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A Short Guide to Spring Tea

Updated: Apr 4

As we embrace the rejuvenating spirit of spring, tea enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the arrival of fresh, vibrant teas bursting with the essence of the season. Spring heralds a time of renewal, as the young tea buds emerge from their winter dormancy, infused with the bountiful goodness of nature—abundant in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. For tea farmers worldwide, spring marks the pinnacle of harvesting and processing, with each delicate leaf offering a taste of the season's essence. In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the must-try spring teas, from the esteemed pre-Qingming to the coveted first flush, shincha and woojeon. Join us as we delve into the first buds from the tea regions of China, Japan, India, Nepal, South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan discovering the diverse flavours and traditions that define each unique infusion.

Chinese Pure Brightness Teas: Pre-Qingming


Photo: A small part of a 12th century scroll painting: Along the River, During Qingming (18th century reproduction). Zhao Zhou Tea.

The Qingming (or Ching Ming) Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day and Pure Brightness Festival, signifies a profound reverence for ancestors and the arrival of spring in Chinese tradition. Celebrated by ethnic Chinese across various regions, including mainland China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, it falls on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, typically occurring on April 4th, 5th, or 6th. Families pay respects to their forebears by visiting gravesites, cleaning the area, and offering traditional dishes, incense, and joss paper. Originating over 2500 years ago, this tradition became a public holiday in mainland China in 2008, often accompanied by the consumption of qingtuan, green dumplings made of glutinous rice and Chinese mugwort or barley grass.

In the realm of tea, Qingming holds special significance as it marks the beginning of the spring tea harvest. Teas plucked before this date, known as pre-Qingming (明前茶) or Mingqian teas, are highly coveted for their tender buds and delicate flavours. Renowned teas like Long Jing (Dragon Well; 龍井), Bi Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring; 碧螺春), Anji Bai Cha (Anji White Tea; despite the translation, it is a green tea; 安吉白茶), Enshi Yu Lu (Dewdrops of Enshi; 恩施玉露), Meng Ding Gan Lu (Meng Peak Sweet Dew; 甘露), and Huang Shan Mao Feng (Yellow Mountain Fur Peak; 山毛峯/黄山毛峰) boast sweeter and more nuanced tastes due to higher concentrations of sugars and amino acids, along with lower levels of catechins. While pre-Qingming teas command premium prices due to their limited quantity and exceptional quality, it's essential to note that not all spring teas are harvested before Qingming as it heavily depends on the regions' climate and elevation, as well as this terminology does not apply to all tea types. Teas harvested right after Qingming (5th of April) are called guyu (谷雨, grain rain), and there's a subsequent period starting on the 5th of May known as lixia (立夏, start of summer).

A mingqian tea can worth up to 100 times more than one harvested in mid-May. As we advance further into summer and autumn, the value and quality of teas diminish, emphasising the fleeting freshness of Qingming teas, akin to freshly picked vegetables and fruit. Therefore, purchasing Qingming teas with a high price tag makes sense only shortly after picking and processing. Proper storage, such as refrigeration or freezing, can prolong their lifespan, ensuring a delightful tea-drinking experience reminiscent of spring's pure brightness.

Photo: Freshly harvested tea buds for Meng Ding Gan Lu 2024, Sichuan. Bitter Leaf Teas.

Photo: Mingqian Mu Shan Long Jing. An Shim Tea.

Pre-Qingming Xihu Long Jing 2023 from Eastern Leaves HERE.
Pre-Qingming Huo Shan Huang Ya yellow tea 2023 from Palais des Thés HERE.
(Look out for the fresh harvests soon enough!) :)

Japanese Green Teas: Shincha and the 88th Night


Photo: Global Japanese Tea Association.

In Japan, the onset of spring brings about the eagerly awaited first harvest of tea, known as ichibancha (一番茶) and shincha (新茶), literally translating to "first tea" and "new tea" respectively. Japanese first spring teas are harvested slightly later than in China due to differences in longitude and climate. This seasonal delicacy marks the inception of a new tea year, with the initial, very-first tea picking typically taking place on the auspicious 88th night of the year, known as Hachiju Hachiya (八十八夜) in the old lunar calendar. Celebrated usually falling on either May 1st or 2nd (this year it is May 1st), this tradition is imbued in significance, as tea plucked on this day is believed to bring good fortune for the upcoming year. The term shincha encompasses various definitions, including the broader concept of "new tea" within the first two months after harvest, as well as the specific spring harvest and subsequent months. Exceptionally young and tender leaves harvested even earlier bear names such as hashiri (走り; "run", as in "running to the fields now to harvest the leaves") and hatsutsumi (初摘み), meaning "first picking", highlighting their freshness and quality. The availability of shincha is brief, typically from April to July, with each region contributing to the collective bounty.

