Timothy D’Offay, of Postcard Teas in London, delivers the first in a series of tea tasting notes. This time, the first flush of spring.
The signs of spring for most people are the leaves returning to the trees, daffodils and blossom blooming. For a tea merchant it is the arrival of the Darjeeling first flush tea from the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.
The tea plant is a member of the evergreen camellia family so it never sheds its leaves, but in winter when temperatures drop tea bushes stop producing shoots (or flushing as this new growth is known). In spring, as the weather becomes warmer, young leaves appear packed with the sappy vitality of spring. This new foliage heralds the beginning of the first flush season, which in Darjeeling usually runs from mid-March to early May.
First flush teas tend to be quite light and green which accentuates their spring floral aromas and gentle vegetal flavours, characteristics you might also find in a Chinese green tea. The link is the plants: while most Indian tea (and most black tea) is made from a larger-leafed tea camellia called Assam, the original plants in Darjeeling came from a smaller-leafed Chinese variety. Indeed the background of the Darjeeling area is very cosmopolitan – an amazing mixture of Indian and British influences as well as the Gorkha culture (the majority people in the area) and a sizable Tibetan community too.
If you love Darjeeling tea enough to consider travelling there (definitely worth it), you should try to stay on a tea estate. Goomtee and Makaibari are good choices but if you have the time and the money then Glenburn Tea Estate offers both lots to do and complete tranquillity as well as some of best first flush teas in Darjeeling. Any time from now until the monsoon arrives in June or early July is a good time to visit, as is late September and October.
For those unable to visit this year, there is always a cup of Darjeeling tea to enjoy. To brew a sweet cup of first flush you should use the same temperature of water you would with a Chinese green tea – about 80 or 85˚C. Using boiling water will bring out the astringency in the tea so should be avoided. Good quality first flush teas will also infuse several times if the liquid tea is completely poured off the leaves between infusions.
This year’s first flush is a little late so you’ll find the 2012 first flush with us (and in any good tea shop) later this month (keep an eye out here).