I have never paid as much attention to the weather as I do these days, owing to the changes that are impacting tea farmers. Tea, like other crops, is heavily dependent on the right weather conditions. Too little rain and the leaves suffer, too much, and the roots rot. Unseasonal rain hits leaf quality, thereby impacting flavour. You are always in for a surprise.
This month, the season opens in Darjeeling with the first flush. This is a key season, bringing significant export revenue to tea producers. Recently, Darjeeling planters warned of a drop in production because the winter rain had been insufficient. February should have brought rain but didn’t. All eyes are on the sky, in the hope of normal rainfall.
The first flush has traditionally been dependent on the export market but if these teas could build a market in India, it would help farmers, not to mention the choice it would offer tea drinkers. For this reason and more, I urge you to try them.
The classic first flush is not heavily oxidised. Some describe it as “mellow”, I will go with a light and clean black tea—for those who like a light tea in the morning, drunk plain. If you are seeking to make an acquaintance with the Darjeeling first flush, here’s a guide:
* Single-estate Darjeeling first flush is unblended, representing the tea the planter intended to make based on the quality of the leaves.
* Try teas from various gardens to understand the similarities and differences. Tea farmer Vivek Lochan, who also trades in Darjeeling tea, says the early batches from Jungpana and Giddapahar have been his favourites. They have also selected the spring tea from Sourenee (a little stronger than the other two) and one from Upper Fagu. These are micro-lots, so these will be available until stocks last on Teaswan.com.
* Most estates focus on making the classic black tea but also make white and oolong varieties this season. The Rohini tea estate has launched four teas so far, including a bai mudan, or the white peony, made by sun-drying leaves and buds.
* Nathmulls Tea, Darjeeling’s most famous tea store, has listed the first flush black teas from the Upper Fagu, Selim Hill, Puttabong and Tukvar estates. Jayshree Tea, which owns Puttabong and Risheehat, has published videos with detailed tastings of their first flush on LinkedIn. It’s worth watching.
The first flush is not an inexpensive tea when compared to mass-market prices. Nor is it prohibitive—be prepared to pay upwards of ₹500 for a 50g packet, which makes about 25 cups. Some vendors or estates offer sample packs of 10g; these are a great buy. Check if the teas are from spring 2023. If you find an inexpensive first flush, check its source for authenticity and adulteration. Only teas that are 100% from GI (geographical indication)-listed estates can carry the Darjeeling logo or use the name Darjeeling. In the coming weeks, more gardens will start showcasing their first flush. Do try and ask for these teas by garden. Darjeeling needs our love and support.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.