“The summer is approaching, Hachiju Hachiya” (夏も近づく八十八夜). This is a line in an old Japanese song, called “Tea Picking” (茶摘), which was written in 1912, and is still commonly taught in the elementary schools in Japan.

Now, let's delve a bit deeper into Hachiju Hachiya and its cultural significance. According to the ancient lunar calendar, the year begins with Risshun (立春), typically falling on February 3rd or 4th, while Hachiju Hachiya marks the 88th day counting from Risshun. The first recorded mention of Hachiju Hachiya dates back to 1656 in the Ise Goyomi (伊勢暦), a calendar published by the Ise Shrine. It's believed that Hachiju Hachiya was included in the calendar for practical reasons, serving to draw the attention of farmers and fishermen alike. This special day not only signifies the first day of spring and the transition to summer when frost becomes less likely (as reflected in the saying 'Hachiju Hachiya – the parting frost' 八十八夜の別れ霜), but it also holds symbolic significance. It marks the traditional start of rice planting and a time when sea beams and octopuses gather to lay eggs, promising fishermen a fruitful catch. Moreover, it's an ideal moment to commence tea picking. Though the start of the spring harvesting season may vary across tea regions, celebratory events and the consumption of tea harvested on this auspicious day are cherished customs throughout Japan. It's believed that partaking in these traditions brings longevity and good health, as the number eight holds auspicious connotations. Some of these tea-picking events even feature attendees adorned in traditional tea picker's attire, complete with the distinctive kasuri (絣) pattern. For those seeking such attire, typing "茶摘み絣の着物/服" (cha tsumi kasuri no kimono/fuku) in online search engines may prove fruitful.

You can already pre-order some fresh 2024 shincha from various regions and farmers from all over Japan here at Yunomi.life:


Photo: Courtesy to NaturaliTea (Kinezuka family) in Shizuoka.

Photo: Hachiju Hachiya. HOSHINOYA Tokyo who will organise a tea tasting of hachiju hachiya tea at the beginning of May.

The First Flush: Darjeeling and Nepal


Photo: Nepal Tea Collective. You can preorder your Nepali First Flush 2024 here.

When it comes to tea, there's a plethora of terminology, with each region using different names for the first leaves picked in spring. In Darjeeling and Nepal, you might have come across the term "first flush". The tricky part is determining whether it's a white, green, oolong, or black tea. Well, "first flush" simply refers to the first pluck of the year, leaving it up to the producer to process it any way they like. Therefore, you might encounter a Darjeeling first flush white tea or an Ilam first flush black tea. Despite being more oolong-like than the malty Assam black teas, it's common to see many "black tea" names attached to those kinds of teas. Despite these two regions being neighbours, those teas have distinct identity and unique character, hence, worth to explore separately.

Darjeeling


In Darjeeling, India, the first picking typically commences between mid-March and the end of March, coinciding with the onset of spring rains that stimulate plant growth. This period usually concludes around the second week of May. Darjeeling, nestled in the Himalayas of West Bengal, India, is renowned for its picturesque tea region. Situated around 2000 meters above sea level, the cool climate fosters lush green slopes adorned with bamboo, pine forests, rhododendrons, and orange orchards alongside orderly rows of tea bushes, offering breathtaking views of Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga on clear mornings. The delicate cups of floral, fruity, and honeyed Darjeeling tea perfectly complement the region's stunning landscapes. In Darjeeling, the prevalent method of harvesting involves fine picking, where only the bud and two leaves are carefully plucked and the initial harvest produces light-bodied teas with captivating aromas. While Darjeeling's Second Flush, picked during May and June, once overshadowed the First Flush, the latter has garnered increasing attention over the past two decades. Growers have shifted focus towards crafting more complex fragrances with their First Flushes, emphasising freshness and minimising oxidation to preserve the herbaceous aroma and sweet aftertaste. The first harvest spans 6 to 8 weeks, followed by a period where tea trees are delicately trimmed and pruned before being allowed to rest for several weeks, in sync with the natural cycle of each garden.

