March is the month that the tea mountains in Asia start to be bustling with activities, and green tea is one of the first teas being picked and processed in the year. We, a tea shop based in Germany, are also starting to be excited about the tasting of the new samples and the arrival of our first teas of the year. This year, the famous Xihu Longjing (西湖龙井) and the West China green tea Zhu Ye Qing (竹叶青) are our first arrivals. The freshness and nuttiness of the two have been invigorating our passion for the new season. With the refreshed passion, we would like to write about green tea in general and green tea from China, Japan and South Korea in the following article.
Green tea, spring tea
Spring is a very important season for tea industry as well as tea production. Tea season refers to the time when the first tea buds sprout and harvested. Why do we, tea heads, look forward to spring so much every year? What makes tea produced in spring taste so good?
Spring tea contains more amino acids, which give the tea its fresh taste and umami, than tea at other times of the year. It is at least twice as high as in summer tea, which is especially crucial for the quality of green tea. The more tea trees have accumulated in the cold winter, the more high-quality tea is produced. Carbohydrates, the basic storage material of tea trees, are accumulated in winter and used for spring tea germination, which has an important and positive effect on the quality of tea to be manufactured in the future. After harvesting the tea leaves, the tea tree rests once again after summer and re-builds carbohydrates until the next tea-leaves grow. In summer and autumn, the harvest period is very short due to occasional rainfall and strong sunlight, whereas in spring there is a rest period of about 6 months before the first buds of hibernating tea, so it is affected by the nutrients accumulated during that period, resulting in high quality of tea is produced.
“First Flush", “Pre-Qingming tea”, “Qingmingcha”, "Shincha" and “Ichibancha” - all referring to spring teas in different cultures, these are the common names that we come across when selecting green teas. For many tea heads including myself, spring is the most anticipated time of the year. In many tea regions, spring tea, especially for green teas, is considered as the best tea of the year. Sometimes, the term Spring tea is manipulated in a way to suit the local tea season. In Taiwan, for example, there is a tea-growing area at an altitude of 2,400 meters above sea level. In these areas, the first tea comes in late May or early June. Technically, these are summer tea, but since they are the first tea leaves picked after winter, they are called spring tea for convenience. On the other hand, tea trees in warm regions where spring comes early may produce tea leaves before spring arrives. Some people call this tea "Buzhichun" (不知春), which means "a tea that does not know spring".
In China, green tea harvested prior to Qingming (清明; early April, about on April 4 or 5) is called "Mingqian" (明前), and is classified as a high-grade, top-quality tea. Given the same varietal and procession way in the same tea plantation, the earlier the young buds are used, the better the tea quality is believed to be. However, the younger the leaves, the lower the yield, so many tea farmers vacillate between yield and quality of production. On the other hand, not all spring teas are valued the same. Green teas made with overgrown leaves, even when the leaves are harvested in the spring, are considered lower quality on the market.
We do not recommend paying an over price for green tea just because they are harvested the earliest, the same way we do not generalize that green teas made of big leaves instead of young buds are unworthy of tasting. The most important way before making your decision for a green tea is to taste, select only what that is to your taste despite the picking time and all the price tags.
Classification of Chinese green tea according to harvest time
Ming Qian Cha (明前茶) - it refers to tea harvested before Qingming (淸明: April 4-5), and the tea leaves produced at this time are almost buds, hence the tea yield is very small. The first batch of Ming Qian Cha comes to the market is usually sold for the highest price of the year. A Ming Qian green tea comes in a vibrant green, and leaves are usually small and soft with thick and solid buds. This is because winter has just passed, the temperature is still low, and the tea trees are just beginning to grow, but slowly. Ming Qian green tea is also characterized by a subtle, elegant, refreshing, but relatively light flavor. The subtle morning-dew light sweetness of a Ming Qian green usually persists through many infusions (as many as 10 infusions or more), when it is brewed in a Gaiwan.
All our Chinese green teas have been harvested in Ming Qian period.
Yu Qian Cha (雨前茶) - literally, tea before the rain. Yu Qian tea is picked after Qingming (April 5) and before Guyu (谷雨: April 20-21). At this time, tea leaves speed up to grow as the temperature gets higher. The buds of Yu Qian Cha are long, thin and empty (which means the inside of the tea buds has become hollow, not so solid). In addition, tea leaves are relatively large and long. However, the taste of a Yu Qian tea is mellow, and its aroma is rich.
