Why Seasons Matter - The Differences Between Tea Harvests
On the left, we can see a picture taken during the Spring harvest in Alishan. You can see that the leaves and stems are long. On the right is a picture taken during the Winter harvest in Shanlin Xi. The leaves are much smaller than their Spring counterparts.
Many different aspects, such as temperature, humidity, elevation, and cultivar, determine the harvest time for tea, more than strict definitions of season do. Add to this the unique fifth harvest of Dong Pian tea, and you end up with an issue that is rather complex. In an effort to provide more accurate information about the harvest of tea in Taiwan, we’ve put together this summary on the differences between the tea harvesting seasons.
Spring in Cui Feng.
Spring Harvest: From Mid-March to Late-May
In Winter, or whenever the temperature goes below 18° C, tea trees go dormant as a means of saving energy. Once the warmer temperatures of Spring arrive, the tea trees immediately start to expend stored up energy on producing new buds. As a result of storing energy during the Winter, these new buds have a higher vitamin and sugar content than other seasons. The storage of these nutrients is beneficial to the synthesis and accumulation of aromatic compounds; because of this, Spring tea has a distinct and strong fragrance.
For the Spring harvest, we start from the low-elevation tea growing areas, to the high-elevation ones. For example, in Mid-March, we will begin the Spring harvest in Bagua Shan (八卦山) and Songboling (松柏嶺). In early April, we will harvest tea in Dong Ding(凍頂). Late-April is the start of the high mountain tea harvest with Alishan (阿里山) and Shanlin Xi (杉林溪). Then in early-May we continue to work our way up the mountains to Cui Feng(翠峰) and Qi Lai Shan (奇萊山). Finally, in late-May, the Spring harvest finishes with Li Shan(梨山), Fushoushan (福壽山) and Da Yu Ling(大禹嶺).
Old growth No. 8 Assam growing in the Lugao area near Sun Moon Lake.
Summer Harvest: From Mid-May to Late-June
This is where things start to get a little complicated. While the Spring harvest is still going on in the high mountains, the Summer harvest in low elevations has already started. This is one of the reasons why I said linking harvests to seasons is not so straight forward.
Summer is the season with the most rainfall, and hottest temperatures in Taiwan. Because of this, tea trees grow rapidly and produce new buds extremely quickly. In fact, Due to the long hours of sunshine, the tea produces buds with more caffeine and polyphenols; the higher caffeine and polyphenol content creates tea that is more bitter and astringent than that of other harvests. This also means you cannot brew Summer tea for as many rounds as Spring or Winter tea without producing obvious bitterness and astringency. Because of all these factors, high quality oolong tea is generally not produced in high mountain areas during Summer.
However, these same factors are ideal to produce black tea. The excess of caffeine and polyphenols found in Summer tea contributes to the unique characteristic of fully fermented black tea. This is one of the reasons why the best black teas are almost always made from tea harvested in the Summer.
Other teas that benefit from the heat and humidity of Summer are bug bitten teas, such as Dong Fang Mei Ren (Eastern Beauty / 東方美人茶), and Honey Scent Oolong. This is because the Green Leafhopper (小綠葉蟬) begins to spawn in Spring and reaches full maturity in Summer (usually June).
Autumn Harvest: Late-August to Mid-October
Autumn tea usually still has a little summer flavor, because of this, tea from this harvest is mainly used to produce heavily fermented teas.
In Autumn, the climate starts to turn cold. Consequently, the growth rate of the tea trees is slowed. Because of this, the tea has smaller, more flavorful, buds. This gives Autumn tea a better aroma, and less bitterness and astringency than Summer tea.
A rare winter storm covered this Cui Feng tea garden with snow.
Winter Harvest: Late-October to Late-November
With one exception, which we’ll get to in next, Winter is usually the last harvest of the year. One interesting thing to note, is that the harvest schedule for Winter is the opposite of Spring. Meaning, the higher elevation tea growing regions are harvested first – such as Li Shan(梨山), Fushoushan (福壽山) and Da Yu Ling(大禹嶺) - then we work our way down mountain until we reach the low elevation regions like Bagua Shan (八卦山) and Songboling (松柏嶺).
Due to the lower temperatures and reduced sunshine of the Winter season, tea grows very slowly. This produces buds and leaves that are small, but very nutrient dense. This gives Winter teas a distinct mellow scent, soft and sweet flavor, and an obvious, long lasting aftertaste.
What is Dong Pian tea(冬片茶)?
Dong Pian Harvest: Mid-December to Late-December
In the past, tea trees went into a dormant period during winter. In recent years, we often get a period of warmer weather from early to late December. When this period of warmth occurs, the tea trees start to grow new buds because they think Spring has come. The buds and leaves grown during this period we call Dong Pian (冬騙茶), which roughly means “Tea Cheated by Winter”. Meaning, winter cheats the tea into a second harvest. There are two unique things about tea made from the Dong Pian harvest. The first is the scent. Dong Pian oolong (especially if made from the Sijichun cultivar) has a distinct fresh scent that some people describe as “frost scent”. The second is that the tea produced from this harvest closely mimics the characteristics of high mountain oolong.
The growing instability of the seasons (largely due to climate change) is making it increasingly difficult for even the most diligent of farmers to guarantee a high-quality harvest. For example, this spring saw a higher than average amount of rainfall. This caused the tea to grow too quickly. As a result, many farmers were forced to harvest leaves that were too mature, and thus not suitable for the productions of high-quality tea.