Assam, a high plateau in northern India which straddles the Brahmaputra River, is the largest tea-growing region in the world. The first harvest of the year starts in February after a prolonged harvest break. This first flush harvest in Assam has a fragrant, fresh, flowery – and slightly spicier – character than its Darjeeling equivalent, and is a bright, golden yellow in the cup. But the very best, highest-grade, Assam teas are harvested in May-June, during the second flush harvest period. Then the leaves release that full, spicy, malty character that is so true to form. The color is now a rich coppery red to deep brown in the cup.
The plucking during the rainy season is more productive from July to October, when the powerful monsoon rains from the Indian Ocean fall on the fertile ground. Then the quality decreases sharply; the leaves losing more and more of their spicy, malty flavor and strength.
Almost all Assam teas can be enjoyed with white candy sugar, preferably a “Kluntje” (a white rock candy sugar lump). Assam Second Flush can be enhanced with a dash of fresh cream. The Assam Second Flush Broken is used as the basis for many tea blends, especially the much-loved East Frisian blend.
Darjeeling, on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in northeast India, is unquestionably the tea region par excellence.
The most precious of the world’s teas are cultivated in the breathtaking landscape around the small city of Darjeeling. Many of the tea gardens solicit the same respect as the top vineyards of France. Without the shadow of a doubt, this area, nestled high up in the Himalayas, produces the finest, most aromatic, most sought-after teas in the world.
Darjeeling teas are cultivated at splendid altitudes of 800–2000 meters, and it is the highest tea gardens that usually produce the best quality tea. Although the region has just the right climatic conditions for cultivating fine tea bushes, much depends on how the complex processing is managed.
The key to “tea-care” at this stage is the care that tea gardens take to ensure the well-being of their workers. A tea garden is organized like a township. The tea garden’s employees (on average, 900–2000) live with their families within the tea garden. Facilities such as housing, hospitals, and school are available, and the services of these social facilities are free of charge for the family members.
From November until March, tea production is at a standstill. But when the mountain sun awakens the first shoots in March, harvesting begins, and the first flush is processed within 4–6 weeks. A good first flush tastes delicate, flowery-fresh, and has a fine tangy flavor.
At the beginning of the season, the daily production can reach 125–150 kg of processed tea. During the course of the year the production levels increase considerably. The first flush is always a gamble for any tea garden. If truly excellent, it can command the highest prices on the world market. It is that excellence to which we at TeaGschwendner aspire. Every year we strive to make it accessible to our community of tea-lovers with our “Airfreighted New Crop Tea”.
In early April, depending on the weather, the “in between” seasonal leaves are harvested. They integrate some of the character of the first flush while foretelling the highly aromatic, nutty, strong second flush harvested from the end of May until the end of June. The color in the cup is a yellowish russet brown. After the second flush season, the big monsoon season begins. This harvest (July–September) is productive, but not always of the best quality. However, in October, after the rainy season, “excellence” in tea takes precedence once again. Autumn teas are typically characterized by light aroma and very pleasant flavor.
Nilgiri & Southern India
In the South of India tea is cultivated in the hilly uplands of the provinces Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu at altitudes of 800 to 2000 meters. During the dry season, around the turn of the year, this tea takes on a fine, delicate lemon flavor. It has a flavor that is lively, fresh and mild – quite close to the “Ceylon” teas from the highlands of Nuwara- Eliya. Nilgiri tea, originally grown in the jungle, is mainly cultivated by small farmers.
The tea of present-day Sri Lanka is called traditionally by the old country name Ceylon. At around 60 % of its net export profits, tea is the most important export of Sri Lanka, a land of mild, subtropical climate and diverse vegetation. The most important tea-growing areas are located in the central highlands. Ceylon tea is divided into three categories: Low grown tea that grows under 650 meters, medium grown tea that grows between 650 and 1300 meters, and high grown tea that grows between 1300 and 2500 meters.
