The harvest date of a tea is one of the four main components of any tea’s identity, influencing the final flavor profile and often determining the level of quality. In many regions, tea is harvested all year round, but the differences between harvest seasons can be so great as to make a completely different tea. On the other hand, the growing conditions required for many premium teas limit output to just one or two harvests per year.
Regular readers and tea aficionados may know that spring harvested teas are often desirable for their naturally sweet flavors, but not all tea styles prioritize sweetness. Each tea has a unique set of standards for judging quality, and each has a distinct harvest season with ideal conditions for meeting those standards. Here, we’ll offer a quick overview of the teas and characteristics to expect from each harvest season.
Spring (March - May)
Though spring teas actually make up a relatively small portion of the year’s harvest, they often get the most attention. Minimally processed green and white teas are best picked as early in the spring as possible, since the first buds after winter dormancy offer the sweetest flavors, thanks to slow growth. The naturally small quantities produced during these first harvests of the year also make earlier pluckings more expensive.
In Taiwan, oolong teas are also picked in the spring, and these harvests tend to be the most aromatic of the year. Again, the plants are emerging from a dormant winter season, and sending carbohydrates to the budding leaves to power growth. At high elevations, temperate weather slows growth even further, creating creamy textures that linger on the tongue. Here, the very first harvest of the year is not necessarily the best, as intensity of aroma and flavor depend on the amount of moisture in the leaf. Teas picked after a period of dry weather are usually the best, while teas harvested after a rain are less flavorful.
Finally, many Chinese black teas (or ‘red teas’) are made with spring buds to create a sweet and malted flavor profile. The most visually striking examples of this style are from Yunnan, and include only spring buds, which turn golden, rather than black, with oxidation. First flush teas from Darjeeling are another famous example, well known for their soft, naturally sweet flavors. But in fact, spring leaves are used to make naturally sweet black teas all over the world, with most simply referred to as “tippy” black teas.
Summer (June - August)
During the hottest part of the year, tea plants grow prolifically, and this is the season when most mass-produced teas are picked, either by hand or by machine. Unfortunately, the increased growth rate means less time for the leaves to store carbohydrates and develop complex flavor compounds, so teas harvested during these summer months are rarely considered the cream of the crop. In addition, increased threats from pests during warmer weather require the plant to produce more caffeine on average, which contributes bitterness and astringency to the brew.
Black tea leaves grown in the summer often find their way into tea bags or loose leaf blends, which are designed to be taken with milk and/or sugar. Green teas picked during the summer months are often used as the base for everyday jasmine teas, or otherwise flavored. Though these summer teas have less inherent flavor complexity, the larger quantities, lower prices, and brash flavors make them the perfect base for blends, or drinks with additional flavors like bubble tea or kombucha.
Fall (September - November)
Though fall teas are discussed much less often than those picked in spring, autumn harvests are considered respectable in many tea growing regions. Most oolong teas, including teas from Guangdong, Fujian, and Taiwan, have a secondary harvest in the fall, as the weather cools and growth slows down before winter dormancy. Whether spring or autumn produces better teas in these categories is a matter up for debate, often depending on the specific weather conditions for the year and the personal preference of the tasting palate.
Distinguishing between the two harvest seasons is most relevant in the context of Taiwanese oolongs, which are called “Winter” teas when picked in October or November. (While this may seem confusing, it only serves to highlight the dichotomy between the two distinct harvest seasons.) As mentioned, the qualitative differences can vary from year to year or palate to palate, but in our experience, spring harvests tend to be more aromatic and floral, while autumn/winter teas offer a richer, creamier texture.
Winter (December - February)
During the coldest months of the year, most tea plants in China enter a dormant period, and produce no new leaves. Instead, they spend the winter collecting carbohydrates in their roots, stocking reserve stores to power growth (and contribute flavor) in the spring. In contrast, tea plants at warmer latitudes are harvested throughout this part of the year, but don’t produce higher quality leaves during the following spring.
One unusual exception to the usual dormant period occurs in Taiwan, where unseasonably warm weather can “trick” the tea plants into budding. Teas harvested during this unique season are the sweetest of the year, thanks to the large quantity of carbohydrates needed in the leaf to power growth through the difficult weather conditions. These teas are called dong pian, or “winter sprout”, and are utterly unlike teas from any other harvest season, even those from the same plants.
The harvest date of any tea plays a big role in the flavor of the finished brew, and it’s a question we always encourage tea drinkers to ask about any tea of interest. Knowing what to expect from each harvest season is a great way to simplify the search for your perfect tea!
Do you have a favorite harvest season? Let us know what you love about it in the comments!
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