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2022 DARJEELING SECOND FLUSH; A PORTRAIT OF THE SEASON

Readers unfamiliar with the basics are invited to examine two of my earlier blog posts, which provide a basic introduction to the region.


They are here: https://www.terrytheise.com/post/better-than-wine-a-small-appreciation-of-darjeeling-tea


And here: https://www.terrytheise.com/post/better-than-wine-part-two


You’re into artisanal ciders, right? Into Sake? Into various and sundry novel beverages that interest you? Then please hear this: It’s time to get into tea.


If you want, you can enter this resplendent world as many Americans do, through the greens and oolongs of China and Taiwan. I drink them every day in the afternoon. But if you want to experience the pinnacle of black tea, there’s only one place to begin – Darjeeling.


I was delighted but not entirely surprised to see an essay on tea in Andrew Jeffords’ excellent collection Drinking With The Valkyries. Delighted, because at last another “wine-writer” was making what to me is a self-evident connection between the two beverages. I don’t know why so few of us do, but it was hardly shocking that Jefford did, as he’s smarter than the average bear.


Look, the wine sensibility – if we can call it that – is attracted to things with corollaries among other substances. One of them is multiplicity, many types of the same thing, changing according to season, soil, weather, human influence, not to mention one’s own changing nature, so that you are not the same person when you drink two bottles of the same wine. Wine is part of a venn diagram that includes cheese, oysters, tea, along with many things outside the world of foods and drinks. The link to tea is especially apt; tea can be artisanal, individual and bound to its origin. And finally tea can be complex and delicious, and even (at times) exquisite. Among the black teas, none are more refined and delicate than Darjeelings from the Himalayan foothills, and unless one simply dislikes tea – as I myself dislike coffee – there is a rich world to explore, just waiting for you.



I’ll tell you now about Darjeeling’s 2022 2nd-flush season, its production structure, about the best teas and finally the vendors from whom I obtain them. I find it melancholy that most American tea importers have ignored these teas. Only the pioneering folks at Upton Tea Imports have more than a token assortment, and they have trouble competing on price and access compared with the online merchants, from whom it is easy to find the best teas; all you need is an internet connection.


A great vintage of 2nd-flush Darjeeling depends on steady sunshine, as could have been expected before the new, altered climate. In 2022 the rains arrived early, and were heavy, and so the heart of the plucking – mid-June to July 1st – was a watery mess. Luckily many good teas were picked early, from mid May on, and these constitute the regions greatest successes. I’m told some excellent teas were made late in the season (in drier weather) and that some fine teas were made despite the rain, from exceptionally competent producers – known, let me remind you, as “gardens.”


In my view the teas are better than the 2021s, many of which were somewhat diluted, but not as good as the best 2020s, which were truly great and made in miniscule amounts. As tea is an essential comestible in our household I buy them each year regardless of how good they may be, but it’s way more fun when they kick ass.


The production structure is prone to a whimsical chaos. There’s the bulk stuff that ends up in bags (after being cut with inferior teas from any old where) or that becomes the ordinary quality of loose-leaf tea. The small-batch specialty market is where things get interesting. But the more I learn about it the less sure I am of my grip on the subject, not because my grip falters but because the ledge is coated with melted butter.


Imagine the chateaux of the Medoc. An orderly place.


Now imagine that the proprietorship of the chateaux changed frequently, and that even when the owners remained, the staff was subject to ridiculous flux; vineyard and cellar managers moved around and every important element of quality and continuity was discontinuous, all the way down to the manager who supervised the harvesters. Imagine also that the customers for each property were themselves in flux, so that Chateau-X who usually sells most of its product to Japan had their orders cancelled and now the stuff ends up in Brazil or the UK, so if you’re a Bordeaux lover in Tokyo you may be abruptly unable to buy your favorite wine.



Yet you must also imagine that superb and even great wines are made despite the unruly conditions. The question is how to get your hands on them.


One of the elite vendors suggested that many of the top teas were made in effect by accident, and you had to comb through the region to unearth them. He told me: “I can separate out many gardens as those that have an artisanal lean and are not producing for the teabag market or the local market.

After that I am still left with about 30 gardens. Management plays an important role and the managers move around. The fields vary in quality depending on the age of the plants and sequence of environmental factors like heat, cold, wet dry and the distribution of these factors. Soil quality, compost quality, field management, pruning cycle…the list goes on. So my job through experience, watching the patterns and following the local gossip, is to know who is making the best quality at present and to find their best batches .While doing this I have to keep my ear to the ground for one of ‘lucky mistakes’ that are occasionally the best tea of the season, to the complete surprise of the producer.”


Yet when I shared these impressions with my friend Niranjan from the Darjeeling Tea Boutique (another of the elite vendors) he demurred, saying “[Those small lots of top teas are] are called ghanis. It's not lucky accidents. Top teas are manufactured in smaller lots so they belong to single ghanis. No {spying] here!

The teas are sampled as they arrive here and we have to be quick in deciding which teas to keep or to let go and wait for a better [lot]. Sometime this waiting and expecting goes wrong and we end up losing the best teas.”


So according to Niranjan, the market is less unruly than my first source indicated. Niranjan and (I assume) most of his colleagues have ongoing connections with the gardens, who know they can sell their small-lot top teas to the “bijou” segment of the retail trade. But even then one must reckon with a certain discontinuity, which is either “where the fun lies” or a source of bewilderment. Last year everyone had (the gardens) Poobong and Puttabong. This year, nowhere to be seen, but instead everyone had Turzum and Singbulli, and one merchant had Okayti (which I hadn’t seen in years) and another had Ringtong, similarly obscure. Is there anything reliable or consistent in all this miasma?


