If there was ever a sign of how sophisticated the western tea-drinker has become, it’s the large number of technical questions we now receive from our customers. Wulong tea is frequently the subject of these questions, and so to help our customers, we’ve written a short guide to its harvesting seasons and picking standards. Note that the terminology used in this guide is that of the Fujian wulong tea makers we’ve learned from. You may find some terms are different among tea makers elsewhere.
For Chinese wulong tea, there are four picking seasons which take place between late April and November of each year. Further dividing these season are the solar terms of the old Chinese calendar; There are 24 solar terms each year, with about 15 days in each. For example, the “Qing Ming” term usually begins on or around April 5th, and the following “Gu Yu” term usually begins on April 20th (about 15 days in between).
Picking for wulong tea is thus traditionally organized into the following timeframes:
- “Chun Cha” 春茶 (Spring Tea) picked in the Gu Yu solar period (around April 20th)
- “Xia Cha” 夏茶 (Summer Tea) picked in the Xia Zhi solar period (around June 20th)
- “Shu Cha” 暑茶 (Late Summer / Autumn Tea) picked in the Li Qiu solar period (around August 7th)
- “Dong Pian” 冬片 (Winter Tea) picked in the Shuang Jiang period (around October 24th)
Although wulong tea can be picked during these four seasons, most Chinese wulong tea producers skip the Shu Cha harvest and choose only to pick in the three other seasons (Chun Cha, Xia Cha and Dong Pian). All of Seven Cups’ wulong teas are purchased from Chun Cha picking season.
Each picking season lasts between 40-50 days in total, but any single variety of tea will only be picked for 3-5 days within this period, depending on when the variety reaches maturity. Some tea bushes can be picked at the end of April, while others grow slower and must not be picked until the first week of May. Producers must wait for the young tea leaves to open into the perfect size before picking. To read more about what goes in to picking specific varieties of rock wulong tea, please check out Zhuping’s field notes from last year’s harvest: Part 1 and Part 2 .
For all seasons, the best time to pick is on sunny days when wind is blowing from the north. The best time of day is around noon to 2 PM. Lower grades of teas are those picked on cloudy days from 9 AM – noon. Even lower grades of tea are picked on rainy days before 9 AM and after 5 PM. When you go to the factory, you will always see pieces of paper in the baskets of fresh leaves with the time and date of picking. Before even processing a tea, tea masters must first distinguish the quality of the tea by its picking time and the weather on the day it was picked. The leaves of our rock wulong teas are never picked on rainy days.
Tea masters will train their tea pickers to use very specific hand motions to pluck leaves. The movements are different for each type of tea. For picking wulong tea, you must open your thumb and index finger wide (described in Chinese as “tiger’s mouth”) and grasp straight below the top 3 or 4 tender leaves. The sprig is bent and plucked off with a pulling motion.
Tea pickers must have very good eyes to see which fresh branches are the most healthy and are just the right size to pick. If a tea bush is well nourished its tea buds will completely open in to 5-6 leaves or more. If the bush not healthy, its buds will only open in to 2 leaves. These underdeveloped sprigs are called “dui jia yi” and are not be picked, even if they are fresh. Any leaves that are brown, broken or thick are not allowed to be picked either. Workers only pick 3-4 leaves at a time from healthy bushes, leaving the lowest 1-2 leaves of the new growth.¹ The leaves left on the stem will become nutrition for new buds that grow in the next season.
During spring, the tea master must visit the fields often to check for just the right time to pick the tea. The tea master is checking for two things:
- Have the last leaves of a bush’s new sprigs opened? ²
- What is the size of this last leaf relative to the next leaf down on the stem?
Tea makers use the term, “Xiao Kai Mian” (小开面), to describe when this last leaf of the growth is half of the size of the next leaf down. Once the bushes’ leaves are at this state of maturity, the tea makers will start making arrangements for tea pickers to come out to the fields. The ideal point to pluck a sprig of leaves is when it has reached a state of maturity called “Zhong Kai Mian” (中开面). This is when the youngest leaf is ⅔ the size of the second leaf (see a picture below). If that last leaf has grown the same size as all the other leaves, this called “Da Kai Mian” (大开面), and is not ideal for wulong tea making since the leaves are too old and won’t twist properly. The time between Zhong Kai Mian and Da Kai Mian maturity is just two or three days. Since not all new growth on a single tea bush reaches maturity at the same time, tea pickers will revisit the same bushes over the course of several days, picking only when the leaves are in the preferred Zhong Kai Mian or Xiao Kai Mian states.
¹. This picking technique is also used for large-leaf puer teas. Recently, farmers have realized a strange problem with older tea trees tended in this manner. As normal, the lower one or two pieces of leaves were left on the branches, but these leaves did not give way to new growth in the next season. Instead, these leaves stayed in place and sapped the nutrition from the branch. Farmers could only think of one explanation: Yunnan’s on-going drought.
². Tea makers know a young sprig will not yield any more leaves when a small silvery-white point is visible at the end of the sprig, just behind the youngest leaf. In Chinese this silver point is known as zhu ya (驻芽) meaning “the stationed bud.”