Socially Distanced Tea Picking

As I reported earlier in March, tea gardens in India have been heavily impacted by lockdown measures introduced to stave off COVID-19. So far, there have been no reported cases in the mountainous regions of Darjeeling, which is good news.

Nevertheless ongoing social distancing policies are in place for the foreseeable future. In this piece, I’ll look at the impact of social distancing on tea production in Darjeeling and the expected upcoming teas we’ll be sourcing.

In tea gardens across India, social distancing takes the form of reduced shift size, the wearing of masks and the marking out of increased personal space in various inventive ways. Darjeeling gardens have been allowed to operate with 50% of their normal workforce, which will certainly reduce the amount of leaf that can be picked, and reduce the available work for local seasonal workers.

social distancing in action at Nonaipara garden, Assam, India April 2020
Social distancing in action at Nonaipara garden, Assam, India April 2020

Now the gardens are about to enter second flush, which should see the highest quality batches produced at the end of May, early June. The second flush means the second time in the year that bushes start producing new growth. When first flush picking was interrupted, garden owners pruned the bushes rather than picked them just to encourage the second growth to come through after a brief period of inter-flush dormancy.

Where first flush Darjeeling encapsulates spring, with its characteristic high floral aromas and light astringency, the second flush has unique muscatel flavours. Good bushes can produce excellent teas in either crop, but some gardens are more suited to second flush production given their unique geographical position and weather.

Unique landscapes in Darjeeling – Thurbo tea garden, April 2019
Unique landscapes in Darjeeling – Thurbo tea garden, April 2019

While the second flush starts small at the end of May, come mid-June the summer temperatures mean bushes flush much heavier than first flush. It’s at this time that the restrictions on number of pickers might bite the hardest, and this means you should look to the early picked second flush for best quality, especially this year.

I am happy to see gardens in India doing all they can to protect workers from the pandemic, but also adapting ingeniously to current circumstances. With such potential for disruption in a labour-intensive task, concerns for availability of second flush teas are certainly warranted. However I am looking forward to seeing the early teas from next week onwards, and I am hopeful of selecting a special batch for our collection.

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