A PROMISE OF BRIGHTER DAYS
A few regions have names that immediately evoke not only a local product, but a product of pure excellence. Champagne for sparkling wine, Roncal for cheese and, of course, Darjeeling for tea. Join us for a saunter along the Himalayan hillsides to see where this “Champagne of teas”, and particularly its first harvest of the year, gets its world-renowned mystique.
A MARVELLOUS SWEET SPOT
If given years to imagine the perfect setting for a tea plantation, one could scarcely think of the myriad reasons that make the Indian region of Darjeeling so uniquely fit for this task.
The altitude, the rainfall, the amount of shade provided by the surrounding mountaintops. These are but a few of the attributes that make the region a paradise for the Camellia Sinensis plant from which Darjeeling tea is processed.
The first harvest, known as the first flush, of the plant’s leaves has gained prominence around the world for the exquisite quality of the tea it produces. This happens around March to May each year and is one of the absolute highlights for tea lovers everywhere.
While reminiscing of his first trip to Darjeeling, CEO of The Tea Centre of Stockholm, Gihan Mauris, describes a stunning picture of the delicate first shoots which make up the first flush.
"The leaves stretch as far as the eye can see and are so vividly green," he says, "that when the sun hits them, the entire hillside looks like a sea of brightly shining neon."
A Palatable Merger
From this neon sea one of the world’s most sought-after beverages is produced. A black tea whose liquor is nonetheless brightly yellow in colour, that hides a multitude of flavours. The Darjeeling first flush is highly dependent on the unique conditions it grows in and varies in character along with the terroir – the environmental factors – around the specific plant from which a cup is brewed.
“The very first time I visited Darjeeling,” Gihan continues, “my father told me to begin by tasting the local water and observing what grows around the plantation besides the tea.”
The earth, water, flowers, and fruits surrounding the plants all influence the character of the tea produced from its leaves. This is particularly true of the first flush during which the plant, after resting since the final flush of the year prior, shoots out with exuberant energy, soaking in the many aromas around it. Fresh grass, flowery and fruity tones, and other savoury spring flavours are plentiful.
Later flushes of the same plant from the same location produce a quite different character and their liquor is immediately recognized for being much darker.
A Long-Standing Tradition
Due to the sensitivity of the first flush in regard to how its taste and character is developed, each plantation sells lots of tea which are marked not only by the plantation name, but plenty of other highly relevant factors. Behind each lot code lies information about the day that the leaves were picked, the various processing times, the exact location of the plant in the plantation and much more.
For instance, a great batch of Darjeeling tea might stem from part of a hillside with just the right inclination to provide the plant with the perfect amount of water. Such a batch will be highly popular during the ensuing trading pandemonium, in which The Tea Centre partakes on a yearly basis.
“When Darjeeling first flush begins to be available around March”, Gihan elaborates, “the tea trade turns into a hectic scene from Wall Street.”
Decisions need to be made quickly as its immense popularity makes the black tea an ephemeral appearance on the market. For three decades, The Tea Centre has been ready when the bell rings, providing its customers with high quality first flush Darjeeling – always single estate teas to provide maximum uniqueness and traceability.
After tasting around 200 first flush batches, one or two are selected and brought to the Swedish boutique and headquarters.
A Rewarding Anticipation
Due to its relatively short supply, Darjeeling first flush is not sold in the same way as other teas. Tea lovers sign up in advance for a certain amount of product and have two weeks once it arrives to buy their share before it is made available for sale to the public. Timing is of the essence as tea from the delicate first flush leaves tastes best when consumed shortly after harvest.
Once customers collect their share of the precious plant, they are invited to sign up for next year’s first flush again, something that most do immediately. Of course, nobody knows what next year’s spring Darjeeling will offer in terms of character, but such is the nature of this amazing first flush that people gladly trust The Tea Centre to bring home something more than worthwhile.
“I never order anything that I would not consider top quality myself,” Gihan concludes, “and Darjeeling first flush is just one of those rare beverages that has me saying ‘wow’ every year and always brings me back to that first visit to the mountainous region.”
“A cup of Darjeeling first flush is a sure sign of a beautiful summer approaching.”