Darjeeling 1st Flush is at last nearly here - and find out what else has been filling up my tasting table this month.
It’s been two months since I posted about sourcing this year’s spring teas from my kitchen in London – rather than from gardens around the world. I’ve now had the chance to taste some of those teas and make our selections, so it feels like a great time to update you on what’s happening at origins across the globe and what you can expect to be drinking this year.
Looking ahead, as we go deeper into the season, I’ll be sharing more updates most Mondays (here and on our Instagram channel). These will tell you what’s coming in each week and how the seasons are progressing – so do check them out. I’d love feedback too – just leave comments below about what you’d like to know and any questions.
For now, let’s start with somewhere we last updated you on back in April…
We’re usually drinking our Darjeeling 1st flush by the end of April. Right now, though, we’re hearing from thirsty Darjeeling 1st flush fans who are keen to taste this season’s tea – and we don’t blame them. We actually selected our 1st flush very early this year before the lockdown in the gardens - it was produced when the conditions were perfect. Tea master Sen at Badamtam Garden knew what I was looking for and so they produced a very tippy batch for us (this means that the tea was picked very carefully). This tippy nature and the great production conditions mean it's very floral and the syrupy character is emphasised.
Why are we still waiting? Not long after the pressures and disappointments of lockdown, the region experienced a bad cyclone. All Darjeeling tea travels through Kolkata, which was affected badly enough that offices and businesses were closed for a period. This created a very long backlog for getting samples and teas sent to London.
Darjeeling 1st flush is always heavily anticipated, and we work hard every year to make it available for tea explorers as quickly as possible. The anticipation is in part because for many, it represents the first taste of spring and the arrival of the new tea season; and in part because the character and taste of the traditional style can change very quickly after it’s produced, so it tastes best when it’s very fresh.
This year I have selected what’s known as the “clonal” style of 1st flush – it is made using newer cultivars of the tea bush that produce lighter, sweeter more aromatic 1st flush than the traditional style which has some briskness (this is like structure – it means it feels a little bit rough or sharp in the mouth). When briskness combines with sweetness it creates a very refreshing character. In the traditional style of 1st flush, it’s the briskness that tends to dominate with time and for some, it starts to mask or cover up the floral aromatics. That’s the reason it’s best drunk for just a few months after it’s produced. This newer style though does not age in the same way – in fact, I was still drinking last year’s 1st flush until recently and really enjoying it.
I’m pleased to say that our 1st flush from the organic Badamtam Garden remained in the cool climate of Darjeeling during the cyclone and so avoided the heat of Kolkata. It has now left Kolkata so I am expecting it imminently!
And what of the 2nd Flush? I’m happy to report the gardens are now back up to 100% of their workforces and 2nd flush production is in full swing.
This year, I’m looking for something slightly different from our 2nd flush. We know the impact that organic production has on the health of producers and their environments – and indeed us as tea drinkers – so I’m only considering teas that have been produced organically.
I’m hearing some good reports that quality this year will be very high, thanks to the long recovery period of the bushes after the 1st flush was cut short. As I work through the samples as they arrive, I’ll share more detail on the individual gardens we select.
Now, over to China…
Mr Wen’s organic Dragon Well tea has arrived and we launched it this week. The buds are smaller because of last summer’s drought, but this has not affected the taste. The tea is brilliantly spring fresh, but with the underlying warmth from the firing to bring out its characteristic chestnut flavours. - I'm really enjoying drinking it.
To see the differences between this year’s tea and last year’s, check out Felicity’s very short video.
Ever since we bought our first batch of Red Dragon, I’ve been working closely with the tea master, Chen Qiguang, looking at how the tea’s developing as the bushes mature and the garden establishes itself. When I tasted the spring tea last week, I liked it, but it has quite a different character to what we had last spring. This years reminded me a little bit of a good high-grown Ceylon, but that meant it was a little dry in its floral aromas rather than sweet and fruity. I’ve asked Chen to try baking this spring batch a bit – and I’ll also taste the summer batch. I’m expecting these on the tasting table early in July.
Right now, I’m deep in prime second flush Assam Breakfast tasting, while tracking the Gyokuro samples that are winging their way from Japan daily. I’ll be back here soon to let you know how they are tasting. I’ve had reports today that unfortunately Assam has had some flooding this week – this will definitely affect the flavour of the tea that is being produced and reduce the quality. I’ll be speaking to the farmers and keeping very close to the gardens to find the flavours and teas I’m looking for – and that best celebrate the uniqueness of Assam as an origin.