I was lucky enough to visit the Giddapahar Tea Estate on my recent trip to India, and met with the tea manager, Mr Sharma, who produced this exceptional 2nd Flush tea.
Giddapahar is a small family-owned plantation, just 94.7 hectares, owned by the Shaw family ever since its inception in 1881. The wonderfully hospitable tea manager, Mr Sharma has been working at Giddapahar for over 40 years and is immensely proud of the distinctive Darjeeling teas they produce. This is a small-scale tea estate and in the main season each worker picks only 5-6kg per day, and as little as 1.5-2kg per day at the start of the season. The historic factory feels unchanged by the passing of time.
2nd Flush season had started a few days earlier, delayed a little this year because of the cooler weather they had been experiencing, with the China tea bushes coming into season earlier than the clonals. In Darjeeling the tea growing window is divided into 4 seasons or Flushes, the 1st Flush, the 2nd Flush, Monsoon Flush and the Autumn Flush. The 1st Flush is often thought of as the first leaves of the season, but in fact the same tea bush will be plucked numerous times within the 1st Flush season in Darjeeling. The seasons and flushes are determined by the weather, with the 1st Flush usually lasting from mid-February to middle of May, and the 2nd Flush starting when the young leaves of the tea bush grow a more yellow-ish colour. The 2nd Flush continues until the Monsoon rains arrive in the region, at which point the Monsoon flush commences. Once the monsoon has finished the Autumn Flush begins. Each flush has different characteristics, the 1st flush is bright, grassy and floral. The 2nd Flush is darker and should have distinctive muscatel grape notes and a caramel or honey-like sweetness. The monsoon flushes are on the whole less complex, whilst Autumnal teas have more spice notes and are more woody than fruity.
I step into the factory perched on the steep mountainside overlooking the misty Kurseong Valley just before the heavens opened. Wandering amongst the Victorian-era machinery with wooden tea chests piled high against the wall, as the torrential rain lashed the metal factory roof, my mind drifted to the first planters and the daunting task they faced creating these tea estates all those years ago. The job of clearing the dense forest to plant tea bushes on the steep terrain in the harsh weather without machinery meant that it took around 20 years to establish a tea garden.
We started our tour in the withering room, where I saw that day’s freshly picked green leaf laid out in the long troughs. During the withering process up to 65% of the moisture in the leaf is removed, and the leaves turn almost leathery in feel. Touching these humble green leaves at this stage I am always amazed by how much skill and work is required to turn these into the drink that we know and love.
From the withering troughs the leaves are placed in the rolling machines to develop their flavour. The artistry involved in producing quality teas became apparent in the rolling room, as Mr Sharma showed us different rolling machines that he uses for different varietals of tea bushes. For example a small brass machine reserved for leaves of the AV2 cultivar, as it responds best to a gentler rolling. On the wall next to one of the large rolling machines I see a white board with the rolling schedule for the tea I have bought, 27-05-2018! The schedule shows that the tea was rolled twice, and broken up on a small conveyor belt in between. After rolling the leaves are laid out and left to oxidise for up to 4 hours. The manager will keep checking the progress of the leaves, smelling the leaves for the all-important ‘nose’, a burst of aroma that signifies the leaves are ready to be dried. Giddapahar is known for firing their teas a little deeper than other Darjeeling estates, intensifying the natural caramel sweetness of the China tea bushes and developing a slight toasted note. The dried leaves are then sorted and graded*, ready to be packed.
From here we moved to the tasting room to cup 4 teas. The first was a splendid 1st Flush made from China bushes. We then tasted three 2nd Flush teas, made on three consecutive days, the 25th, 26th and 27th May. The difference between these 3 batches of teas was remarkable considering they are all from the leaves of the same tea garden, and produced in the same factory by the same person. My favourite was the tea from the previous day, the 27th May. It had that distinctive muscatel flavour that I look for in a 2nd Flush Darjeeling, but at the same time the deeper firing added an unexpected complexity; smooth, refined, with caramel notes and a gentle toastiness in the middle of the flavour profile. I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a small quantity of this tea direct from the factory to share with you. I hope you will agree with me that this is a memorable tea, perfect for savouring on its own, and equally delightful with a slice of cake! I would recommend drinking this tea without milk!
*The tea I bought is graded SFTGFOP1 CHINA MUSK. This stands for Special Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, with the 1 signifying that it is a higher grade than a regular SFTGFOP. Orange Pekoe (OP) is the first grade of leaf tea, where Pekoe comes from the name given to the tiny hairs that grow on the outside of new buds to protect them from pests, and Orange from Holland’s House of Orange. Holland was the first European Nation to import teas and the best teas would have been reserved for the royal court. The more letters preceding ‘OP’, the higher the grade of tea, with SFTGFOP being the highest grade. CHINA signifies that this tea is produced exclusively from pure China bushes, genetic descendants of the first tea bushes planted in Darjeeling, and MUSK signifies that this tea is notable for its muscatel quality.