I think it’s high time I talk about the Castleton estate.
I don’t consider it spring until I’ve had a first flush Darjeeling in my mouth. This year, though, it took me a little longer to get to my “stash” of first flush Darjeelings. Most years, the family Lochan sends me a few to get the ol’ palate revved up for the year to come. And, as with most years, I dive right in. First flush Darjeelings are a special treat to this ol’ tea blogger. Unlike most “black teas”, Darjeeling first flushes aren’t fully oxidized. That’s why they maintain a very “green” palette, and a very floral palate.
Who can you blame for that?
Ja. That’s right.
First flush Darjeelings used to resemble second and autumnal flush Darjeelings; both in appearance and oxidation. However, since the biggest Western importer a few decades back was Germany, they had a sizable influence over how said tea was processed. They wanted to emphasize the natural aromatics of the region when the spring pluck occurred; when the sweet floweriness was the most pronounced. Enter: the greener, more aromatic first flush.
This year, I got a few of the usual suspects from the Lochans—Giddapahar, Rohini, Avongrove, etc. But there were a few in there that caught a second glace for another reason. I’d never heard of them.
While most of the world above the equator is currently complaining about winter, my mind is still stuck in autumn.
At least, that is, from a tea perspective.
Of all the seasonal flushes in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, autumn is considered a dumping ground. It’s a chance for gardens to make up for any lost product movement from the summer, but it also allows for one last pluck, thus making the effort of pruning later less arduous. (Or so I’d guess.)
Unfortunately, many consider autumn flush teas to be inferior, uniform, or lackluster. I’ve gone on record before declaring that not to be case, and this is particularly evident in Darjeeling. In fact, a true character of a garden sometimes shows through with what’s offered in autumn. And I was given such an opportunity again by one such garden.
On September 20th of this year, I received an intriguing text from a fellow tea-brother:
I’d never heard American Vandal, nor was I aware that it had two seasons. My Netflix-fu was neophyte status at best. If it didn’t have the word “Marvel” in front of it, or could be easily searched in the anime section, I probably didn’t know it existed. But the thought of a series even acknowledging tea vlogging? That tickled my curiosity gland.
In November of 2012, I accidentally “created” a smoked Darjeeling.
I say “accidentally” and put arbitrary air-quotes over “created” because . . . that’s only kinda what happened. One fateful day, I put a sample of Risheehat first flush—enclosed in a do-it-yourself tea bag—into a tin of loose Lapsang Souchong. Totally not thinking of the consequences. A week or so later, I broke out the sample, brewed it up, and marveled at the light-but-lingering “campfire embers” taste.
That made me wonder if and when someone in Darjeeling proper would (or could) ever smoke a Darjeeling like that. Several years later, in the summer of 2016, I saw this. Tony Gebely from World of Tea posted a picture of a first flush Darjeeling . . . that had been smoked over oak.
My jaw dropped. Apparently, it hailed from an “estate” called Niroula.
Gopaldhara is a tea estate in the Mirik Valley in the Darjeeling district of the Indian state West Bengal. Like many such tea estates in the region, it began its life in the late 19th century. Plotted and planted by a bunch o’ Brits.
It derives its name from the original owner of the land, prior to tea planting—someone named “Gopal”—and the existence of natural streams that wound along the landscape; colloquially known in the old Lepcha language as “dharas”. Hence the name, Gopaldhara.
I chose a weird time to talk about autumn flush Darjeelings.
For one thing, it hasn’t been a typical year for the region. (An understatement, true.) But before I get into that, I should probably explain what I mean by “Darjeeling autumn flush”. Here’s a bit of a primer.
This is an awkward statement to make right now . . . but . . . I’ve been on a bit of a Darjeeling kick, lately.
Especially given recent (at the time of this writing) news reports. And I’m not going to delve into any of that. This is a tea blog; I tell tea stories. And this is—for once—a happy tea story about Darjeeling. A “wild” one.
Two weeks ago, I attended the Northwest Tea Festival.
For both days, even!
It was an epic time of tea drunkenness and cuppa camaraderie. But when the time came to actually write about the two-day tea-stravaganza . . . I had nothing to say. Sure, I drank a lot of tea, met new people, reunited with old friends and contacts, but there was no story there. I drank, I saw, and then I trained home. That was pretty much it. If you want full(er) accounts on the tea fest, I suggest visiting The Oolong Owl and Delights of the Heart. Their coverage was pretty comprehensive, and I probably couldn’t have said it better. (Or more concisely.)
The festive weekend, however, did serve one weird purpose. It was a springboard for a few stories that I need to tell. This is one of them:
The first day of the tea fest, I stopped by the Young Mountain Tea booth a couple of times. One, to talk to the owner, Raj Vable, again—since I hadn’t seen him in (what felt like) years; two, I wanted to meet his guest of honor. Rajah Banerjee, owner and manager of the Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling.
The Kanchan View tea estate in Darjeeling has a rough history.
The garden was first established in the 1880s, where it first went by the name “Rungneet”. At the peak of its hundred-plus-year production, the 250-acre garden accounted for at least 100,000 kilos of tea a year. Now? It only does about ten percent of that. The reasons for this are long, complicated, and varied.