Just days ago, the official 2019 spring harvest guide was published by Wuyishan Bureau of Tea (武夷山茶叶局). In this guide, the bureau outlines the expected date(s) of harvest for most oolong cultivars in the Wuyi region.
In the official guide, we can see that the spring harvest season in Wuyi mountain area begins from early April to mid/late May.
Commonly, lightly roasted Wuyi oolong teas, such as Huang Guan Yin and Golden Peony, are harvested early (mid/late April); heavily roasted teas, such as Shui Xian and Rou Gui, are harvested late (late April and early May).
This harvest schedule is different from many green tea producing areas. In these areas, fresh leaves harvested before “Qing Ming Festival” are the most appreciated (in 2019, this day would be April 5, please see our Blog 102 to learn more). There’s even an old saying: “Qing Ming tea is as precious as gold” to emphasize just how important an early harvest is to green tea production.
In green tea production, an early harvest has its advantages.
First of all, traditional green tea producing areas are more northern to Wuyi mountain, and they have a much colder climate. Before early April, the lower temperature in these areas allows an insect-free environment for tea plants.
Secondly, after resting for a winter, tea plants have accumulated numerous nutrients. Compared to other green tea harvests in mid/late April, fresh leaves in early April have a high content of amino acids and a lower content of tea polyphenols. These fresh leaves can produce a mellower and more balanced green tea.
Here is where things get interesting: if a “Qing Ming” (early April) harvest is as good as it is, why don’t Wuyi oolong tea makers harvest at this time?
The answer is simple: because green tea and oolong tea have significantly different tea-making process. An early harvest gives us small and tender fresh leaves. While these delicate leaves can survive green tea’s short and simple tea-making process, they cannot endure oolong’s extreme and unmerciful tea-making.
Wuyi oolong’s tea-making has many unique and exclusive steps. Among all Wuyi oolong tea-making procedures, the shaking, rolling and roasting are the most challenging to fresh leaves. Tender fresh leaves simply cannot pull through the entire process. We must use broader and stronger fresh leaves for oolong tea-making.
A standard Wuyi oolong fresh leaf is actually more than “one leaf”. The harvest takes a total of 4 leaves with the stem. Since Wuyi oolong’s harvest is about 3 weeks later than green tea’s harvest, most fresh leaves are already extended.
More specifically, the best time to harvest Wuyi oolong is when the size of the top leaf is about 50% to 70% of the size of the second leaf.
There are many good reasons why Wuyi oolong tea makers choose to harvest bigger leaves. As we mentioned earlier, tender and smaller leaves don’t withstand Wuyi oolong’s harsh tea-making very well.
But this is not the only reason. The purpose of the entire tea-making process is to extract fragrances out of fresh leaves. Bigger, extended and more mature fresh leaves have a higher content of fragrance substances. This is essentially why Wuyi oolong teas have more layers of aromas and tastes.
A late harvest leads to a late on-sale date.
Let’s take “Rou Gui” for example, in 2018, Rou Gui plants were harvested in early May. The tea-making process took us about 3 months. If you want heavily roasted Rou Gui products, there was an extra month added to the tea-making.
Realistically, it’s not possible that an authentic Wuyi oolong becomes available right after the harvest. Those new “oolong” products on the market in late May are either produced outside the Wuyi mountain area or un-roasted, semi-finished tea products.
Finally, we’d like to address that there’s never a “universal” harvest schedule that works for tea makers everywhere. We’ve seen many tea businesses claim that the best tea, regardless the category, is always harvested on certain days. If a tea is not harvested within this time frame, it’s not a good tea.
This generalization is wrong. Tea plants grow differently in different environments and climates. Even for the same tea plants in the same area, tea plants grow on high mountains would have a different harvest schedule.
The harvest of every single tea cultivar should be treated differently based on its growing environment and the tea-making. We hope this blog can help you better understand why Wuyi oolong have a late harvest.
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