Guyu Cha (谷雨茶) - Guyu (谷雨) is the sixth day of the 24 solar terms, on the 20th or 21st of April between Qingming and Lixia (立夏; May 5), when spring rains fertilize all kinds of grains. At this time, the midday sunlight is short and strong, so the energy and nutrients of healthy soil are absorbed into the tea leaves. Guyu Cha can be popular with people for its affordable price and average taste, as there are abundance of leaves to be harvested at this time. In particular, Guyu tea is characterized by a much stronger taste than Ming Qian Cha.
Chun Wei Cha (春尾茶) - tea picked at the tail of Spring, after Guyu (谷雨: April 20-21) and before the Lixia (立夏; May 5). The Chinese character "Wei" (尾; tail) in the middle of its name, gives a hint that this tea is picked at the end of spring. During the growing period of Chun Wei Cha, the temperature is still relatively high, and the tea leaves not only grow very fast, but also the bitterness of the tea leaves gradually becomes evident. Therefore, the tea leaves obtained from Chun Wei are usually collected from tea factories or large tea houses, which are continuously processed and roasted in order to reduce its bitter taste.
Xia Cha (夏茶) - harvested between Lixia (立夏; May 5) and August. The main growing season of Xia Cha is the hottest period of the year with the most abundant rainfall. Thus, the growth of tea buds is more vigorous and faster than other seasons. The long sunshine hours and strong light in summer help to accumulate tea polyphenols as well as anthocyanin and caffeine in the substances contained in tea leaves. Therefore, Xia Cha has a tendency of bitter, more astringent taste than spring tea and the color of tea leaves is uneven. Although the astringent taste is palpable, it is not disturbing nor unpleasant to appreciate. The color of the tea soup is clear golden, and the flavor of the tea is also intense and lingers long in the mouth. However, Xia Cha has a watery consistency due to the rainy season.
Bailu Cha (白露茶) - tea picked after the beginning of autumn, also known as "small autumn tea" (小秋茶). After the high temperature of summer, the tea trees will enter the best growth period before and after the Bailu (白露; September 7-8), so there will be new tea plants. Bailu Cha is not as rich and delicate as spring tea, nor is it dry and bitter like a summer tea, but has a unique sweet and mellow taste. Usually, Xia Cha and Bailu Cha are not produced by small tea farmers themselves, only some big tea factories process and roast them.
Classification of Japanese green tea according to harvest time
Through our colleague Rika, I often have the opportunity to have a peek through the Japanese tea culture and their unique customs. Green tea is the core of Japanese tea, it is so natural to understand what kind of tea is being mentioned without having to add a word in front of it such as green, black, white among Japanese people. Green tea is “the tea” (お茶; Ocha) for them. What comes clear to me is that the Japanese love their green tea very much and are proud of its tradition as well as craftsmanship of production, just like the Chinese people love their own tea, and drinking and serving tea has become a way of life. For this reason, the way Japanese green tea is enjoyed and classified has its own characteristics that are distinctly different from those of other countries.
Shincha - Shincha is a green tea made by picking the new buds that grew at the beginning of the year, from mid-April to mid-May. Tea picking begins as early as mid-April in warm regions such as Kagoshima, and gradually moves north like the cherry blossom front (桜前線; Sakura Zensen) in spring. The main characteristic of Shincha is the refreshing, greenish scent of young leaves. In addition, it also tends to be high in amino acids that are responsible for the umami flavor and sweetness. The amount of theanine in Shincha is three times as much as that of other teas. Traditionally, Shincha picked on the 88th day (八十八夜; Hachijuhachiya) of Lichun (立春; February 3-4) is considered very special, so various tea-picking events are held in tea producing regions across the country. It is said that Shincha that is brewed around Hachijuhachiya is the most delicious. Furthermore, the locals believe that drinking it will extend your lifespan and prevent you from getting sick.
Depending on the time when the tea leaves are picked, Japanese green tea is divided into Ichibancha (一番茶; first tea crop), Nibancha (二番茶; second tea crop), and Sanbancha (三番茶; third tea crop) in a year. Sencha (煎茶; せんちゃ), for example, is harvested three times a year between April and September, according to the picking times as below.
Ichibancha (一番茶; first tea crop) - Shincha and Ichibancha are basically the same tea. Ichibancha is often used in contrast to Nibancha and Sanbancha that are picked afterwards, while Shincha has the meaning of "first one" that is picked first in a year, and the term indicates freshness and something seasonal. Made with fresh new buds at the beginning of the year, Ichibancha is said to be of the highest quality among Japanese green tea.
