Spring vs Autumn Tea: Playing Old Maid with Lishan Oolong

Intro

Much has been said about the effect of seasons on the taste of tea: “Spring tea has the best body, autumn the best aroma”,  “Summer tea is junk”, “Winter tea is rare”, etc. Today, rather than ponder the reasons things like that above have been repeated ad naseum, I’m going to find out experientially if I can taste any difference between spring and autumn tea. To make it more fun, I’ve designed this comparative tasting like a well-known card game, Old Maid.

The game Old Maid is played with pairs of matching cards, and one “Old Maid,” a single card with no match. Loosely vibing off this conceit, I’ve prepared three autumn and one spring tea, the “Old Maid.” Just as in the card game, where one must determine the location of this odd card out, I’m determined to pick out the spring tea from among the autumns. 

Do I succeed? Just what is the real difference between spring and autumn tea in this case, anyway? Come follow along in the tasting game – I’ve designed this page so that you can view my tasting notes (represented graphically) and make your own conclusions about which tea is which. Certainly nothing beats trying and tasting for yourself, but I’d like to think this is the next best thing!

Meet the Teas

All four teas are samples of green oolongs from Mountain Stream Teas produced in the Lishan (梨山, lit. Pear Mountain) growing area in Nantou County, Taiwan.

Spring Pear Mountain Oolong:   picked May 26, 2019; Qingxin cultivar

Fall Pear Mountain Oolong A:   picked August 23, 2019; Qingxin cultivar

Fall Pear Mountain Oolong B:   picked August 23, 2019; Qingxin cultivar

Fall Pear Mountain Oolong (2018):   picked August 28, 2018; Qingxin cultivar

Three of the teas (the spring and first two fall teas) are from 2019. These three were produced by the same farm. The two fall teas were produced on the same day, but with different processing (the Mountain Stream Teas site notes that Fall B is more oxidized).

The 2018 Fall Pear Mountain was also produced on Lishan, but I believe by a different garden. I threw this one in the tasting to make things a little more interesting, adding in the element of age and very slightly different terroir!

Now, let’s read some tea leaves.
 

Looking at the picture of the dry leaves above, these teas can only be distinguished by minute details. Most notably, the spring tea is the darkest green of the four, with the thickest stems. The sizes of the spring and fall A tea balls are quite large and standardized. Fall B has the smallest, lightest colored, and least even-sized balls of tea, while the 2018 fall tea falls somewhere between the other two fall teas in terms of size, standardization, and coloration.

The scent of the dry leaves is also quite similar, as would be expected. But because I need to distinguish these somehow in a blind tasting, I focus on the finer nuances. The spring tea gives off a rich, fresh garden vegetable scent like zucchini. The scents of Fall A and B are very similar – both have notes of sweet, fresh hay, with the scent of Fall B being a bit stronger. The 2018 fall tea also has a hay-like scent, but with less freshness than Fall A and B. For a moment, I catch what could almost be a soft roasted scent.

After this initial inspection, I can’t say for certain that I’ll be able to pick out the spring tea from the rest. I’m particularly doubtful that I can determine the Fall A and B teas based on memory of the dry leaf aroma alone!

The Test

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.

The parameters for this tasting were:

– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the name of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.

– each tea steeped for six minutes with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added.

Can you determine the spring tea (the old maid) from the fall teas via the tasting note hints below? My guesses and the actual answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.

LIQUOR

A

fall_comparison_A_liquor

Almost the same color as C. Light, rich, fresh.

B

fall_comparison_B_liquor

Darkest liquor. Deep aroma like baking spices, later changing to a strong sour scent.

C

fall_comparison_C_liquor

Almost the same color as A. Aroma is very light, lighter than A. Slightly floral with a hint of sourness.

D

fall_comparison_D_liquor

A shade or two darker than A & C. Deeper scents, not fresh and not strong.

AROMA

A

A_aroma_white_flowers_grains_refined_sugar

White flowers faintly upfront. Followed by a grain aroma. Underneath is a slightly sour/cotton candy sweet finish. Delightful.

B

aroma_B_grains_fruit_candy

Strongest aroma of the four. Has a weak grain aroma up front. The aftertaste is overwhelmingly of fruit candy, strangely enough.

