Tea Flush– Knowing your Tea
A Mystic Oriental Brew
Tea, that beautiful magical concoction stirred by brewing leaves of the Camelia Sinensis plant in hot water, originated, like everything mystic in oriental China before it was refined for consumption by the British. It was their relentless effort that actually made tea a household name globally. However when the British brought seeds of the tea plant from China for commercial cultivation in colonial India, little did they know about harvesting process for tea and the knowledge of this magic plant that the Chinese held secret while imparting the seeds of the shrub. Tea in China existed as a medicinal drink and the British fondness for the beverage was for its aromatic taste. This major difference in consumption habits made it very necessary for one to acquire expertise of the weather and the effects it would have in altering the chemical composition of the tea leaves when exposed.
TEArminology – What is a Tea Flush?
Tea flush refers to the harvesting seasons or the best times for picking leaves from the plant. It is as much about timing as it is about the tea leaves, and which ones to pick in which season. And since Darjeeling was one of the first places where the British began their tea exploits in the British colonies, tea flushes became all the more integral to taste and aroma. Initial efforts to cultivate the tea plant were not met with success and most did not survive. It was only later after acquiring a working knowledge of weather and how it affects harvest and cultivation expertise that the British were able to launch a tea industry in Assam and later in Darjeeling. Darjeeling situated at an elevation of 6000 feet has most of its tea estates operating around 4000 – 4500 feet above sea level. This slightly sub-tropical climatic influence along with interspersed rains makes it just suitable for the cultivation and harvest of tea. Since tea does not flourish well in cold climate, this sub-tropical climate altering between sunny and cloudy allows tea to grow in sun and the shade. Thus weather patterns of Darjeeling clearly dominate the harvesting seasons as well as the time for plucking leaves. Therefore tea leaves are harvested throughout the year. Different weather patterns generate different growth times for tea leaves. To differentiate the growth times, the tea planters used the term “flush” to show the differences in the produce. Tea flush started in Darjeeling, India in the mid-19th century when the British estate agents realized how the distinctly altered chemical composition of the leaves picked from the tea plant are influenced by altering climatic seasons. However the same flushes are applicable for tea grown all around in India, be it Darjeeling or Assam. Assam is a state situated at the foothills of the Himalayas by the banks of the Brahmaputra bordered by Bangladesh and Myanmar on either side. The Himalayas block the hot and humid air from moving north and this creates a diverse climatic ecosystem within a prevalent climatic structure. The first flush of Assam tea is much awaited like the second flush of Darjeeling tea. The first flush is harvested in March and involves plucking the brand new leaves with the bud at the top. The first flush of Assam tea has the best flavor and is unlike any other black tea in the world. It has a delicate taste with a bold aroma and makes for excellent breakfast tea.
Tea plants generally have three flushes: first, second, and third also known as first, monsoon, and autumn.
The first flush is essentially the leaves picked after the first rains in the spring, usually between March to April. This is the first harvest after a lengthy gap of the autumnal harvest and days are singed and longer than the winters. And the first flush usually involves picking out of young delicate leaves that offer the brew a light green colour, mild astringency and a floral fragrance.
The second flush of Darjeeling tea is world famous among tea connoisseurs for its taste and muscatel experience. The fully developed leaves are now robust and full bodied and offer a dark colour brew.
The second flush teas in Assam gardens are harvested in late May and June. The leaves from the second flush are covered with fine-silvery hair at the bottom. This tea is also known as the tippy tea.
The third flush usually between October and November is comparable to the first flush is taste and appearance. The last flush, harvested in October and November after the prolonged monsoon, is also known as the autumn flush.
After this harvest period, the Assam tea gardens go through a dormant phase like Darjeeling and the next harvest is again awaited after the cold winters are over in April. However, with a small and growing consumer base in the country for liquor tea over milk tea, CTC remains the most widely produced tea in Assam throughout the year due to its ability to withstand both milk and sugar.
Little Known Secrets from Tea Estates
However, surprisingly and unknown to most tea savants, there are two minor flushes as well apart from the above mentioned popular three. Tea planters or estate owners will have you know that in between the first and the second flush there is an In Between Flush lasting for two weeks. So typically the In Between flush lasts from end of April to beginning of monsoon. And then there is the Monsoon flush that is usually in September and is the period between second and third flushes.
Although not certain or fixed, time periods for harvest seasons are usually dependent on the weather patterns and do tend to shift. For example excess rainfall earlier than expected can reduce the timeline of the second flush while increasing the Monsoon flush. Lower than expectancy can cause a converse effect on the flush. The first and second flush teas are most expensive because of their dark aromatic muscatel flavor that is associated with a cup of the brew. However, connoisseurs of Darjeeling tea are aware of this unique essence of the brew and do not mind paying a premium to obtain a pack of authentic Darjeeling tea. As a result majority of this tea is exported to foreign countries where it is in higher demand at a greater price.
For those who want to know which flush their batch of Darjeeling tea was picked from because the packaging doesn’t specifically mention it, just take a look at the tea leaves. The lighter the tea leaves in colour the more chances of them being from an earlier flush stage. Steeping leaves and pouring a cup of tea will definitely give a better and conclusive idea to the same. Second flush teas will have a strong dark coloured drink with a familiar muscatel aroma that is distinctive in flavor. Light golden coloured brew with slight astringent taste will confirm the tea to be from an earlier flush stage. Thankfully most authentic Darjeeling teas come packed with all information pertaining to flush and tea estate of which it is a produce along with direction to stir a delicious brew. The different flushes are what attribute to the legendary exoticness of a cup of Darjeeling tea making it a brand by itself.
Enjoying a Cup of Tea – Brewing the First Flush
Cold filtered fresh water or spring water is the best choice to brew the first flush since they are lightly oxidized than other teas. Steeping time is not more than 2-3 minutes. For a non-astringent brew, it is recommended to steep the first flush in water that is just off the boil. It is a good idea to cover the tea while it steeps to retain all the heat in the steeping vessel. Although most first flushes are strong enough to withstand milk and sugar, but it is recommended to try and enjoy the first flush without any added additives in order to savour the subtle flavor of the freshest spring leaves.