When tea leaves are harvested depends largely on the region in which they are being grown and can vary from season to season with fluctuations in weather, specifically factors of sunlight, heat, and rainfall. The timing of the harvest is of utmost importance as it can take only a few days for a bud to appear, open up, and grow into a large leaf. Missing the harvest can destroy a crop, as a style of tea may require that only the buds be plucked or that only a certain number of small leaves be plucked after the bud opens. If there is a dormancy period due to cool weather in the tea field, the first new shoots after this period are of the highest quality and thus the most sought after and usually the most expensive. This is because they have been building up nutrient reserves over the dormancy period for the new leaves. 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, “
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’re known as “Ujeon.” Each growing region also has a special set of terms for referring to tea harvest periods. In India and Nepal, each harvest is called a “flush” referring to a period of growth in the tea plant. In China, Taiwan and South Korea, the terms used to denote tea harvests are dates in the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar. Here’s a guide to the harvest seasons for the world’s major producers of specialty teas: India, Nepal, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the countries of East Africa:
India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka Tea Harvests
Darjeeling (India) & Nepal
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
Nilgiri (India) & Sri Lanka
Due to the lack of a cold season in southernmost growing regions such as Nilgiri in South India and Sri Lanka, tea plants can be harvested year round.
Like Darjeelings, Assams are typically harvested from March to October. 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, the second in June.
China & Taiwan Tea Harvests
The harvest season in China and Taiwan varies greatly between the different growing regions and elevations there, but in general, the harvest season can begin as early as April and can last until late November. Finished teas that are made from young leaves or buds and have a more finite growing season will typically be harvested on or near dates on the East Asian lunisolar calendar. Teas plucked before Qing Ming are highly sought after and command a premium, these teas are called Pre-Qing Ming teas. Here’s how the rest of the harvest season shakes out:
- Qing Ming “clear bright”: tea picked before April 4-6
- Yu Qian “before the rains”: tea picked before April 20
- Gu Yu “grain rain”: tea picked before May 5
- Li Xia “start of summer”: tea picked before May 21
Finished teas that are made from older leaves usually do not follow such a strict harvest calendar and can be harvested at any time from April to November.
Japan Tea Harvest
The harvest season in Japan varies by region as well but typically begins in late April and ends in early October. Japan’s sought after first harvest is called Shincha. Aside from Shincha, Japan has four distinct harvest periods:
- Shincha “new tea”: this is the name given to the first harvest of the year
- Ichibancha “first tea”: this refers to the entire first harvest season, including shincha and typically occurs from late April to May
- Nibancha “second tea”: refers to the second harvest of the year taking place June to the end of July
- Sanbancha “third tea”: third harvest of the year taking place in August
- Yonbancha “fourth tea”: this is the fourth harvest of the year and can take place as late as October in some regions
South Korea Tea Harvest
South Korea’s growing seasons correspond to dates on the lunisolar calendar. Finished tea from the first harvest of the year is called Ujeon. All other harvest periods contain the word “jak” which means sparrow and is a reference to “sparrow’s tongue tea” or jaksul cha. Interestingly, in some point in history someone thought that tea leaves resemble sparrow tongues. It is important to know that in South Korea, different grades are harvested during different times so the harvest period is defined by the grade of tea picked during that time. Lets have a lick:
- Ujeon “before the rain”: tea picked before April 20 which corresponds to Gogu on the lunisolar calendar.
- Sejak: “small sparrow”: tea picked before May 5-6 which corresponds to Ipha on the lunisolar calendar.
- Jungjak “medium sparrow” : tea picked around May 20-21 which corresponds to Soman on the lunisolar calendar.
- Daejak “large sparrow” : this harvest period refers to lower quality large leaves tea picked during summer.
African Tea Harvests
In the East African tea producing countries of Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Ethiopia, tea is able to be harvested year round due to the lack of a cold season with peak tea production coinciding with rainy seasons.
Australia Tea Harvest
Although not much tea is grown in Australia (and an even smaller amount in Tasmania), it’s interesting to look at when they harvest their teas, being completely opposite of when the Northern Hemisphere harvests theirs. Australia tea got it’s tea plants and growing techniques from Japan, thus their harvests follow a similar pattern, just in different months. They have a “shincha” harvest, the first of the year in Spring, which falls in October. From then until the beginning of Fall in March, they’ll machine harvest tea repeatedly each time the shoots and leaves grow big enough to prune again, sometimes an additional four times.
A Note on Climate Change
Climate change has already begun to have an effect on the tea growing regions of the world. As time passes, we may start to see these seasons altering or changing. Owners of tea estates have begun to take notice and act accordingly. Jun Chiyabari told us that they chose a higher elevation tea estate in order to be less affected by these changes. You can already see these changes having a detrimental outcome on the 2017 harvest of Darjeeling tea.