Photo: Glenburn White Moonshine - 2023 Darjeeling First Flush. The Tea Makers of London.

Nepal


In Nepal, the First Flush transcends mere tea harvesting; it's a profound cultural celebration. Astrologers carefully determine the most auspicious time, and with divine blessings, the delicate First Flush leaves are tenderly plucked. This reverence embodies the belief that the First Flush signifies not just a warm cup of tea but fresh beginnings and the promise of a bountiful year ahead. Amigo Khadka of Nepal Tea Collective shared his recent experience traveling to Ilam and his family's farm in Phidim, Panchthaar. A lush and aromatic harvest like this year's fills every farmer with palpable and contagious hope. Following each harvest, especially the First Flush, their factory hosts a tea tasting ceremony led by the tea producer. It's a special experience to sample the spring harvest right on the farm amidst the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayan springtime. The tea gardens of Phidim, situated at elevations of up to 1500 - 1800 meters above sea level, boast stunning green slopes nourished by the fresh meltwater from the Himalayas.

Photo: Offering ritual in Pathivara, Nepal. Courtesy to Mr. John Taylor of HTPC Nepal.

Lalani & Co. London: Perhaps some interesting spring teas from India, Nepal, and Japan. HERE.

Korean Sparrows & the First Pluck Before Rain: Woojeon


Photo: Spring buds of Daehan Dawon, Boseong, South Korea (2023). Katrina Wild.

In South Korea, the onset of spring heralds the eagerly awaited harvest of first nokcha (녹차; 綠茶; "green tea"), marking a time of reverence for tradition and the bounty of nature. Renowned tea-growing regions like Boseong, Hadong, and Jeju produce high-quality leaves classified by the flush or plucking time, Korean green teas are distinguished by their delicate flavours and diverse varieties. Woojeon, also romanised as Ujeon (우전; 雨前; "pre-rain") signifies the first flush, characterised by tender leaf buds plucked before April 22nd, while Sejak (세작; 細雀; "thin sparrow") represents the second flush, harvested with one bud and one or two leaves. Artisan Korean jaksul green teas, including ujeon (first pluck), joongjak (third pluck; 중작; 中雀; "medium sparrow"), and daejak (fourth pluck of summer solstice; 대작; 大雀; "big sparrow"), offer a spectrum of unique flavours and aromas, from the subtle sweetness of early spring to the robust richness of summer. Guided by the Korean 24-point lunisolar agrarian calendar borrowed from China, the tea harvest follows a precise schedule, ensuring the optimal maturity of buds or leaves for each grade. For the tea harvest, we are only concerned with the late spring and early summer points on the calendar, beginning with Gogu (first spring rain; 20th or 21st April; 穀雨; 곡우), followed by Ipha (beginning of summer; 5th or 6th May; 立夏; 입하), Soman (grains are plump; 21st or 22nd May; 小滿; 소만), Mangjong (awns are growing; 5th or 6th June; 芒種; 망종), and ending with Haji (summer solstice; 21st or 22nd June; 夏至; 하지). While early season grades command higher prices due to their rarity and distinctive characteristics, each grade offers a unique tea-drinking experience, reflecting the rich tapestry of Korean tea culture.

Photo: Picking green tea with Buddhist nuns in Hadong near Seomjin River, South Korea, 13th May 2023. Katrina Wild.

Tea Korea from Germany sell some of Osulloc's teas from Jeju island HERE. Alternitavely, here is Osulloc's US website to buy directly. HERE.

The Flavour of Wild Tea Trees: Spring in Vietnam


Photo: Courtesy to Steve Shafer of Viet Sun Tea. Lao Cai, 2024.

