Autumnal Oolongs from Fujian

by Lydia Kung

Autumnal teas from Darjeeling will be missed this year, but autumn also means prize-worthy Oolongs from Fujian. For this group of teas, May 1st and October 1st are simple markers. The actual work of plucking begins a few days later, but those dates coincide with important holidays in China, Labor Day and National Day. (So there will be at least one contingent of workers missing vacation time because tea harvesting takes priority. Most offices will be closed next month between Oct. 1-8.)

For Oolongs, there is an expression 春水秋香 that literally translates as: “spring water autumn fragrance.”

  • More rain in the spring makes for higher content in the leaves; sun drying is less effective.
  • As spring proceeds into early summer, weather may turn hot quickly, resulting in teas that are more bitter. This change in temperature is less of a worry in autumn, as the progression of the season generally means cooler days rather than a rise in temperature.
  • Perhaps it is fitting to remember what is happening across the strait from Fujian: in Taiwan, the prime season for this group of teas is winter and winter to early spring.
  • In the fall, there is a larger difference in temperature between day and night, and this enhances the components in the leaves that yield aroma. When it comes to Oolongs from China, we really are just referring primarily to one province, Fujian.
  • Cooler temperatures in the fall create better conditions for oxidation. With less moisture in the air and in the leaves, when the leaves are oxidized, bitterness and astringency are reduced.
  • Oolong processing differs slightly during the spring and fall seasons: leaves picked in the spring tend to be plumper or fuller, and withering needs to be deeper, and bruising requires more vigorous tossing at the outset of this shaking step.

As a general rule, leaves for lower grades are plucked later in the season, although this is not absolute. The grade of the tea is dependent on the picking date, the age of the bush, weather conditions when picked, elevation, etc. There is also sorting of the primary tea, with attention to proper grading, as well as the removal of stalks and older leaves.

Preference for spring vs. autumn oolongs may be subjective. Spring teas are considered to have a brighter, cleaner character, while teas harvested in the fall are described as having better aroma and a longer finish.