Nibancha (二番茶; second tea crop) - 45 to 50 days after the harvest of Ichibancha, Nibancha will be prepared. One advantage of producing Nibancha is that it grows fast. Ichibancha is harvested from April to May when the temperature is still low, while Nibancha grows after May, which has an ideal climate for tea trees. It's not too hot, not too cold, and there is a moderate amount of rainfall. In Kagoshima, harvesting of Nibancha starts around the end of May, and in other areas, harvesting begins in June. Nibancha has a stronger astringency and bitterness than Ichibancha, because it contains a lot of catechins and caffeine.
Sanbancha (三番茶; third tea crop) - Sanbancha grows after harvesting of Nibancha. The picking time is from late July to early August, which is the hottest time of summer in Japan. There is a common belief that if the third tea is harvested, the taste of Ichibancha of the following year may deteriorate, so there are some tea regions where Sanbancha is not harvested.
Akifuyu bancha (秋冬番茶; autumn-winter tea crop, also 四番茶; fourth tea crop) - after Nibancha and Sanbancha, the tea that is harvested from late September to early October is called Akifuyu bancha. Compared to others, the umami and bitterness of the tea are less, and the aftertaste is thin and light. However, there are some tea drinkers who feel that it is a kind of easy tea and good for everyday drink because there is no significant highlight and the price is friendly.
Classification of Korean green tea according to harvest time
Eunji, our Korean colleague, often relates how similar and different Korea's green tea culture is to China and Japan. Although Korea's tea market is smaller compared to neighboring countries (similar to Germany, she said that Koreans prefer to drink coffee rather than tea), the tradition of enjoying green tea remains in many parts of society.
In Korea, green tea is usually produced around April 20 (Guyu). It is quite difficult to see new tea buds before Qingming in Korea, as Korea peninsula is located far north for growing tea. Therefore, Korean green tea mostly grows in the southern regions with relatively warm and mild climates, such as Boseong, Hadong, and Jeju Island. When Korean green tea is classified according to the harvest time, like in China, the tea that comes out between Qingming and Guyu is called Ujeon (雨前), which is the highest grade green tea on the market. In addition, depending on the size of the tea leaves, it is often divided into Sejak (small), Jungjak (medium), Daejak (large).
Ujeon (雨前; 우전) - handpicking and hand made from very young tea leaves, first picked before Guyu (April 20) in mid-April. Tea leaves harvested this time are small and soft, and the taste of Ujeon is mild, refreshing without bitterness or astringency. Due to its low yield, it is treated as the most valuable and the most expensive one among Korean green teas.
Sejak (細雀; 세작) - Sejak refers to the young buds picked after Guyu (April 20) and before Lixia (May 5). Although the taste of Sejak is less appreciated than that of Ujeon, it has a gentle, soft flavor and the aftertaste is slightly astringent. When Korean people talk about green tea, they usually refer to either Jungjak (coming in the next paragraph) or Sejak.
Jungjak (中雀; 중작) - harvested from Lixia (May 5) to mid-May, and is made by picking 1-2 leaves after both Chang (槍; the first bud) and Qi (旗; the leaf that starts to bloom) are spread out. Green tea from this time is the most common on the Korean tea market. It is rich in taste, has no intensive bitterness or astringency, so anyone can enjoy the unique aroma and color of this tea.
Daejak (大雀; 대작) - a green tea made of tea leaves collected by the end of May. Tea leaves from this time are mature, large and tough, thus the tea made of them has a strong astringent taste with a high tannin content. Thus, Daejak is mainly used as a tea bag material, and is often used as an ingredient in various foods and beverages.
As we’ve seen, when it comes to “tea season”, spring comes to mind first. Not only for green tea, there are other types of tea that are valued the most when harvested in spring. For example, pu erh tea and yancha (rock tea), as well as many white teas, are considered to be of high quality when harvested in spring. It is interesting to notice that most people not only in the East but also in the West prefer First Flush tea to later flushes.
Of course, these criteria does not have to be the rule of thumb for every tea drinker. At the end of the day, taste is the most personal thing, and which is the best green tea for you should be decided only by your palate. However, personally, it's much more fun to enjoy a variety of teas to match each season. I crave for fresh new green tea or young sheng pu erh tea in Spring; in summer I love the light and lively summer tea like aged Shoumei white tea or cold brewed black/green tea that can cool down the sizzling heat of summer; in autumn I miss the scent of osmanthus tea or dancong oolong, and in winter I am obsessed with the deep and intensive flavor of an aged sheng pu erh tea, dark oolong or Anhua Heicha, which brings me the good energy to get through the cold winter days.
Now at the peak of a beautiful Summer, I wish you a good rejuvenating green tea every day.