First-flush Darjeelings are the most difficult teas to buy, because production is not organised like it is elsewhere. In Darjeeling, they pick the leaves from the same plants every seven to 10 days, and as plantations are divided into around 10 plots, it means they are constantly harvesting. As soon as the leaves are picked, they are processed; this batch is then sold as one lot. This means that each of the region’s 80 plantations produce a tea every day, and those are just the whole-leaf teas – the best, of course. These plantations do not mix the leaves from one day with those from the next day. The result is that six times a week for around six weeks, each of the 87 plantations puts a tea up for sale. This totals around 3,000 different batches of first-flush – or spring – Darjeelings to taste. Quality can vary considerably from one batch to another. Even when they come from the same plantation, one tea can be 100 times better than another, if you want to quantify those differences.
Of course you cannot rely wholly on the name of a garden, or on a variety; that would be too simple. Only blind tasting allows you to judge a tea’s quality. This must be done quickly, very quickly, because although there are not many of us who receive these samples – only around 30 buyers in the world – sometimes a very good tea can sell just 30 minutes after the few grams of the sample have been received. So you need to work quickly while remaining calm and focused. But these teas that come from the roof of the world are generally worth the effort. They are the first teas of the season; they have a lovely spring freshness and incomparable floral, zesty aromas.