“Pushed into a corner on this one, if I told a clients to look for names in an unknown teashop that would consistently be of good to great quality I would go for Jungpana or Castleton. But Jungpana was bought out and changed management twice during the pandemic after almost 30 years with Mr. Mugdal in charge so seasons to come will be [ones] to watch. Castleton always make a few classy batches without fail.” This comes from the superb and emeritus vendor Camellia Sinensis in Canada, and their legendary founder Kevin Gascoyne. This ultra-serious merchant offered perhaps the single greatest tea of the season, but you’ll have to come to my house to drink it. It was a ghani from the garden Seeyok, from which a mere 10kg were made – so 100 packages of 100g each – and I managed to score one of them before this amazing tea vanished into the larders of us few fanatics.


Here are some of other great teas of the 2nd flush 2022s.


From Gopaldhara/Rohini (two gardens under one ownership) I found the

to be seriously beautiful with a density and power that recalled the best 2020s – high praise. Marginally less stunning but also superb are the GOLD THREAD RESERVE from Rohini, and the JAMGURI MUSCATEL from Gopaldhara, who were also very strong at the basic levels, so that you can buy the regular “Classic 2nd Flush” and not need to trade up.


There are two CASTLETON lots from Teabox that range from excellent to gorgeous. Not surprisingly the one from Darjeeling Tea Boutique is darker and stronger, and equal in quality though different in style. Castleton showed its aristocracy this year.


I have that OKAYTI from Thunderbolt which they’re calling “fruity Muscatel” and which is a rapture of Darjeeling.


A superfine SAMABAEONG “Burgundy Muscatel” from Tea Emporium should be on anyone’s shortlist.


A rare (for me) Chinary from ARYA called “Long Leaf” hails from Darjeeling Tea Boutique, and is both fascinating and impressively dense. It stands next to a strong basic ARYA Muscatel from Thunderbolt, another fine value.


The usually ubiquitous Castleton was only offered by two vendors, and the similarly gregarious GOOMTEE could only be found at Teabox. The tea is good in a rambunctious way. Yet a lot of people had SINGBULLI (which was consistently very good) and JUNGPANA, and so I decided to compare three lots of Jungpana to see what might be inferred.



They came from Nathmulls, Teabox and Darjeeling Tea Boutique. I had them côte-a-côte this morning. The Nathmulls lot was the more rustic of them, needing care with brewing as the tea is vulnerable to bitterness if oversteeped. Teabox’s lot was Jungpana at its best, full of umami and with the fluid grace that seems typical for the Teabox “type.” As usual the DTB was the darkest and strongest of the three, a lusty baritone of Jungpana.


I’d done this exercise with three lots of ARYA “DIAMOND” (their top clonal) and found little to distinguish them from one another. All were very good and none was transcendent. I like evanescence in tea (and wine) but I’d prefer this tea to have some pith of concentration beneath its distractingly pretty flavors. You can get the tea from Tea Emporium, Darjeeling Tea Boutique and Nathmulls.


Looking at the various collections from the various vendors is always revealing. They curate according to their differing tastes, or so one infers. This is clearest with….


Darjeeling Tea Boutique, whom I have dubbed “King Of The Chinaries” by dint of their consistent preference for strong, almost rugged teas. (You’d get Lafite from Thunderbolt, and Latour from Tea Boutique, if that makes a lick of sense.) The teas are proud classics, Delphic, eternal – yet they also offer perhaps the most ethereal among the ARYA Diamonds. I admire their cogent vision, and their customer service is faultless.


Teabox has come on very strongly the past few years; what was once a solid if prosaic supplier is now among the finest, with a reliably sapid, elegant and polished style among the Muscatels. (I confess I passed on their Chinaries, as I had too many teas already and I wanted to give the Chinary business to Tea Boutique.) Teabox’s customer service is extraordinary.


Thunderbolt is again at the highest level, though I’d demur from calling them first-among-equals, as I’ve done in the past. They’re a small family company, and customer service can lag at times, but they’re passionate and it’s fulfilling to support them. That said, a direct comparison between their TURZUM “Himalayan Mystic” and a similarly named tea from Nathmulls found no great quality difference between the two. In years past I’d have expected Thunderbolt’s to be discernibly better. They’re not slipping; the others are catching up.


Tea Emporium is something of a perplexity, from their very old fashioned packaging to their varying selections from year to year, but they seem to be the only steady source for the tiny and exclusive garden SAMABEAONG, and this year’s lineup was noteworthy.


Nathmulls is more than competent both as curators and in customer service. The teas are reliably “B+” in quality, sometimes feinting toward the elite but not quite reaching it – at least this year. By the way, if you want to really perceive the stylistic identities of these merchants, compare this company’s SINGBULLI with that from Tea Boutique. Instructive! DTB’s is a darkly rugged growl, whereas Nathmull’s is a sweet-natured clonal with impressive substance.


Nathmull’s took a long position on the garden GIDDAPAHAR, which seems to have been a mistake. I’m told that “Giddapahar has mostly old Chinary bushes. [The] main characteristic of old China is they can sustain more oxidation and fire. Also, Giddapahar has made some structural development in their factory and 100% of their Summer flush teas are fired through liquified petroleum gas instead [of] coal or wood.” Another person said “The management keeps experimenting and this year the tea was unlike a typical Giddapahar.” This squares with my experience of a strange and almost obtuse uniformity among the teas, all of which look over-fired (uniformly black leaves with no visible tips) and taste pretty clunky. Let’s hope this garden rights itself, as it was one of the emerging stars, or seemed to be, in among the zigging and zagging that attends to life in these humid green hills.


Here are the vendors:


https://www.thunderbolttea.com

http://darjeelingteaboutique.com

http://nathmullstea.com

https://teabox.com

https://www.teaemporium.net

https://camellia-sinensis.com/fr

https://www.gopaldhara.com


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