Written by Felicity

Darjeeling 1st Flush, Spring 2020, picked in very early March and produced in the organic Badamtam Garden by Garden leader Sen and his team.

In this deep dive we look at our spring 2020 batch of this favourite spring tea. It’s been a while coming – we’re usually drinking our Darjeeling 1st Flush by the end of April – and although this one was produced in very early March, the lockdown prevented the tea from getting from the garden to the port; and then a cyclone affected Kolkata, which further delayed the tea getting shipped.

This batch is a newer style, known as a clonal style. As I sit down to write this I have of course made myself a cup – it’s an enticing warm pale gold colour with sweet, floral aromas. It is almost like a white tea from China but with its Darjeeling distinctiveness and so I’m reminded that the first flushes from Darjeeling, with their early buds and quick processing, are in a tea category all of their own.

Read on to meet Mr Sen and his team at Badamtam Garden – a place that has been producing tea throughout the spring in the shadow of the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain, deep in the Himalayas for the past 160 years.

Since the tea arrived, I’ve experimented with a few methods for making it too, so I’ll tell you where I find the sweet spot of this unique mountain tea.

Darjeeling 1st Flush, Spring 2020
Darjeeling 1st Flush, Spring 2020.

Origin: Darjeeling, West Bengal, India.

Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘’Av2 clone”

Name: First flush refers to this being the very first picking of the bushes after their winter dormancy.

Style: First flush – black tea processing but low ambient temperatures in early spring mean that the leaves and buds do not fully oxidise.

Terroir: Grown in an organic garden in the foothills of the Himalayas; high up the mountain, the bushes are often surrounded by protective mist.

Altitude: >1,500m

Picking Season: Spring 2020

Leaf: Long, unbroken leaf and bud showing both brown and green leaves and silver tea tips.

Oxidation: 30%

Production: Organic

Infusion: A fawny gold, light & bright.

How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?

As it’s one of the most important teas in the calendar every year and is produced in such small quantities, there is fierce competition to get the best examples every year. This means that usually Tom will base himself there for a few days towards the end of March. In 2018 both Ed, JING founder and Tom – who I’ll guess you know already as our Head of Tea from his many sourcing updates and his new tasting table videos spent an extended period in the region. It was the new season after political strikes (regional not related to tea) which meant that no production happened for most of the 2nd flush season. Having observed the quality of the teas from Darjeeling decreasing steadily over the past decade as a result of the many challenges that the region faces, including changing weather patterns, young people moving to the cities and not wanting to work in the tea industry and decreasing global tea price, Tom and Ed wanted to be there for this new season to spend time with the producers – finding out what was really happening. It was during this extended stay that they got to know Sen, the garden manager of Badamtam. It’s one of the best known and highest quality estates for first flush in the area. It is very high (some of the bushes are at 1,830m altitude) and one of only a few using organic farming practices.

Spending more time in Darjeeling meant it was easy for them to see some of what is happening, but hard to imagine a world without this rightly famous and well-loved tea. I followed them and in 2019, a couple of weeks after Tom, I spent some of the 2nd flush season in the area. Staying in part with Sen, his wife and family, I met many tea professionals whose passion for the place, industry and the tea was infectious.

As the JING team and the Badamtam team have got to know each other better, Tom’s been working alongside Sen – enabling him to taste some of the very small batches that Sen makes in Badamtam, and also really get to know this newer “clonal” style. This meant that this year, when Tom was confined by the lockdown to sourcing from his kitchen, Sen knew what Tom was looking for and we were able to get some of the very early production. You can read more about the challenges that the region faced this year here.

Sorting the leaves before they go to the small factory behind to be processed.
Sorting the leaves before they go to the small factory behind to be processed.
Badamtam is high in the Himalaya - in the Lebong Valley.
Badamtam is high in the Himalaya - in the Lebong Valley.

What is this batch like to drink?

Compared to the traditional style, this clonal batch is delicate, floral and sweet. The colour is golden and the infusion indicates the thick and juicy texture in the mouth.

Being a first flush, it has a supreme freshness – reminiscent of early spring. Often for spring teas, like Chinese greens including Dragon Well Supreme and Baojing Gold, we think of grassiness. In this Darjeeling 1st Flush, the grass is more hay like. The high floral aromas make way for a fruitiness in the taste. It’s round, satisfying and warm.

Where and when is this tea for?

For me it’s a warmer weather tea – I like the refreshment it provides. As with almost all spring teas, the flavours will be most suited to spring weather! Its mellow character works well late morning or late afternoon – although in many ways it shares characteristics with the Chinese white teas. Like Silver Needle or White Peony, it has more body to it – a sort of bite, which before lunch or in the late afternoon will perk you up.

Sen, Badamtam Garden Manager tasting his First Flushes
Sen, Badamtam Garden Manager tasting his First Flushes.
Comparing the traditional style (left) which is slightly darker with the clonal style (right) which has many more tips and downy buds.
Comparing the traditional style (left) which is slightly darker with the clonal style (right) which has many more tips and downy buds.

What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?

This tea is easy to make well – in fact it’s one of the benefits of this clonal style over the traditional style – you won’t get noticeable astringency.

Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:

As with all highly aromatic teas, do heat your teapot before you add the leaves. You can do this by simply filling the pot with hot water, swirling the water around for a few seconds before discarding. When you add your leaves, the heat will activate them and you’ll get a good blast of those floral aromas. For a single serve, I use 4g (or 3tsp) of tea for 250ml.

The only thing you need to be aware of is making the water a little bit cooler than boiling. If it’s too hot, you’ll cover up or lose some of the high aromas. This batch works best with just 80˚C water.

If you don’t have a temperature-controlled kettle, you can simply leave your boiled water to cool for 6-8 minutes before adding it to the leaves. Or (and I think this is an easier way to do it) add cold water to the leaves first, up to about a fifth of the volume of your teapot, then top up the rest with freshly boiled water to level out the heat.

With this method a three-minute infusion works well and, as always, pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug or glass for the complete, perfect cup. As it’s made with cooler water it will be a good temperature to drink right away and it also means you can notice the flavours changing as it cools – you’ll get some honey as the sweetness concentrates.

This is our go-to method: 4g/2tsp per 250ml; 80˚C; 3 minutes per infusion.

The area of Darjeeling in West Bengal is in the foothills of the Himalaya.
The area of Darjeeling in West Bengal is in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Who is this tea for?

If you want the flavours of spring but with some warmth, I think you’ll enjoy this tea. If you like the soft body of Chinese white teas but want a little more bite – this will give you just that. It has the brightness and spring freshness of an early spring green but is highly aromatic and without the vegetal flavours. It’s a super refreshing, quenching and uplifting spring tea – satisfying and refined – perfect for late morning or an afternoon pick-me-up.

Darjeeling First Flush Infusion.
Darjeeling First Flush infusion.
Darjeeling First Flush loose leaf
Darjeeling First Flush dry leaf.