Tea farmers have a saying: “One day leaf, the next day tea.” What they mean by this is that a leaf can be used to make perfectly good tea one day, and the next day it’s useless, just another leaf on the plant. What is the difference between these two days? The answer is the size of the leaf.
Leaf size has a huge impact on the tea we drink, and can be an easy way to judge quality. It can tell us when the leaf was picked, what kind of tea it is, and even how to brew it. Here we’ll look at two different types of tea, and talk about how understanding leaf size is important for each.
Before we start talking about specifics, I want to outline the basic growing pattern of the tea plant, Camelia sinensis. Before the plant buds, it spends the winter gaining nutrients from the soil. In Spring, it comes forward with the first bud; this marks the beginning of tea season. As the season goes on, the leaves get larger and the bud gets longer and skinnier. When people talk about a large bud, they are most often talking about the girth and not the length, as the girth of a younger bud is often larger. After the leaves get longer and the bud skinnier, the bud will open up into a new leaf. It is this leaf that gets picked as and made into oolong. Now that we understand this, let’s talk about leaf size It affects our tea.
For green teas, especially those grown around Zhejiang province, there is a significant price difference and desirability between tea picked before the spring Tomb Sweeping festival, or Qingming, and tea picked after. Although many people know this, few know why. According to the Chinese farming calendar, somewhere in the span of the four days of Qingming, it rains. Afterwards, the weather warms ups a bit, and the tea plants reacts to this by growing a little faster. The reason pre-Qingming tea is more desired is not some magical esoteric reason — it’s because the leaf before Qingming is more tender and small than after it rains. This size difference, however small, plays a huge factor on the price and desirability.
It’s important to mention though not all green teas follow this rule. Some teas, like gua pian and hou kui, have no relation to Qingming, and in fact are not even close to ready by then. What is the difference? It has to do with nothing else but the desired size. While hou kui may start budding in early April, farmers wait about 20 days, until the leaf is 7 centimeters long, before picking it. Gua pian is a similar story — this tea is made up of all leaves and no buds, so the farmers wait until the leaf is fully developed before they pick it as a way to maximize flavor. In these cases, bigger is better. Both teas must reach a larger size to produce the full desired characteristic.
So what exactly is the effect of leaf size on your tea? When the leaf is picked within this season, it has an important and sometimes very clear impact on the flavor. In the beginning of the season, the bud is fat and full from a long winter of soaking up nutrients from the earth. As the season goes on, one of two things happens. If not picked, the bud becomes skinnier and the leaves become bigger; or, as is usually the case, the bud gets picked and a new bud grows in its place, but to a lesser size and strength than the first.
In both cases, the bud becomes smaller and the leaves bigger. This has a great effect on the flavor. The bud is what gives green tea its complex flavors. So as the buds get smaller, the resulting tea will become less and less complex, more basic and mediocre. The nutrients of the plant are also not so concentrated in the bud over time, so as the season goes on the flavor of the tea will start to get more bitter and rough, losing its soft, refreshing qualities. This is the basic relationship between leaf size and flavor, and will hopefully begin to help you understand what the size means for your tea.
Every tea farmer is acutely aware of leaf size. In the days before picking, they will examine the leaf size and use that to determine when to start. No good tea farmer fails to take leaf size into account, so neither should we. Understanding how the leaf grows and honing its growth is key for understanding why our tea tastes the way it does. It can even effect how we brew it. Huangshan maofeng has a naturally larger leaf than bi luo chun, and therefore can take a small increase in water temperature to bring out the full flavor. The leaf size should be just as important to us, the buyers, because of how important it is to the maker.
All photos by the author
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