Seasonality of Tea
Andreea Macoveiciuc | On 13, Jan 2014
Just like fruits and veggies, tea also has a specific season when it’s harvested, the weather conditions affecting the delicacy, astringency and sweetness of this beverage. Spring leaves for example are exposed to sunlight for longer, and this increases the concentration of catechins, leading to a slightly more astringent taste.
Summer leaves are considered lower in quality, so they’re cheaper than those harvested in spring. The prolonged exposure to sunlight and higher temperatures determines higher concentrations of catechins, hence the different flavor and aroma of summer tea. And the rule applies for leaves harvested during autumn and winter as well, so even if this beverage is produced and available all year long, for tea enthusiasts the season of harvesting does make a difference.
In very general terms, spring teas are sweet, summer teas are more bitter, leaves plucked in autumn are astringent, while winter teas are aromatic.
Spring teas are usually prized for their mild flavors, sweet aroma and lingering aftertaste. Some are intensely floral and delicate, while others leave a sugar candy aftertaste. Usually, the early leaves are more subtle in flavor and the tea is lighter in color and golden, whether we refer to white or green tea.
The harvesting season for Indian teas starts in February, the firstly plucked leaves being characterized by flowery, fragrant and fresh aromas. Chinese teas can be harvested from once to six-seven times a year, the spring leaves being the most valuable in terms of volume and flavor.
Chinese green, yellow and white teas are made in spring, the word that best describes these beverages being freshness. The earliest harvest is before April 5, the “baby” leaves being more vigorous and bursting in flavor. These firstly plucked leaves are filled with nutrients after the winter dormancy, and have higher amounts of sugar, hence their aromas.
Oolong tea made from leaves harvested during spring and winter is considered superior to the beverage prepared from leaves plucked in summer or fall. Spring flavors are more robust and have flowery notes, while winter flavors are creamier, lighter and crisper.
Leaves for green tea are plucked in spring, when they’re fully opened. They have higher levels of antioxidants than white or yellow tea leaves, this abundance of catechins ensuring the great health benefits of green tea.
White teas are prepared using young spring leaves, plucked from the newly grown buds before they’re fully opened. The tea is pale in color and has a fresh taste.
The second flush is defined by fuller and more rounded tastes than the first flush, the beverage being brighter in color. Although still delicate and light, the mid to late spring tea has a more pronounced and distinctive flavor than yearly spring tea.
Most teas produced in summer are black teas, because the high temperatures and prolonged exposure to sunlight lead to a higher oxidation level of the leaves. The more sunlight the tea leaves receive, the more intense their flavor will be, but after a certain point this prolonged exposure to heat and light leads to a bitter taste.
Moreover, the summer heat prevents the leaves from absorbing high amounts of nutrients, as the tea plants bloom quite quickly during this season. This is, perhaps, why summer teas are often scorned by tea drinkers and referred to as bitter.
A good summer crop should, however, have a hearty but not bitter taste, an intense flavor and a vibrant green color. Some Chinese green and oolong teas are also produced during this season. Usually, the summer flush starts in June and ends in September, but this varies depending on climate, region and type of tea.
Autumn harvest is considered the second best, after the spring crop, leaves plucked during this season being richer in nutrients than those plucked in summer, thanks to the cooler weather. In fact, the autumn taste is consider the fullest and leaves cropped from September to November are used for producing the most aromatic teas.
Some autumn teas are buttery and creamy, others are more crisp and balanced. However, most beverages prepared from leaves plucked in autumn preserve some sweet and floral qualities, and a deep amber color. Given that the autumnal leaves are more exposed to rain, they’re less delicate than spring ones, but have a fuller body and darker colors.
Tea plants usually hibernate from November to February or March, so the winter harvest is considered atypical. However, there are regions where the leaves are plucked during this season, the lower temperatures and the lack of natural light making winter teas sweeter and lower in bitterness or astringency.
Oolong tea, for example, tastes better when leaves are plucked in spring or winter, the cooler temperatures leading to more succulent leaves and to particular aromas for the beverages prepared from October to mid-November.
It’s worth mentioning that tea plants don’t grow and don’t bud in temperatures under 50°F (10°C), so there’s no blooming in winter. However, the plants continue to absorb nutrients, and when the ambient temperature rises above the mentioned value, the leaves start growing.
Winter leaves are more mature than the others, and they tend to be golden, darker in color and deeper in flavor than spring teas. Given the limited exposure to sunlight and heat, these leaves are shorter, sturdier and thicker than those plucked in the first flush.
As you can see, tea is a seasonal beverage, and its characteristics are strongly influenced not only by type and region, but also by the plucking period. Each season comes with its unique flavors, so the next time you’re having a cup of freshly brewed tea, try to identify the beverage’s season-specific notes.