C

C_aroma_grains_white_grape_skins_white_flowers

Grain aroma is forward, then a slightly sour white grape skin finish with hints of white flowers.

D

D_aroma_pickled_veggies_kyoho_grape_skins

Simple aroma, mellow and weak. Lightly pickled veggies. Later, there’s a sourness like the skins of dark grapes.

FLAVOR

A

sweet-sour

Sweet/sour.

B

bitter_then_sour_and_sweet_flavor

Bitter at first, fades to sour with an undercurrent of sweet.

C

sour-sweet

Heavier sour forward taste than A; underlying sweetness.

D

sweet_then_sour_and_salty_flavor

Sweet then sour. As the tea cools a slight saltiness emerges.

TEXTURE

A

soft texture

Soft.

B

watery_dry_texture

Watery, then drying.

C

watery_puckering_texture

Watery, but with a saliva-inducing puckering texture.

D

soft drying texture

Soft, drying.

BODY

A

medium light body

B

medium light body

C

medium light body

D

medium light body

BALANCE

A

Well balanced. Flavor a bit stronger than aroma.

B

Mostly flavor with some aroma.

C

Flavor more noticeable than aroma/texture.

D

Everything is soft. Perhaps flavor a bit stronger than aroma.

The Reveal

Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.

A: Spring 2019. Full, rounded aromas backed by a balanced sweet/sour flavor. Unlike the other three, which finish sour, this tea finishes on a lingering sweet note almost of refined sugar. This, along with the white flower aroma, leads me to think this tea is the odd one out!
 
B: Fall B. There’s just something about that strong fruit candy taste. This isn’t an elegant tea, but it’s a fun one to drink. The stronger, rougher aromas and especially the dark colored liquor make me believe that this tea is the least evenly processed. From the dry leaf inspection, that would be Fall B.
 
C: Fall A. This tea has a very forward white grape skin sourness. None of the other teas match this one in the strength of the puckering sour flavor of the Qing Xin cultivar. By a process of elimination, this one should be Fall A.
 

D: Fall 2018. The progression of flavors as the tea cools is unique. Generally mellow and simple all around, the liquor gains an interesting sour/salty flavor as it cools. The aromas were fainter and less distinct than in the other three teas, making me think this is the older tea, Fall 2018.

A – Spring 2019

B – Fall B (2019)

C – Fall A (2019)

D – Fall 2018

Conclusion

Looks like I managed to figure out where the old maid was hiding! This should be evident from the tasting notes, but (with the exception of the year-old Fall 2018), all the teas were markedly similar, so this could have been as much luck as skill 😉

As for the difference between spring and autumn tea? Obviously I can’t generalize based on one tasting, but even this single tasting bring an important point to light. That is:

Processing is more important than season.

In this taste test, tea A (Spring) and tea C (Fall A) were more similar than tea C (Fall A) and tea B (Fall B). Even though the fall teas were picked on the same day in the same garden, the smaller leaf size and slightly heavier oxidation of Fall B (see dry leaf photo in ‘Meet the Teas’ section above) produced a stronger, rougher tasting tea.

This is also to say that a quality fall pick with good processing can rival the nuances of a similar spring tea. In this particular case, the spring tea had a slightly richer texture and gentle lingering sweetness that set it apart, but just barely! That appears to be an effect of the season, not processing.

What are you observations about spring vs. autumn tea? Have you found any autumn teas that can stand toe to toe with (or even surpass) their spring counterparts?

Addendum - the wet leaves talk

The wet leaves tell a story, which is why it’s important to examine them after a tea session (especially if drinking to buy). Blind tastings are important for determining preference without price/brand/prestige bias, but the wet leaves can fill you in on a bit of what occurred over the tea’s life. (This is why I post large pictures in every tea review!)

Anyway, to the leaves. The stem of the spring tea leaves is soft, retaining the crinkles from rolling. The spring tea leaves are more elastic than that of the autumn teas, bouncing back to their original shape after steeping. The leaves of the autumn teas retain wrinkles like crumpled paper.

Note also the reddened edges of Fall B and Fall 2018 – this is evidence of oxidation. Fall A and the spring tea have undergone less oxidation (evidenced by the lack of red around the leaf edges). This was probably one factor leading to their similar taste profiles.

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