Spring is the most exciting time of the year in the world of tea. It has been many months since fresh leaves have been picked, and everyone waits with eager anticipation for that first sip of fresh, aromatic tea. In China, teas are prized for how early in the season they are picked, with the earliest harvest of spring selling for serious amounts of money. The flavor of those early harvests drives people wild.
What is it about the flavor of spring that makes it so treasured? Can you really taste the difference between spring tea and summer tea, or even the difference of three days between picking in the final brew? The fact is, spring tea really does taste different from anything else out there. It has a distinctive flavor, texture, aroma and aftertaste that sets it apart and comes through in everything from traditional Dragonwell to Laoshan Green grown in the far north of China. It may sound strange, but spring tea at the end of the day actually tastes and smells like springtime.
Compared to autumn or summer tea, spring harvests are usually much lighter in flavor. Bitter and vegetal notes have no place in the early spring harvests. Flavors tend to be delicate and yield to aroma, aftertaste and texture. This is a unique experience that is sometimes hard to convey. In America, we almost always talk about taste. We want to describe flavor notes. In China, the early harvests aren’t necessarily about taste. They give you an opportunity to appreciate the quieter and more subtle aspects of tea.
Spring tea is often about aroma, first and foremost. In China, aroma is king. To compliment a tea, you don’t say it tastes good; you say it is aromatic. Spring tea smells like spring. Green teas evoke the light, tender buds. Exotic fruits and flowers are also dominant, especially in spring oolongs. The aroma of spring tea reminds us of young, new life. Every tea farmer we work with talks about wanting to capture the smell of their land, their farm, their tea forest in the full bloom of spring through the craft of making tea. Their goal is to preserve the aromas the tea absorbs from the spring air so that they unfold when you brew the dry leaves.
Spring tea is usually softer and smoother on the palate than summer or autumn tea. It can feel like velvet, silk or cream. There is no rough feeling, and the minerality that is a big part of autumn can be replaced with a linen-like quality or even a light sparkling sensation depending on the tea. Texture builds on the palate over each sip and becomes a very dominant part of the tasting experience. Early spring harvests are highly desired for their lack of dryness or roughness on the palate.
The tasting experience of fine spring tea is very intriguing- everything starts out quiet and subdued, and the flavor grows to fill out the palate the most after you have already sipped it. This is called aftertaste– the sensations in the mouth and the back of the throat that linger long after the tea is gone. Spring picking tea is very heavy on the aftertaste, full of sweetness and floral notes. Sweetness is a constant throughout the tasting, but because of the way it lingers in the aftertaste, each sip seems sweeter and sweeter.
Price, Picking Date, and the Chinese Market
The domestic market in China has a strong preference for spring tea. The ideal of classical perfection in Chinese tea is extremely light, pure and well integrated flavor, with thick and creamy mouthfeel, intense building sweetness, commanding floral and honey aromas and an aftertaste that lingers. It happens that, in general, spring tea satisfies that ideal better than any other harvest. This is not to say that autumn harvests are inferior. Indeed, autumn offers its own unique perspective on tea that is worthwhile and exciting. What it does mean is that the earlier in the spring a tea is picked, the more expensive it will be. The most expensive teas of all are the very high elevation, first pickings of the season. Often these pickings are too light in flavor by American standards, but very rich in aftertaste and refined in texture.
What causes the flavor of Spring?
Why are those early spring pickings so light, sweet, and aromatic? The early spring is still relatively cold, which means the tea plant is growing more slowly than it does later in the season. In general, there is less sunlight, more mist and cooler temperatures. These cues all tell the plant not to take things too fast. The plant takes in lots of nutrients in the early spring and stores up sugar to fuel the growth it has planned. If it gets picked before it spends all of those resources, you get to enjoy the sweet flavor of the sugar the plant stores and the complexity of nutrients from the soil and water. In a way, you are drinking pure potential energy, life itself.
As the season continues, the tiny, tender little buds begin to open into full leaves with more chlorophyll. As the days lengthen and warm, buds continue to form and grow, each day faster than the next. These vegetal notes come through and become more dominant than the sweet sugar notes. All spring harvests have a lot of potential energy compared to summer or autumn because the plant has been resting, dormant and unpicked. The plant recovers and regains health and strength during the time that it is left to its own devices.
With the incredible flavor, texture and aroma that you get from fresh spring tea, it is no wonder that the Chinese domestic market will pay a premium to drink the best. If you make that investment in fresh picked buds and leaves, you want to make sure you get to drink it fresh. Spring tea is subtle and beautiful in its aroma and aftertaste, but that also makes it vulnerable to losing flavor and potency quickly.
When you buy spring tea, you deserve to know when it was picked, how long it has been sitting, how it has been stored, and how it gets to you. Spring harvest teas are best consumed within six months of picking. Conveniently, six months carries us tea lovers to the autumn harvest time when we can get new fresh tea again, and six months from autumn carries us back to spring. There is never a reason to be drinking stale tea. This is extremely important for green tea and unroasted oolongs. Black teas, roasted oolongs and pu’er are not as time sensitive. In fact, pu’er actually improves in flavor as it ages.
Make sure you check on freshness when you buy tea. To save money, most tea importers use ocean shipping to transport their tea overseas. The problem with ocean freight is that it can sit for a month at port, waiting for a ship and getting paperwork together, then spends a month at sea and another month at the destination port getting inspected, cleared and unloaded before being trucked to a final destination. This puts more time between the harvest and you enjoying your fresh leaf.
Teas also sit in warehouses for a long time, or even sit unsold at the final retailer or local teahouse. Groceries and tea shops often have very slow turnover on their product and the leaves may get quite stale. Most of the green tea you can get in the United States is well over a year old by the time you drink it, meaning it has lost most of the potency.
How Does Tea Lose Flavor?
What makes a tea lose flavor over time? So much of what we love in tea comes from aroma, from the volatile aromatic compounds in the leaf. These compounds are, by definition, easily excitable and tend to become airborne pretty easily. Over a long enough period of time, the tea loses a lot of its volatile aromatics, especially if it isn’t kept cold and vacuum sealed. Tea can also change due to moisture in the air. This moisture in the air and in the leaf makes it easier for the tea to react with oxygen and change. Finally, sunlight can bombard tea over time and alter its natural state.
All of these changes lead to the fresh and aromatic quality of spring tea slowly diminishing, for the crisp and delicate textures to get muddied and heavy, and for the green chlorophyll flavors to diminish and get drowned out by darker earthier notes that can develop. None of these effects are good for your tea and will lead to a less interesting taste experience.
How can you keep tea fresh?
If you find a good looking tea, ask when it was picked. The retailer should know the picking date and be able to confirm that the “spring tea” is from this year, not last year. Avoid buying a green tea or a green oolong over six months old. Ask how the tea was stored. Tea lasts longest if it is stored vacuum sealed in airtight containers. The tea should sold to you in opaque and fully sealed bags or tins. The tea should be transported to the retailer direct from the tea farm in sealed containers via air freight, not ocean shipping.
If you can find a tea to satisfy these requirements, make sure that you store your tea away from light, heat, moisture or smells. Keep it fully sealed. But the best way to make sure it stays fresh is to drink it quickly. When spring arrives, drop everything and enjoy that rich aromatic spring tea experience. Drink a lot of tea – don’t save it. You’ll be happy you do. Live in the season and enjoy what is available, knowing that autumn will bring its own fresh and unique harvests to enjoy when you run out of spring tea. As you drink your tea, let the smells and tastes transport you across the world to the tea farm that it comes from. There is no experience quite like it.