There are three tea districts in the central highlands around Adam’s Peak: Uva in the east, Dimbula in the west, and Nuwara-Eliya in between. Monsoon and passat winds determine the periods of quality. In the Uva district the best full, strong, tangy teas grow between June and September. In the Dimbula district the teas containing less tannin are harvested between December and March and have a softer, lighter cup than the Uva tea. In the Nuwara-Eliya district good-quality tea is harvested all year round. This tea tastes similar to that of Dimbula and has a typical lemon bouquet. In the highlands more than 90% of tea production is processed as broken tea. For this reason one finds excellent Ceylon broken tea quite often, but good Ceylon leaf tea less frequently
Since 1870, present-day Taiwan produces Green and Black teas that bear the island’s former name; Formosa. In the mountainous rural areas to the north and north east, tea is cultivated by about 100 relatively small tea companies. Taiwan can thank the excellent reputation of the semi-fermented Oolong tea for its success as a “tea region”. With its strikingly unusual flavor, this tea takes its age-old name “Oolong” from the Chinese word meaning “Black Dragon”. Both in the production and flavor, it sits right between Green tea and Black tea. Through very careful manual processing, a slight fermentation is attained. Take a look, with us, at the leaves when brewed: the young shoots and leaves unfold completely. They are visibly fermented on the outer edges of the leaves, therefore darker at the rim. Their flavor is sometimes reminiscent of the aroma of a peach; mildly aromatic, with a full bouquet.
The first flush of the year begins traditionally on April 20th , and reaches its peak on May 6th . During this period, the good quality “Fancy Oolong” is harvested, and occasionally achieves higher prices than the most expensive “Darjeeling”.
We recommend that you prepare this wonderful tea with filtered water. It has its own delicate sweetness; so no need for sugar.
The first tea that arrived in Europe in the 17th century was transported by junk (small boat) to Bantam on Java, then loaded onto the large ships of the East India Company. The tea gardens on Java and Sumatra harvest all year round. Java shows a distinct peak in quality in the months July to October (the dry season). During this period, the quality and flavor of Javanese tea is comparable to a good-quality, mild Ceylon tea.
By contrast, Sumatra produces more or less uniform teas of plain medium quality all year round. They are reminiscent of the North India varieties harvested later in the year. Indonesian teas are usually processed in mixtures, for example, for the East Frisian or British markets. Most tea garden have chosen to specialize in producing for bulk markets where conventional production methods are preferred.
The tea-growing areas of the Himalayas that are particularly worth mentioning are Terai and Dooars, both south of Darjeeling, but at an altitude of only a few hundred meters. Tea from Terai usually has well-processed leaves and a spicy, slightly sweet taste. For the last few years, certain tea gardens, first and foremost Kamala, have been producing a first flush of exceptional quality in February. The tea is produced in the style of Darjeeling. It has a very bright, almost green color in the cup and its flavor has a slight bite to it; fresh, aromatic, and finely brisk. At TeaGschwendner, we try to fly in this first flush every year so that our specialty tea shops receive it around the beginning of March.
For a long time the kingdoms of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal were not important to tea importers because they produced only enough for domestic consumption. “Temi” is the only tea garden that represents the kingdom of Sikkim in the world market. Bhutan is virtually untapped. But in Nepal, since the privatization of many of the tea garden, growing conditions and efficiency have taken a giant leap forward and they are now producing finer, fresher types of tea – distinctly reminiscent of Darjeeling varieties.
China is reputed to have the oldest tea traditions. Cultivated in China for circa 5000 years, Green tea was first mentioned in writing around 600 B.C. and later described fully in the works of the poet Lu Yü in 780 A.D. So for many centuries, Green tea has been enjoyed by the Chinese as a healthy and vitalizing drink. Most Green teas and semi-fermented Oolong teas come from the provinces Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian. But for all its good qualities, Green tea takes some getting used to when it comes to the western palate. Preparation is critical to the flavor, as indeed to its beneficial effects. Please refer to page 7 for more information on this.
