Newcomers to black tea are sometimes surprised by the appearance and taste of Darjeeling first flush teas. This is understandable: the leaves look more like green tea than black, the colour of the infusion ranges from golden yellow to amber, the body is light and the flavour can be floral or fruity, with notes of peach, apricot and flowers. Some of these ‘green’ first flush teas also tend to have a slight astringency that adds balance and crispness to the cup.
How Darjeeling first flush tea changed in style
The production of this ‘light and bright’ style of first flush Darjeeling was a conscious decision made in the 1970s by Darjeeling tea growers who wanted to differentiate between first and second flush. This was partly in response to feedback from tea wholesalers in Germany and Japan. Unlike the UK, where tea drinkers preferred to drink their tea with milk and therefore needed a strong, robust cup of tea, these thirsty, discerning markets wanted a more nuanced flavour profile and were prepared to pay premium prices for what they recognised even then as ‘the champagne of teas’.
Tweaks to the production process
Still using the same machines introduced by the British in the mid-1800s, and still following the production steps of plucking, withering, rolling, oxidising and drying, the detail of how these steps are carried out has changed.
- Plucking: The focus is on quality, not quantity. Some Darjeeling First Flush teas from the early days of the harvest produce batches as small as 8 kg.
- Withering: This is generally carried out for a longer period than previously (this is known as hard withering). During this prolonged withering, the leaves are exposed to a tightly controlled flow of air. During withering, oxidation takes place on some parts of the leaf and some leaves oxidise more than others. The prolonged period of oxidation, combined with the flow of oxygen-rich air, causes other areas of the leaf to lose moisture to such an extent that oxidation stops altogether: hard withering.
- Rolling: Because the hard withered leaves are soft and pliable, they are rolled under light pressure for a shorter time.
- Drying and sorting: After a final drying to stabilise the tea, the leaves are sorted into various leaf grades before being packed for auction and shipping.
Creating artisanal Darjeeling first flush teas
Inspired and encouraged by the response to the new style of first flush teas, a new generation of ambitious and well-trained estate managers saw the opportunity to create a new class of individual teas to suit personal tastes by varying different stages of the production process. This enthusiasm and knowledge, combined with the availability of a new floral AV2 clone of the tea plant, has resulted in an impressive range of first flush Darjeeling teas that would be unrecognisable as black tea to tea drinkers of our parents’ generation.
Are Darjeeling first flush teas black tea or oolong?
Whilst first flush teas from later on in the first flush period have a smaller and darker dry leaf and are browner in the cup, the best of the best first flush Darjeelings: those made in small batches from high-altitude plants from the first days of the harvest, such as Darjeeling First Flush Thurbo Moonlight represent the grand cru of the champagne of tea.
Whether such teas are technically black, oolong or even white is debatable. Taking their name from the abundance of silvery tips in the loosely rolled, dry leaf, the infusion of these teas produces a beautiful translucent, pale yellow liquor that is indeed reminiscent of a white tea, but whereas this tea is withered and rolled, white tea is usually simply plucked and dried. Also, such first flush Darjeeling teas are not fully oxidised, it could be argued that they should be classified as oolong, but as they undergo a hard withering, rather than kill-green, they are not really oolong either.