Sixth in a series on the teas of India.
First Flush Darjeeling fades rapidly and is best drunk before autumn. It is a tea said to have no keeping quality, just as young Beaujolais does not. It gradually dwindles into a ghost of a tea, whereas weeks or even months after its birth it was unforgettable. Though fermented as a black tea, it is characteristically greenish in both appearance and taste. I prefer to drink these teas in a Chinese fashion, multiple steepings in a guywan or covered cup. So delicate is First Flush Darjeeling that it especially well repays using water about thirty degrees below boiling, as in preparing green tea.
Incredible prices are paid at the Calcutta auctions each spring for the most stylish or prestigious invoices (lots of usually two to five chests) of Darjeeling’s Spring teas. Throughout the ’90s each year’s priciest tea at auction regularly brought over US$500 per kilo. Except for certain rarities, Chinese and Taiwanese mostly, First Flush Darjeeling is the world’s costliest tea. It is much sought after by wealthy Indian buyers, who must compete with brokers acting for German and Japanese importers and the occasional sultan as well. A particular cachet attaches to the first new tea offered for sale, and Namring seems to have mastered the knack of always coming in first.
From May onward the famous Darjeeling Summer Teas are produced. This Second Flush leaf is more succulent, resulting in very attractive looking teas with a purplish bloom or sheen and a sprinkling of silver tips, or leaf buds. The cup shows more color and tastes lush and mellow compared to the spring teas preceding it. The quality most prized in Second Flush teas is a pronounced muscatel flavor, so called, an intense fruitiness which must be experienced to be believed. At its best, Second Flush Darjeeling is unquestionably the most complex black tea the world produces, with an everlasting aftertaste it shares with no other. During this period the infused leaf will show a bright copper/purple color. Second Flush is characterized by more fruit, fuller body, richer aroma and rather less astringency than First Flush.
Second Flush season lasts until the rains arrive from the south on the monsoon winds. The Darjeeling district receives so much monsoon rainfall from the middle of June until the end of September that it must be measured not in inches but feet – sometimes over sixteen, seldom under ten. With October the weather clears and the Autumnal Flush season begins, to extend through November as the air cools and sunshine slowly wanes. In appearance, the tea of these two months takes on a light copper/brownish tinge and liquors have a delicate but sparkling quality, with a delightful flavor which is different from both Spring and Summer Tea. Infused leaf has a coppery gold brightness with a sweet fresh nose.
Besides these generalized changes from one season to another, Darjeeling tea offers an even more subtle layer of complexities. There are nearly ninety gardens in Darjeeling. Those whose teas are available by name in the U.S. market include (in alphabetical order): Ambootia, Balasun, Bannockburn, Castleton, Chamong, Gielle, Ging, Goomtee, Gopaldhara, Jungpana, Lingia, Margaret’s Hope, Makaibari, Marybong, Namring, North Tukvar, Orange Valley, Phoobsering, Pussimbing, Tukvar, Puttabong, Risheehat, Selimbong, Soom, Sungma, Teesta Valley, Tongsong, and Tukdah. Year after year, from one season to another, various gardens consistently distinguish themselves by their recognizable styles. It is as if they were expressing personalities, just as individual wineries in the Napa Valley or chateaux in the Medoc also do. Just how much of this personality belongs to the garden manager and how much to the vegetation under his care it is impossible to say. The spirit of friendly competition among garden managers seems to have filtered down to the very laborers; all involved take pride in skills that have been passed down for generations and in the traditional practices of their particular garden. No Darjeeling is an assembly line product.
Read next: Nilgiri