Sunday, September 28, 2008

Advent of great darjeelings

Darjeeling was always different.

With its mountains and cool winters, it could never compete with Assam as producer of low cost simple teas. It worked out that there was an established base of high quality “china” tea plants. So the teas were always more aromatic than those from Assam. However, the British consumers drank their Darjeeling with milk, so the teas were dark and thick. By the late 1960’s, the British influence was waning in those mountains. The new Indian garden owners were ready to rethink. At that time, a unique partnership happened between an Indian tea man: Ranabir Sen and German tea buyer: Bernd Wulf. Germany represented a new market for the Indians and one that was willing to pay more money for good tea. They felt that underneath all the darkness in traditional Darjeelings, was a great tea full of wonderful aromas. It just needed to be released. So the teas had to be lighten up. As mentioned, plucking standards were tightened up so just the two leaves and a bud were harvested. Withering time was lengthened so that aromas could develop during the chemical wither. Rolling was done easier (less pressure), with a special attention to avoiding heat buildup. Oxidation time was cut back. The result is drastically different tea. It is more aromatic and lighter in body. Now one can taste the difference between different gardens. The aroma of Pussimbing Garden is very different from Puttabong Garden. Before this was not as noticeable. Also it was known that the teas produced during different times of the year, tasted differently. With the new production methods, the distinctions were more noticeable. So now, the same duo started to develop teas that would be sold as First Flush Darjeeling. In 1968, Bernd Wulf airfreighted the inaugural First Flush Darjeeling from Tumsong & Teesta Valley gardens into Germany. In the beginning, there was little demand for this new tea, but that has changed over the years. Many people prefer the First to the Second. Each year more tea is shipped by air. In fact, now this is done with early spring teas. This is a reprise of the Clipper Ship tea races of the 19th century.

Thanks Bernd (father of my friend Marcus Wulf) and Ranabir!

The b/w photo is one of the first air deliveries into Germany. The son of the man in the picture is in the tea business also.

This color photo is a picture Bernd Wulf. Bernd was the mentor of most of Germany's best tea tasters. He taught me a great lesson: only buy teas tha make you smile.


Lora said...

This summer, I purchased my first 'First Flush' Darjeeling - and had a difficult time brewing it to taste similar to its descriptions. I finally dropped the brewing time to 2 minutes, and the flavor was delicate and lovely. Is the shorter brew time the correct brewing protocol for First Flush Darjeelings? I'd love more tips on this special tea.

Mike Harney said...


Most times First Flush Darjeelings are brewed for a shorter time than other Darjeelings. I like mine at 3 minutes, but you might like it lighter.

Another factor is that there is very little great First Flush. The weather is so variable in Darjeeling. The plants need rain to start to grow new leaves (flush), but they need sunshine for sweetness. Also to grow they need warm weather (it gets pretty cold there), yet if the temperature shoots up too fast and stays hot, the plants stop making those tender leaves that make for great First Flush.

So enjoy your First Flush, it is a rare tea.

Anonymous said...


I'd love it if you posted more on this subject. Your book and blog seem to be some of the only English sources that even acknowledge that this shift happened.

About Me

My photo
Tea Taster at Harney and Sons ---