or Pre-Gu Yu teas. Known for their strength and robust flavor profile, these are some of the best-valued heirloom teas from these two historical regions and are farmer’s favorites!
Harvest Dates By Tea Category
Many historically famous green and yellow teas, such as Huang Shan Mao Feng and Lu An Gua Pian, are harvested in the colder provinces of An Hui, He Nan, and Jiang Xi. Due to their geographic location and lower temperatures, these regions typically have a later start date for their harvest season compared to warmer regions such as Zhe Jiang, Jiang Su, and Si Chuan.
Generally, teas from these colder regions are harvested in late April, which is later than the harvest dates for the famous green teas from Zhe Jiang and Jiang Su.
In the birthplace of white tea, Fu Ding, the harvesting season starts relatively early. For instance, Bai Hao Yin Zhen, the highest picking grade of white tea, is harvested from the middle to the end of March. On the other hand, Bai Mu Dan, which refers to the second picking grade of one bud and two leaves, is typically harvested around the same time as buds start forming in Zhe Jiang. Unlike the provinces of Zhe Jiang and Jiang Su, where the terms Qing Ming and Gu Yu are culturally significant dates for tea harvesting, these concepts DO NOT apply in Fu Ding.
It should be noted that the harvest date for ancient Gu Shu trees in Yun Nan to make Pu Er Sheng Cha theoretically falls around Qing Ming. However, this is NOT because of the dates determined by Zhe Jiang and Jiang Su; it is simply coincidental and not a concept we should apply to Pu Er.
Yun Nan's early harvest can be attributed to it being more geographically south. Albeit the mighty tea mountains of Yun Nan are high in altitude (>4000 feet), they are still warmer than most other historic tea regions in China. In this vast region, there is still a difference in the time of picking between heirloom tea trees, small tea trees, and plantation tea trees, as described in the cultivar section above.
Clone plantation tea trees of Yun Nan can harvest as early as Chinese New Year. In March and early April, it’s unlikely one will see teas from genuine Gu Shu, ancient tea trees, in the market.
The two most well-known regions for Wu Long tea production are Wu Yi Shan and Feng Huang Shan. The later harvest of Wu Long tea in these regions is due to several factors, including terroir, cultivar, and processing differences, as explained above. The larger plantations surrounding the core region can harvest up to a month earlier and often have skipped or simplified the fining steps that follow the harvest season. Authentic Zheng Yan teas, true cliff, from Wu Yi Shan, don’t harvest until early May and can have an extensive fining process that extends to November.
Therefore, one wouldn’t see true Dan Cong from its historic terroir until summer, and true Wu Yi Yan Cha often until November or December of the year.
Red teas come from a wide range of locations within China, but the same factors we discussed above still apply. Red teas from Yun Nan, Dian Hong, are often the earliest to be harvested, while red teas from cold Tong Mu, such as Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, have an impressively late harvest time - even after the Wu Long season from nearby Wu Yi Shan, in late May.