by Evelyn Shi
Like the fruits and vegetables we commonly eat, tea also has its season to be harvested. But finding the best time to pick tea can be tricky—the weather conditions have to be just right in order to bring out the tea's best flavor. In Xiaohusai, for example, tea is mainly harvested during the spring and summer, though other kinds of tea require a fall or winter harvest.
Generally, according to RiverTea, "spring teas are sweet, summer teas are more bitter, leaves plucked in autumn are astringent, while winter teas are aromatic." The taste differences between each season are subtle. As you drink a cup of tea, try to identify its seasonal notes!
More on each season below:
In Xiaohusai, spring tea is the most successfully-selling variety. Our host in Xiaohusai, Mr. Chen, tells us that spring tea is "lighter and sweeter, with a nice aftertaste". Usually, the tea leaves are lighter in color—almost golden—and can have a subtly-sweet floral aroma, or a more overt sugary taste.
In China, the first spring tea harvest is always the most desirable. The young tea leaves, after a winter of dormancy, retain more nutrients. Additionally, a higher sugar content in early-spring leaves give its tea a fresh, sweet taste. The second wave of spring harvests produces tea that isn't as light and sweet, but has a stronger flavor.
Green tea, oolong tea, and white tea are harvested in the spring.
Every year, when we visit Xiaohusai, the farmers are busy with preparing and selling summer tea. "Summer tea is still good, but secondary to spring tea," says Mr. Chen. "In Xiaohusai, we harvest summer tea around the end of May."
Black tea is commonly produced in the summer, because increased sunlight and temperature leads to more oxidation of the leaves. (Black tea is oxidized to produce its darker color and unique taste.) The more sunlight the leaves receive, the stronger the taste will be.
In Xiaohusai, fall and winter are the down-seasons for tea. However, in other areas, autumn is a time to harvest more aromatic teas. Because of the cooler temperature, tea leaves retain more nutrients, giving them the fullest taste of the seasons. Autumn tea also has a darker, amber color.
Since tea plants go into hibernation during the winter, a harvest during this time isn't common. However, some pick tea during the winter because the colder temperatures and lack of sunlight make it less bitter. Oolong tea is an example—leaves picked in winter or spring give it a particular aroma that tea-drinkers prefer.
In the winter, although tea plants don't grow, they continue to absorb nutrients for the springtime.