Image: Alisher Sharip
The changing of seasons is perhaps one of the most notable natural phenomena that we are familiar with. The seasons are designed to be unique as well as diverse. Every season elicits distinctive characteristics from flora and fauna, and the qualities that seasons bring with them are wonderful to say the least, as is the grace with which they seamlessly transit from one to the other. Perhaps the best example of this is reflected in tea. Be it the floral aroma, the full, creamy body or the sharp astringency, the season of harvest has a profound impact on the subtle interplay of flavours that you and I enjoy in our cup of tea.
As with all other agricultural products, tea is harvested at different times of the year. The season of harvest is known as “flush” and in India, especially the tea estates in Darjeeling, there are five of these flushes that occur throughout the year. Three of them are major harvest seasons, whilst two are intermediary ones.
Each harvest season creates a tea that has its own unique personality, the temperature and rainfall during each season directly affecting the constitution of the leaves in the Camellia Sinensis plant. The plant is an evergreen perennial. It retains its foliage throughout the year but reacts to every season differently. It goes dormant in winter and brings fresh foliage in spring. This fresh foliage is what’s known as the “First Flush”. It's the royal Darjeeling tea.
One of India’s three main tea-growing regions, Darjeeling is by far not the largest but it is the most special because the teas it produces are some of the finest teas in the world. To understand the reason, you need to understand its geography.
Darjeeling bumps up against the Tibetan Himalaya and is stretched between high mountain ridges as well as deep mountain valleys. This geography and the sometimes inaccessible terrain are perfect for such fine quality tea bushes to grow.
Another reason why Darjeeling tea is so fine is that it is unique to this part of India. Whilst some tea estates in Darjeeling cultivate the native Indian tea bush (Camellia sinensis assamica), the most cultivated tea around here is its Chinese counterpart (Camellia sinensis sinensis). The Chinese tea bush has acclimated to the high elevation and the climate that is similar to China’s but at the same time, has its own characteristic.
In Darjeeling, tea bushes are exposed to a healthy combination of sunny and cloudy weather patterns the whole year, which dominate the harvest seasons. The different weather patterns result in different growth times for tea leaves. The term “Flush” is used for differentiating those growth times and to pinpoint the differences in the produce.
Regardless of which flush a Darjeeling tea comes from, each set of fresh leaves will be different in terms of the garden it is plucked from, the season during which it is harvested, and the day on which it was plucked. Darjeeling flush teas go through processing, withering, rolling and oxidising in a technique that reflects the harvest season and the condition of the leaves plucked. So, rest assured that no two Darjeeling teas will be alike.
The one-of-a-kind nature of Darjeeling teas can please any palate, whether it prefers dark breakfast teas or mild greens. Artisans in the tea estates work in tandem with nature to bring about the complex and distinct variety in taste, body and aroma for each batch.
Indian teas are strictly labelled under a grading system which classifies them according to size, age and wholeness of the leaves. Grading comes in the form of acronyms. The more letters on the acronym, the better the quality of the tea.
STGFOP is the highest grade, which comprises only the finest handpicked leaves. STGFOP stands for Special Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Though tea companies tend to categorise Darjeeling teas as black, the truth is, Darjeeling tea leaves are uniquely processed with diverse oxidation levels and a First Flush STGFOP appears much lighter than black tea.
First Flush teas are amazing. They are a treat for taste buds. As winter slowly transits into spring, the tea plants begin to blossom and floral tones become prominent in the leaves.
Tea flush is as much about timing as it is about the knowledge of which tea leaves to pluck in which season. First Flush is the picking of the fresh couple of leaves along with a bud. It takes place from the months of February to April. These early leaves are more tender and delicate and are therefore, milder, more floral, and have an astringency in the flavour.
Also known as Spring Flush as it marks the first seasonal harvest of the year, Darjeeling First Flush tea is one of the most sought after and expensive teas in the international market. Such is its exclusivity that tea connoisseurs around the world consider it to be the Champagne of Teas.
The light body, rich aroma and delicate taste of the Darjeeling First Flush tea offer a buttery smooth mouthfeel. The leaves are only lightly oxidised, so as to retain their fresh flavour. Though it can last up to one year if properly preserved, the tea tastes best when consumed sooner rather than later.
First Flush teas are some of the most exquisite teas in the world. Buying a First Flush tea means you’re making a good investment. Buy from a reputable tea company that describes in detail the processing, packaging and of course, the time of harvesting. Ask for any specific instructions available on its preservation. The prescribed method of preservation is placing it in an airtight, opaque container and storing in a cool, dark place away from any source of light, moisture and any items with strong flavours such as coffee or spices. Their flavours might affect the tea and spoil its taste.
When it comes to brewing the First Flush, cold filtered fresh water is the best as the tea leaves are only lightly oxidised. Steep it for no more than 2-3 minutes. To get an astringent brew, steep it in water that’s just off the boil. Cover the tea when it steeps and avoid adding milk and sweetener because they will overshadow the delicate flavour. Make sure to not oversteep it as it will release tannins which will make the tea bitter to taste.
Lastly, if you are new to tea, a Darjeeling First Flush tea is all that you need to join the legion of tea connoisseurs around the world. If you’ve been to any tea auctions, you must have noticed that Darjeeling First Flush always commands the highest price, even though there are other very good First Flush teas harvested in various parts of India such as Assam, Kangra and the Nilgiris.
The marriage of layered and intricate taste and floral flavours make the Darjeeling First Flush tea a brand by itself. Tea connoisseurs often state that the true taste of tea is best found in a cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling First Flush.
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