The vibrant arrival of spring, adorned with enchanting apricot and peach blossoms, graces every Vietnamese household's porch. The commencement of the tea harvest in Vietnam signifies a pivotal time for tea producers, blending industrious labor with joyous celebration, typically starting around March or April, contingent on the region and climate. For aficionados in search of artisanal Vietnamese teas, avenues of exploration include the revered traditional green teas from Tan Cuong in Thái Nguyên province, the burgeoning oolong market flourishing in the Central Highlands with renowned locales such as Bao Loc and Da Lat in Lam Dong province, and teas sourced from wild tea trees in the northern regions like the mountain ranges of Tây Côn Lĩnh in Hà Giang province and Hoàng Liên Sơn of Lai Châu, Lào Cai, Yên Bái. With Hà Giang accounting for over 80% of the country's forest tea land area, it occupies a distinguished position on Vietnam's tea map. Often marketed as shan tuyet, translating literally to 'snow mountain', wild tea showcases the delicate white hairs adorning the young leaves. While wild green tea predominates local consumption, Vietnamese puerh and loose mao cha have been garnering increasing popularity. Locally known as trà vàng, or 'yellow tea', a tea produced from wild tree leaves utilizes a process akin to sheng puerh rather than the yellow tea of China. Vietnam's reputation also extends to its flower-scented teas, notably lotus green tea, though lotus harvesting typically occurs later in the year, around late June or early July.

Photo: Courtesy to Nguyễn Việt Hùng of HIỀN MINH TEA. Wild tea trees of Northern Vietnam 2024.

The First Taiwanese Teas


Similar to the regions we have already discussed, many Taiwanese cultural events are also based on the traditional lunar calendar. Governed by the 24 solar markers known as jie qi, which delineate the agricultural seasons such as "awakening of insects" and "grain rain", Taiwanese tea harvesting follows a precise schedule reflective of the island's diverse topography. While the lower elevations commence their spring harvest from mid-March to early May, the high mountain regions, rising above 1000 and 2000 meters, boast a unique seasonal cycle with the first harvests taking place considerably later. However, there are a few pre-Qingming teas from Taiwan also such as Sanxia District of New Taipei produces Bi Luo Chun green tea and some farmers make teas like Qing Xin Gan Zhi oolongs. Renowned tea-growing regions such as Alishan and Nantou, among others, produce a plethora of teas, including oolongs like Tie Guan Yin, Dong Ding, Baozhong, and aromatic gems like Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Oriental Beauty). Each region contributes to Taiwan's rich tea heritage, offering a spectrum of flavours and aromas cherished by tea connoisseurs worldwide. To learn more about Taiwanese oolongs, check out our blog "Portraits of Oolongs".

Photo: Sanxia Bi Luo Chun 2021. Taken by Katrina Wild for Illuseum Tea Room, Latvia.

Photo: Central Taiwan Spring Harvest 2016. Eco-Cha.

References

Biotrade Vietnam Project. Bittersweet: Forest Teas in Vietnam. Helvetas Vietnam, the European Union.
Gascoyne, K. (2018). Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Firefly Books, Limited.
Heritage Vietnam Airlines. (2023). A cup of spring tea. Available HERE.
Hopkins, G. (2018). Vietnamese Tea: Origin, Geography, Cultivars, Current Affairs. Kill Green. Available HERE.
JING Tea (2020). Darjeeling First Flush vs. Darjeeling Second Flush: What’s the Difference? Available HERE.
Mizuba Tea. (2023). What is Shincha? Available HERE.
Nepal Tea Collective. (2024). First Flush Stories: Amigo’s Spring Adventure. Available HERE.
Nepal Tea Collective. First Flush Black Tea. Available HERE.
Suzuki, S. (2022). Hachiju Hachiya (八十八夜). Global Japanese Tea Association. Available HERE.
Teas Unique LLC. Korean Tea Grades - Ujeon, Sejak, Joongjak and Daejak. Available HERE.
Tea From Taiwan. The Seasons of Tea in Taiwan. Available HERE. Tea From Taiwan. The Tea Counties of Taiwan. Available HERE.
Tea Tulia. What Is First Flush? Available HERE.
Yunomi.life. (2024). Shincha 2024 - Japanese First Flush Spring Green Tea. Available HERE.
Vable, R. (2023). First Flush Vs. Second Flush Tea. Young Mountain Tea. Available HERE.
Viet Tee (2023). Harvest start in Vietnam: The beginning of a tea-rich season. Available HERE.
Wilson, N. (2019). Tea Nerd Dictionary: Pre-Qingming. Tea for Me Please. Available HERE.
Zhao Zhou Tea. Qingming, 清明 — Clear and Bright. Available HERE.


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