When tea leaves are harvested depends largely on the region in which they are being grown. The tea season can vary with fluctuations in weather. The timing of the harvest is of utmost importance, as missing the harvest can destroy a crop. It can take only a few days for a bud to appear, open up and mature.
Each growing region has special terminology for referring to their tea harvest periods. In India and Nepal, each harvest is called a flush, a term that refers to a period of growth in the tea plant. In China, Taiwan and South Korea, the terms used to denote tea harvests relate to dates in the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar.
When there is a dormancy period due to cool weather (usually winter) in the tea field, the first new shoots after this period are said to be of the highest quality because they have been building up nutrient reserves over the dormancy period to produce the new leaves. Because of this, the first harvest of each year is often the most sought after and usually the most expensive. Many growing regions have special names for this first harvest. In India and Nepal, it is called the First Flush. In China these teas are known as Pre-Qing Ming teas, in Japan they are referred to as Shincha, and in South Korea they are called Ujeon.
Here’s a guide to the harvest seasons for the world’s major producers of specialty teas: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Japan, South Korea and the countries of East Africa:
Darjeeling (India) and Nepal teas
The Darjeeling and Nepali harvest period lasts from late March to early November and is broken up into 4 parts: first flush, second flush, monsoon flush, and autumnal flush. At times, the plants will continue to flush past November; this is sometimes called a winter flush.
- First Flush: March – April
- Second Flush: May – June
- Monsoon Flush: July – August
- Autumnal Flush: October – November
Like Darjeelings, Assams are typically harvested from March to December. Higher quality teas are harvested here during two distinct growth periods, the first and second flush. All other grades of tea are harvested after this period. The first flush begins in March, and the second flush begins in June.
Nilgiri (India) and Sri Lanka teas
Due to the warmth in the southernmost tropical growing regions of Nilgiri in South India and Sri Lanka, tea plants can be harvested year-round.
The harvest season in China varies greatly with the different growing regions and elevations there, but in general the harvest season can begin as early as March and can last until late November. Finished teas that are made from young leaves or buds have a more finite growing season and will often be harvested on specific dates on the East Asian lunisolar calendar. Teas plucked before Qing Ming (清明 , qīng míng; literally “clear bright”) are highly sought after and command a premium; these teas are called Pre Qing Ming or Ming Qian teas. Here are the two most highly regarded harvest seasons:
- Ming Qian (明前, míng qián; literally “before Qing Ming”) tea harvested before Qing Ming festival which falls on April 4–6
- Yu Qian (雨前 , yŭ qián; literally “before the rains”) tea picked before the Grain Rain on April 20
Finished teas that are made from older leaves do not usually follow such a strict harvest calendar and can be harvested at any time from April to November. Wulong is an example of a tea that is made from older, more mature leaves and as such follows a less strict harvesting schedule. For many Wulongs, the most sought-after harvests begin in September and run through Autumn.
The harvest season in Japan varies by region as well, but it typically begins in late April and ends in early October. Japan’s sought-after first harvest is called Shincha. Japan has four distinct harvest periods:
- Shincha (新茶: literally “new tea”): this is the name given to the first harvest of the year.
- Ichibancha (一番茶: literally “first tea”) this refers to the entire first harvest season, including schincha. Typically occurs from late April to May.
- Nibancha (二番茶: literally “second tea”) refers to the second harvest of the year, taking place from June to the end of July.
- Sanbancha (三番茶: literally “third tea”) refers to the third harvest of the year taking place in August.
- Yonbancha (四番茶: literally “fourth tea”) is the fourth harvest of the year; it can take place as late as October in some regions.
South Korea’s growing seasons correspond to dates on the lunisolar calendar. Finished tea from the first harvest of the year is called Ujeon. Harvest periods that follow Ujeon contain the root word jak, which comes from the word jakseolcha or “sparrow’s tongue.” This is a reference to tiny buds from the tea plant that resemble the tongue of a sparrow. It is important to know that different grades of tea are harvested during different times in South Korea.
- Ujeon (우전; literally “before the rain”) refers to tea picked before April 20. This season corresponds to Gogu on the lunisolar calendar.
- Sejak (세작; literally “small sparrow”) is tea picked before May 5–6. This corresponds to Ipha on the lunisolar calendar.
- Jungjak (중작; literally “medium sparrow”) is tea picked around May 20–21. This corresponds to Soman on the lunisolar calendar.
- Daejak (대작; literally “large sparrow”) refers to lower quality large leaves tea picked during summer.
In the East African tea producing countries of Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Ethiopia, tea is harvested year round due to the lack of a cold season. Peak tea production coincides with the rainy seasons.