There's a pretty persistent myth that the earlier a tea hits the market, the better it is. This is wildly inaccurate, as different regions have different climates and different optimal harvest dates. Tea thrives in a challenging environment, At these locations, tea season typically comes later than in low elevation and plantation regions. Additionally, all of the best teas go through a fining process, which comes after a period of rest. These fining steps can take anywhere from days to months and are what differentiate the good from the great.
These charts give us a visual understanding of the harvest dates by region for China's top terroir. They represent heirloom varietals and common non-GMO clones only.
What is Qing Ming?
Qing Ming is one of the 24 points on the Chinese farming calendar that fall between April 4th and April 6th, depending on the year. For all Chinese people, it's a day to honor our ancestors, and it holds even more significance in the tea-making world.
This holiday signifies the cut-off date for harvesting the most prized green teas, with the picking grade regarded as pre-Qing Ming or Ming-Qian. The date is only relevant to teas produced in the Jiang Su and Zhe Jiang tea regions (as they produce a lot of green tea) and is not an absolute parameter for judging the tea's picking quality. For warmer areas like Yun Nan and Si Chuan, Qi Ming is marked as a date when the primary season ends. And for colder regions, like An Hui or Jiang Xi, the tea will not bud before Qi Men. This location is where Gu Yu is usually the primary season.
Chinese ancient wisdom suggests that it usually rains on Qing Ming. The rain matters more than the date of the holiday. After the rain, the temperature rises, and the tea tree's bud growth accelerates, thus reducing the leaf's complexity and increasing the amount of catechin and caffeine that contribute to more astringency in taste. This environmental change is why people are interested in the picking date. Leaves in warmer climates also tend to establish rougher tannins, which give the tea a harsher mouth feel and more bitterness. Because the northern tea regions of China have varying temperatures, Qing Ming doesn't apply to many well-known green teas such as Gua Pian, Yun Wu, etc., but the same core concepts still apply.
It's important to note that Qi Ming only applies to heirloom cultivars, which most teas today are not. Early-budding cultivars like Wu Nio Zao and Long Jing #43 start harvesting as early as the beginning of March. By the end of March, the leaves on these cultivars are too mature to be considered good. Heirloom cultivars are usually not ready to be harvested until the very end of March. This prime season makes the short window from the first pluck to Qing Ming so precious. Even after Qing Ming, pre-Gu Yu harvests are still highly desired for more robust profile teas.
We hope this quick lesson in China's harvest season and Qing Ming helps you understand the teas you buy and enjoy even more!