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Exploring the Taste Diversity Within a Tea Tree: Apical Buds vs. Lateral Buds

[2023.05.23] Posted By

Do you believe that all tea leaves have the same taste as long as they come from the same tree? I would like to explain that the taste of tea can vary significantly depending on the plucking position, even when harvested from the same tree.

The Difference in Flavor Due to Different Harvesting Parts of the Same Tea Tree

In Japanese tea gardens, the branches are pruned to a shorter length, resembling bonsai trees, and maintained at a consistent height for machine harvesting. This makes it difficult to notice the taste differences caused by variations in the plucking position. However, in China, tea is primarily hand-plucked, which means tea trees in tea gardens do not have to be meticulously pruned like in Japan.

Especially when you visit regions known for Phoenix oolong (Fenghuang Dancong) or Pu-erh tea, you will find tea being cultivated in the form of shrubs, resembling fruit trees such as apple or persimmon trees. This cultivation style, without extensive branch pruning, is referred to as “qiaomu” in Chinese. (Please refer to the attached photo for reference.)

In the case of these tea trees, the taste difference based on the plucking position is highly noticeable. It’s not just slight differences that only professionals can detect; there are actually dramatic differences that anyone can notice when they are compared side by side.

The Difference in Flavor Between the Apical Bud and the Lateral Bud

In tea trees, there are two types of buds: apical buds and lateral buds. The most flavorful leaves are apical buds, which grow at the tips of the branches, while there are also lateral buds that grow on the sides of the branches.

The plant buds do not grow simultaneously. There is a mechanism called apical dominance, where the apical buds have a competitive advantage and grow faster, while the lateral buds grow slowly, for the case of tea, typically with a delay of 1-2 weeks. This apical dominance is influenced by a plant hormone called auxin.

Therefore, when visiting a tea garden at the beginning of the season, you may find that the tea leaves at the tips of the branches have already grown to 1 bud with 2 or 3 leaves, while the lateral buds on the sides of the branches remain as small buds.

The apical buds at the tips of the branches have a rich and intense flavor, with pronounced sweetness and a smooth texture. They are noticeably of high quality. On the other hand, the lateral buds have a slightly milder flavor and the taste is less intense.

In Japanese tea gardens, cultivation methods are designed with machine harvesting in mind. For machine harvesting, it is essential for the tea buds to grow at a consistent rate. To achieve this, the branches are pruned in autumn, specifically targeting the apical buds that would otherwise grow rapidly. By pruning the apical buds, it stimulates the growth of lateral buds on the branches. This helps to synchronize the growth rate of the tea buds.

On the other hand, tea that has undergone apical bud pruning consists mainly of lateral buds. Compared to teas cultivated in the qiaomu style (where the branches are not pruned), there is a tendency for the flavor of pruned tea to be lighter.

Tea is Made from Apical Buds During the First Week

Don’t you feel like trying tea made exclusively from apical buds once you learn how exceptional their flavor is?

In fact, we source many teas (excluding Japanese teas) that consists of apical buds, particularly Yunnan tea and Phoenix Oolong. The method is actually simple: during the first week of the season, the harvested tea consists mainly of apical buds. Because of the mechanism called apical dominance, the apical buds are the ones that grow first. We have specific tea gardens from which we source our teas. Therefore, if we purchase tea harvested within the first week of the tea picking season, it will be mostly composed of apical buds, guaranteeing outstanding quality.

After the first tea picking is complete, approximately another 1 week later, tea picking takes place in the same tea garden again. By this time, the harvest of apical buds is completely finished, and instead, the grown lateral buds are plucked. By the way, these lateral buds are not considered as second flush tea. Both apical buds and lateral buds are considered as first flush tea. But it’s important to note that the quality differs between apical buds and lateral buds.

After the harvest of first flush tea (including both apical buds and lateral buds), there is a period of about one month, and then the tea starts sprouting again, which is known as second flush tea.

During the first week of tea harvesting, the apical buds on the tea plants are growing simultaneously.

In Yunnan Province, tea produced in the same tea garden is generally traded at similar prices regardless of whether it’s made from apical buds or lateral buds. Therefore, some producers may blend all in order to even out the quality..

On the other hand, in regions known for producing green tea and oolong tea, where the market is closer, they clearly recognize a higher value on apical buds. The initial batch composed of apical buds tends to be sold at a higher price compared to the later-picked lateral buds. This is why early-harvested Chinese green teas like Long Jing and Bi Luo Chun are typically more expensive.

Harvesting Tea Early Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better

While it may be commonly believed that the quality of tea improves when harvested earlier, the reality is more complex.

Tea gardens situated at higher elevations experience slower tea growth. Similarly, older tea trees have a reduced growth rate, and naturally grown tea without fertilizers also exhibits slower growth. Tea meeting these conditions tends to develop slowly and only sprouts towards the end of the growing season. This gradual growth process contributes to a higher concentration of minerals, a pronounced aftertaste, and long-lasting flavors, resulting in exceptional quality. Conversely, tea cultivated in lower-elevation areas, where heavy fertilizer use and younger tea trees are prevalent, undergoes rapid growth and matures early in the spring. Consequently, when solely considering the germination period, tea gardens with later germination tend to yield better quality.

However, when comparing teas within the same garden and among similar-aged tea trees, the tea harvested within the first week of germination, comprised of apical buds, demonstrates superior quality.

When assessing teas harvested during the same timeframe, it is crucial to consider two factors: 1. the disparity in growth rate between terminal buds and lateral buds, and 2. the variability in growth rate attributed to factors such as elevation, tree age, and natural cultivation. Relying solely on the harvest date as indicated on the calendar is insufficient for determining tea quality.

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