Spring must be the favorite season for tea fans! It's the long-awaited moment when new tea hits the market! After the cold and tedious winter months, everyone can't wait to sip fresh spring tea and is ready (and willing) to pay the price for it! So what makes the early spring tea so desirable? Let's explore the geographical, historical, and economic factors behind it!
What's so special about early spring tea?
Spring tea is a long-awaited messenger of a new year and a new beginning for all things. After a long period of dormancy and stagnation, the plant finally wakes up under the spring chime. The nutrients are rushed to the newly sprouting buds and tender leaves to stimulate the plant's growth. The abundant rainfall and rising temperature make the spring tea fresh, tender, and flavorful. So much so that early spring tea can be ten times more expensive than the one picked later in the year. So, where does this difference come from?
The three factors that make spring tea so valuable
In a nutshell, early spring tea is so popular due to three main factors:
Early The first flush of spring tea is the very first yield for the year, before the beginning of the actual season. It usually happens in colder weather and lower temperatures. During that time, the plants' growth is still slow, and the yield is low. Therefore, it is priced accordingly.
Scarce Even in large tea gardens, the amount of the first spring tea is very limited, not to mention the caprices of weather and climate. Limited supply and huge demand not only influence the price - often, even a slight delay in pre-orders is crucial for the acquisition of the valuable raw material.
- High quality In China, the first spring tea has an almost magical reputation. It is considered a drink that concentrates spring's essence and vital energy for a one-of-a-kind tea experience. From a modern perspective, early spring is when the plant awakens after a long period of stagnation. The plant metabolism activates the accumulated nutrients and rushes them to the buds, resuming the growth cycle. In addition, fertilization and pest control have not yet resumed during this early period, making the first spring tea cleaner and healthier.
Spring tea, is it "the earlier, the better"?
In short, not necessarily. Indeed, earlier harvests are more valuable and sought after. However, it is not a matter of quality alone - many other factors also come into play.
The powers of early spring tea
Many cultures honor spring as a time of rebirth. Every living thing that was frozen and stagnant under the winter frost wakes up and comes back to life. Chinese are no exception - they believe in a vital force present in all things, that surrounds and moves us. Early spring is the time when this vital force is in full swing, active and vigorous. It makes the plants' stagnant juices flow, sending a powerful load of nutrients to the germinating buds and giving the plant its strong energizing and healing properties. It's like the essence of spring's resurrecting powers in a cup :). While this is more of a spiritual concept, the strong growth and the absence of pests in early spring tea eliminate the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Therefore, it is considered a very pure tea, healthier than during the rest of the year.
How to distinguish between spring tea grades?
Spring tea usually refers to the tea picked before the end of May of the same year and can be divided into four grades: First Flush, called Tóu Cǎi – 头采, First Spring Pick (Tóu Chūn – 头春), picked before Qing Ming (Míng Qián – 明前), and picked before Gu Yu (Yǔ Qián – 雨前).
- First Flush (Tóu Cǎi – 头采) refers to a very limited amount of the first buds and leaves that have reached the picking standard. The first flush of spring tea is usually for trial purposes. Therefore, it is not necessarily of the highest quality due to its high water content, and there is no need to pursue it blindly.
- First Spring Pick (Tóu Chūn – 头春) is the first batch of tea harvested at the beginning of the spring. Tou Chun represents the highest quality grade for premium tea, often considered the best tea of the year. However, one should remember that the picking time for Touchun tea is different for different tea types. Generally speaking, the picking for teas growing higher in the mountain happens later than those in lower tea areas.
- Tea picked before Qing Ming (Míng Qián – 明前) refers to the tea picked before the Qingming Festival. The festival falls between April 4-6 each year. That is the golden period for the tea harvest. The tea tree has accumulated lots of nutrients in the long winter. However, the temperature is still low, slowing down the growth rate. The harvest period is also short, accounting roughly for 20 days. These factors lead to the Chinese proverb, "Ming Qian tea is precious as gold". To put it simply, the excellent quality, high demand, and low yield of Ming Qian tea make it very appealing and sought after.
- Tea picked before Gu Yu (Yǔ Qián – 雨前) refers to the tea harvested before the start of the Gu Yu solar term. This period usually falls between April 20 and May 5, when the weather gets warmer and the tea grows faster. Although Yu Qian tea is not as fresh and delicate as Ming Qian tea, it is rich in substances and is brew-resistant. As supply increases, price starts to decrease too. That gives Yu Qian tea an excellent price-quality ratio, making it a great choice for year-round tea.
When does spring start?
Spring is considered the beginning of the new yearly cycle of tea production. While it's true that lots of tea producing countries are situated in areas where spring is not necessarily the warm season coming after a snowy winter, to simplify, we'll refer to the world's biggest tea producer – China.
In China, spring is considered a time of new beginning for all living things. It's no coincidence Chinese celebrate the New Year not on January 1 but during their Spring festival. Chinese have a traditional calendar based on sun and moon phases that divides the year into twenty-four periods, called solar terms. Spring festival traditionally starts with Li Chun, the first of the solar terms. It marks the end of winter and the beginning of the spring season and falls anywhere between January 21 and February 20. That is also when the spring season is about to begin in China.
Ready, set, start picking!
The new season for spring tea picking in China officially starts around mid-March. That's usually one to one and a half months after the Spring festival. However, this is not a one-size-fits-all kind of event, nor does it apply to every tea-picking region.
When does the spring tea picking start?
The picking time varies in different regions, mostly due to the local climate and tea tree varieties. In general, South-Western provinces start the spring tea harvest earlier, while Central and North-Eastern ones pick their spring tea a bit later. For example, spring tea picking might begin as early as January in Hainan, the southernmost Chinese province. Spring tea harvest also starts earlier in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan. This year, Guizhou officially opened the spring tea harvest on February 10 with the appropriate slogan: "Guizhou spring tea, dare to be first in the world!" Alternatively, Zhejiang and Jiangsu would start picking the spring tea later, around mid-March.
Are all tea trees ready to pick once spring starts?
Tea tree varieties and cultivars vary, and so does their growth timing. According to the time of reaching the picking standard, there are four categories of tea varieties:
- Very early: these are varieties with very early growth and development of buds. They usually can be picked before all others. Some examples are Yongjia and Wuniuzao, found in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, used for green tea production.
Wuniuzao is an intriguing example. The tea produced from it looks very similar to its famous counterpart, Longjing, or Dragon Well tea. However, Wuniuzao is ready to pick at least a month before Longjing. As defined by the National standard in China, no tea produced by the Wuniuzao has the right to be named Longjing. Still, every spring, frauds are taking their toll on misguided consumers.
2. Early: these are usually ready to pick around the start of the season in March. Longjing's longleaf variety belongs to the group of early species.
3. Mid-growing: their development of buds and harvesting period is between early-growing and late-growing varieties. Here we find the varieties for producing famous green teas like Enshi Yulu, Huangshan Maofeng, and Taiping Houkui.
4. Late-growing: they are the latest to pick in spring. Some examples of late varieties are Zhenghe Dabaicha and Fujian Shuixian.
With these in mind, let's greet the new season and make an informed choice while pursuing the best spring tea out there! Happy sipping!