It’s that time of year again: all across China, countryside farmers are checking their fields, dusting off their machinery, and preparing for tea season.
Spring is a complex and often hectic time for tea farmers, buyers and drinkers alike. In some cases the yields for a whole year are produced in the months of March and April. During tea season, every day matters.
Each day can bring new variables and challenges, most commonly in terms weather. What you hear all the time when people talk about a tea — as is often the case with wine — from a certain year is, “How was the weather that year?” Yet while everyone knows weather plays an important role in tea making, few people really understand why.
A farmer at a Huang Shan Mao Feng farm inspects a fallen tree beside his plantation
You can’t talk about green tea harvesting without talking about Qingming Festival. Qingming is a Chinese holiday on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese calendar, in which people visit the graves of their ancestors and give them a good cleaning. You might have heard it referred to as Tomb Sweeping Day.
Every year, Qingming coincides with a considerable price drop in some green teas. Why? Because it rains.
There is an ancient farming calendar which suggest when the best times to yield different crops are, and sometimes even predicts the weather. For generations on Qingming or the days around it, it has always rained. After the rain, the weather begins to warm up and the tea tree will grow faster, causing the buds to grow beyond their optimal size for tea-making.
This is not to say that post-Qingming teas aren’t still good — they just lack the complexity and liveliness of those picked beforehand. It is important to note, however, that the Qingming pick date does not apply to all teas, or even all green teas.
What Leaf Size Tells You about Your Tea
Around the same time green teas are picked, red tea and white tea are picked as well. Because these two teas also involve the bud, white teas and I suspect red teas (though I have yet to confirm) also see a great difference in cost in the days before and after Qingming. White teas will tend to have a clearer difference due to their low processing; with red teas the difference is a little more subtle, but still there.
Around mid-March, Part Two of the tea season arrives. The teas that were picked in the early parts of the season become older and sell for a much lower price than when they began. But more importantly, a second wave of teas begin to get picked around this time. These include some greens such as houkui and guapian, but also a widely favorited tea known as oolong.
Oolongs, for the most part, almost always use no bud — they’re not even picked until the bud opens up into a leaf. Not having to worry about the bud makes oolong picking a little easier than picking green tea.
Green tea makers often fixate on picking the bud at just the right time, when it is big enough to produce flavor, but small enough to still be delicate. The bud size strongly correlates to the weather, and over the course of a warm night, a bud can go from too small to too big, completely skipping over the optimal size.
Since oolong varieties don’t use buds, the weather conditions during the picking period are a little less critical. Yet though the picking may not be as strict for oolongs, and therefore less weather-influenced, it’s the making that can be lost to bad weather.
An oolong maker fixes his machine
A major part of all tea making is the removal of moisture from the leaf. In green teas this is less of a worry, since in the “kill green” phase they are exposed to high heat right away and all the moisture evaporates in minutes. But for teas such as white and oolongs, they spend hours and even days sitting out, in which time the moisture is expected to leave.
What happens if it’s not a sunny day, or if it is raining? A rainy oolong season could kill the majority of the harvest. These days they’ve found ways to bring the drying withering process indoors, but it is not the same.
Often times I have talked to oolong makers during the tea season to find that they cant make tea that day because it is raining. This is part of the reason why tieguanyin is so successfully made in the autumn; the autumn is a drier season than the spring and can allow a more reliable harvest and processing.
The influence of weather is such that many famers will put it as one of the most important factors in creating a good tea, second only to soil. So if you ever see a tea farmer obsessing over the weather forecast, you now know why.
All photos by Dylan Conroy.
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