Tea 201: What Makes a Tea Unique?
Picking up from where Part 1 left off, today’s post will discuss tea harvesting. Read on to learn the different methods by which traditional and modern teas are harvested, as well as how seasons influence the tea we drink and what “first flush” actually means.
Tea harvesting (referred to as ‘plucking’) may be performed either manually or mechanically. Historically, tea leaves have been hand-plucked, allowing for the selection of only the most desirable parts of the tea plant. For example, some of the world’s finest teas are produced from only the freshest budding sprouts of each tea tree and nothing more. In the case of white tea, which was originally reserved for the emperor’s court, only a bud and one leaf, or as with Yin Zhen (“Silver Needle”) only the bud, are used. Most other quality teas are made from a bud and two leaves, whereas lower grades may use up to a bud and three to five more mature leaves. The grown leaves used in lower grade teas result in coarser, less delicate flavors and might be are often used for tea bags or other non-premium products. High quality pu’er tea is an exception to this rule, however, as its made from the larger leaves of wild camellia sinensis trees from Yunnan Provence. While some fine raw pu’er teas contain one bud for each leaf, buds are often omitted as they can become problematic during the fermentation process. Our Liji dark pu’er also contains the spring harvest tea tree stems as they add a note of sweetness to the brewed liquor.
You will rarely find a photo of man picking tea leaves. While an oft quoted explanation is that a woman’s hands are more capable of handling the leaves in a delicate and dexterous manner, the true reasons for this stem from sociological, economic and even symbolic factors. Historically, and especially in postcolonial India, women have been subject to the patriarchal rule of male-dominated trade unions. Recently there have been small victories won by women in terms of self-representation and minor salary increases, but there are still ways to go. (Read more about Indian women and their journey here.) As for Chinese language speaking countries and Japan, gender roles are not as rigid men and women take more equal shares in task distribution.
As for the actual plucking action, the movement is conducted by snapping the stem with a sharp movement of index and middle fingers. Here is an animation of Wei demonstrating proper plucking technique at a garden in China.
Growing worldwide demand for tea has resulted in increased mechanization as producers look to machines to decrease labor costs while boosting output. However, whether or not machines may be employed depends on the topography of the growing area. The contours of the world’s mountainous growing regions, which produce excellent tea due to their high elevation and moist climate, are not suitable for machines. Hence, manual picking methods must be used. It would be quite treacherous to utilize mechanized picking methods on most Himalaya terraces, for example, which are often terraced on a 45-degree angle.
In certain regions like Japan however, plucking machines have replaced hands and shears on a large scale, and the tea industry has seen significant mechanization. Other regions like Taiwan and China’s premium tea growing regions remain relatively unautomated.
An interesting fact is that for machine harvested tea, the trees are trimmed first prior to a harvest. The machine then only collects the buds that sprout from the evenly cut ends of freshly trimmed branches. By contrast, tea that is manually plucked tea is not trimmed prior to a harvest and tea buds are allowed to naturally shoot from forks in the branch.
Harvest Timing and Special Processes
For high quality teas, the grower must time his each of his harvests accordingly, slightly too late or too early, and the buds will either have not yet matured, or will have grown into larger leaves, making them unfit for harvest.
Some teas make use of special processes even before the tea has been harvested off of the tree. For the production of Japan’s famed Gyokuro tea (“precious dew”), 3 weeks prior to a planned harvest the entire plantation is covered with bamboo mats. The leaves continue to grow in darkness resulting in higher chlorophyll content and less tannin (and are thus less bitter in taste). Gyokuro is only harvested once a year between late April and early May, and is the tea used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
Seasons and Flushes
Tea leaves may be harvested during all four seasons, but most high quality tea is plucked from spring to fall with a hiatus taken for winter to allow the plant to replenish its nutrients.
Likewise, as teas are grown around the world in different climates and even hemispheres, variances in terroir result in unique seasonal cycles. Even adjacent regions might have widely differing peak seasons. In Taiwan, the production of high mountain oolong lasts from summer to late winter, while the Tieguanyin and green tea harvests last from April to November. Another example would be in Sri Lanka where the finest harvest for tea planted on the Eastern slopes is from late June to the end of August, whereas tea on the Western slopes is best harvested from February to mid-March.
For most premium green teas, the spring harvest, also referred to as the “first flush” (India), “shincha” (Japan), and “ujeon” (Korea), is the most nutrient rich and accompanied by subdued flavors and delicate aftertastes. In fact, in Chinese culture the spring harvest season is further subdivided based upon the 15-day periods, or solar terms, of the Chinese lunar calendar. Due to the precise timing required for an optimal harvest, differences of as little as 2 weeks can command significantly different prices and offer widely differing flavors. The four common subperiods are: 明前 Ming Qian (“before Qingming”)[Qingming is referred to as the Tomb Sweeping Festival in English and occurs on the 15th day after the spring equinox.], 雨前 Yu Qian (“before the rains”), 穀雨 Gu Yu (“spring tea”) and 立夏 Li Xia (“late spring”). Japanese and Korean tea manufacturers also divide their harvest seasons into similar periods with timing during the spring harvest being particularly sensitive.
For green teas, spring harvests stand out for their unique aromas and are considered a treat when they become available. Our Arogya Fresh Harvest Dragon Well tea from Zhejiang Province, China is an example of one of these first flush artisan teas. Fall harvests come second to spring harvests in desirability and complexity of aroma and flavor, with summer harvests being scoffed by some but adorned by others for their hearty intense flavors. The summer harvest, which generally takes place between June and August, constitutes the second and, in some places, third flush. A popular yet simple Japanese green tea cultivated during this time is bancha and bancha hojicha (which also contains camellia sinensis stems). This tea is unique in that the large, mature summer-harvest tea leaves are roasted, resulting in slightly nutty brew that contains less caffeine than other green teas. Bancha, which you can find on our website and in our store, is celebrated for its ability to promote healthy digestion.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction into the world of tea harvesting. Our next Tea 201 article will expound upon tea production methods and how this impacts the end product. We’ll also explore how the oxidation that occurs during processing impacts the available levels of polyphenols and caffeine in tea.
by Julian Furtak