The following article was originally posted to T Ching in March of 2012.
Sixteen “cuppers” all over the world lifted their tasting spoons together during the International Tea Cuppers Club’s Darjeeling First Flush Cupping Event, during which premium tea samples from ten estates were tested, evaluated, and enjoyed. On the heels of this unique tea tasting, the ITCC is now turning its attention to another region of India – Assam. In North Eastern India, Assam is one of the most fertile and prolific tea production areas of the world. Besides hosting a huge variety of wildlife and vegetation, it makes over 55% of India’s teas and accounts for a significant percentage of the tea consumed in the world. After Robert Bruce discovered some wild-growing tea bushes in 1823, Assam tea was the first Indian tea sold in England in 1823. The region employs around half of India’s total labor force and in 2011 production volumes came in at nearly 50 million kilos (110 million lbs).1
Typically, there are four main harvest seasons, though some plucking does take place between the most abundant times. For Darjeeling, the most prized crop comes in the Spring, during which the First Flush teas (the first new growth of the bushes after the winter dormancy) arrive. For Assams, however, it is the Second Flush that offers the most appreciated qualities. Often containing a high percentage of plump golden buds, Second Flush Assams are known for their rich, malty, fruity, and sweet characteristics. Many people enjoy adding milk and sugar to the full-bodied Assam teas. But the top grades are best without any additions to appreciate their complexity and subtlety fully.
The Assam Second Flush Cupping Event is currently underway and the comments from the cuppers are posted on the ITCC website. In addition to having the exceptional opportunity to taste and enjoy some special teas, the participants in the event are also contributing to the evolution of tea-making. Their comments will be compiled and given to the sponsors and suppliers so that they may have a more objective perspective on how their teas compare with those of other producers. The information can also be used to improve their products or modify their teas to suit market preferences.
Each week, the cuppers follow precise procedures and test three to four teas using professional tea-tasting equipment. Some cuppers are in the tea business as producers, importers, or dealers and are accustomed to evaluating teas, often several at one time. Others are tea lovers who comment on the teas in their own subjective terms. The goals are to enjoy the pleasures of sipping great teas and, at the same time, learn to appreciate them more. The next Cupping Event is for oolong teas from China, including the famed Tie Guan Yin (aka Iron Goddess of Mercy) from southern Fujian province.
1. Source is the Tea Board of India.