The Seasons of Tea

One of the gratifying aspects of tea culture is the way it connects you to the seasons. As the seasons change so do your own tastes and needs, and nature provides by making just the right tea available to hit the spot. That’s not to say that you can’t drink any tea any time, but speaking for myself, there are times of the year and weather conditions that make me crave one type of tea and lose interest in another as the months go by, and discovering that there’s usually a new tea in the teahouse that matches my latest whim is all part of the pleasure.

I’m thinking about the seasons of tea because here in March we’re on the threshold of the most dramatic change in the tea year, when the dormant plants reinvigorate and produce the first delicious shoots of 2009. Before the month is out the green tea harvest will be underway in southerly Yunnan (the best tea there grows around 22 degrees latitude) and eastern China (many of the most famous green teas, such as dragon well and bi luo chun, grow around 30-32 degrees latitude). Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong will be leaving shortly to supervise the harvest and select the finest spring teas for our teahouses.

Here in San Francisco winter is damp, dark, and chilly. More often than not, the “staff teapot” at the teahouse is yi xing (to retain heat and add depth of flavor) and we’re drinking a warming, aged pu er such as Imperial or Special Reserve. The earthy complexity of these teas seems like the perfect complement to the season when tea plants are resting and taking in nutrients after a long year of producing leaves.

A month from now everything will change. The sun will come out, days will be longer than nights, and tea plants will be bursting with fresh growth. Delicate green teas full of the powerful vigor of new life will entice the palate, suddenly making winter favorites seem tired and lugubrious. Light, elegant porcelain gaiwans become the teaware of choice. Later in spring, as the season matures, more green tea choices appear, with robust leaves packed with chlorophyll in response to long days full of sunshine.

I love green tea season, but it only lasts a short time - that's part of why it's so precious. Summer’s heat and intense sun (paradoxically accompanied by slowly shortening days) nurture varieties with larger, tougher leaves that have an astonishing fruit and floral essence, such as the delightful spectrum of oolongs. By mid-summer you’ll find us drinking Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin from an oolong-friendly zhu ni teapot. As the season evolves into autumn we’ll move to Wu Yi Yan Cha and return to zi sha teaware.

Among all the seasons of tea the advent of green tea season is the most dramatic and, after a long, cold winter, the most welcome! Stay tuned here on the blog for updates on weather in China and reports on the 2009 green tea outlook. And dust off your gaiwans, because the new spring teas are just around the corner.