With spring in full force, and the excitement building for the new year’s harvest, you can really see the seasonal nature of tea. Some are willing to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to taste that coveted first picking from famous teas like Dragonwell. So, what is with this frenzied excitement that comes to us tea devotees every spring, and is the tea really worth it?
The general attitude is that first picking spring tea is the best tea, and the later the picking in the season, the worse the flavor. This is said of both green tea and green oolongs like Tieguanyin. This sentiment is encouraging in some ways, because it helps people to understand how intimately tea’s flavor is connected with the growing season. However, it is ultimately limiting to blindly prize spring teas, assuming they will be the best.
A more useful approach is to recognize that there are in fact three distinct growing seasons with their own advantages and disadvantages. Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Tea is picked in all three seasons, and there are interesting elements to each. In Yunnan, wild pu’er can even be picked in the winter months, but for the sake of discussion, we can look at the main seasons.
Spring teas are the most expensive by far. This is because global demand keeps growing, while the supply does not. There is a limited window of opportunity for picking prime tea that has spring characteristics. This window is a bit earlier down south, and later up in the north of China. Spring tea is prized for its sweet mild flavor and lingering aftertaste.
For green tea, this means a much more subdued profile with less of the intense grassy flavors. Across most green tea growing regions, you are going to see a very light-bodied, sparkling brew with a perfectly sweet aftertaste. The later you get into the season, the heartier the tea will become. For Tieguanyin, spring teas will be intensely floral, and the aftertaste will be sweet like rock sugar candy.
Summer teas are usually scorned by the tea community. Many say that they are only good for tea oil or powder for flavoring drinks. This is completely untrue. Tea grown with care by the farmers can be just as interesting in the summer as the autumn. The more sun the tea gets, the more intense its flavor, until it reaches a point where it becomes bitter. If you control the amount of sunlight, either through natural ocean mist as in Laoshan Village, or through thatched tea shade canopies, you can achieve interesting summer profile tea. A good summer crop will be very hearty, but not bitter. For Laoshan, this means an intense green bean flavor and maltiness, along with a vibrant green color.
Autumn teas are often considered secondary to spring pickings, but in some cases their complexity is just as enthralling. Autumn Tieguanyin is very buttery and creamy. Autumn harvest green tea is often more crisp and well balanced. The best autumn teas maintain some of the sweet and floral qualities of their spring counterparts.
Hopefully it is clear from this very basic and generalized summary of each season’s flavor profiles that every season is worth getting excited about. Truly, the flavor of tea in each season seems to be like drinking the essence of the season itself. Spring teas are delicate and floral, summer teas vibrant and hearty, autumn teas, crisp and quiet. Tea is truly seasonal, and when working with single farms who only put out a dozen pounds or so with each picking, tea is limited in nature. It is something to enjoy when it is fresh, and to be carried away by. It is important to understand that what we drink today will be gone tomorrow. It seems sad that a cup of tea can never be reproduced, a season’s unique flavors never fully recaptured the next year, but really it is this ephemeral quality of tea that makes it so beautiful. It asks us to enjoy the moment, to be humble and to see beauty, and provides us with something new every week.