China also produces Black tea in considerable quantities for its export markets, but it is rarely drunk by the Chinese themselves. Various kinds of Black tea are produced, e.g. from the provinces Yunnan, Hunan, and Sichuan. Generally, they have a mild, sweet to spicy, and slightly smoky flavor. The best known is “Keemun”. China is the only country that produces specialties such as Jasmine, Rose and Lychee tea. These teas are processed by steaming the leaves with the respective blossoms, so that they take on their flavor and taste.
Tea spread throughout Japan after it was brought there in the 8th century from China by a Buddhist monk. The first tea garden was located on Japan’s largest lake, Biwa-ko. The most important tea-growing district is Shizuoka, which lies in picturesque surroundings at the foot of the holy mountain Fuji. Almost half of Japan’s entire production is picked here, especially Sencha tea. Other important areas are Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu and Uji district of Kyoto. The latter supplied the famous “Emperor tea” centuries ago, and today provides the world market with the very best of Japanese Green teas, “Gyokuro”, as well as the best of the “Sencha” variety. Japan produces solely Green tea, but the sheer variety of qualities and prices is enormous. No two Senchas are the same, and an excellent Sencha can attain the quality – and command the price – of an inferior “Gyokuro”. There is only one hard and fast rule, which applies to each of the “Bancha”, “Sencha” and “Gyokuro” strains: the darker green the leaves, the higher the quality. Green tea contains vitamins and traces of important minerals. Because the caffeine it contains is more active, it is more stimulating than Black tea. The healthy, invigorating effects of the high tannin depend on the way it is processed and brewed.
Africa, a comparatively “young” tea-growing nation, produces around 15% of the world’s tea. The tea that is produced is almost exclusively CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea for the British market. Highland tea, e.g. from Kenya, can achieve an excellent quality in the best plucking season (December to March) but unfortunately, these days it is rarely produced in the traditional manner.
Rooibush tea (aka “Redbush tea” or “Roiboos tea”):
Rooibush (redbush) from South Africa is a shrub similar to the tea bush. Its red leaves yield a herbal tea with a bright, aromatic color in the cup and a smooth sweetness. Rooibush tea is a popular national drink in South Africa, drunk hot or cold, at any time of the day or evening. Unlike Black tea, Rooibush tea is low in tannin, has no hint of bitterness and is caffeine-free.
Honey bush tea (aka “Mountain tea” or “Cape tea”):
In South Africa, its country of origin, honey bush tea, with its natural honey-like sweetness and flavor, is preferred over Black tea. The dried leaves contain little tannin and only the tiniest residues of caffeine, so it may be classed as “caffeine free"; perfect for the late hours.
The “green gold of the Indios” is obtained from the leaves of the evergreen maté shrub; the leaves are sold either green or roasted. Maté contains caffeine. Just as in the process for Black or Green tea, maté is withered and dried, and the length of brewing time, from 5 to 10 minutes, determines the drink’s effect. A shorter brewing time means that maté tea will have a stronger, more stimulating effect and a less hard taste. In South America the locals drink maté tea from original drinking bowls known as “cuia” that are made from hollowed-out gourds. The procedure: Fill the cuia 2/3 full with maté tea leaves, add cold or lukewarm water (for the first infusion never boiling water), allow to brew and settle, then insert a metal straw called “bombilha“ deep into the brew while holding the straw shut with the thumb. Suck up the first bitter infusion and spit it out. Now fill the “cuia” with hot water and – drink! According to the custom of the gauchos, the “cuia” is passed on to the other guests, and the bombilha must not be used for stirring otherwise it becomes clogged. Maté tea leaves can be used several times by brewing them again with hot water according to taste, and this can easily be done in the European manner of preparing tea, which is recommended in the individual product description.
Although it was the Dutch who first brought tea to Europe early in the 17th century, it remains the British who hold the reputation as “The tea-drinking nation”, at least in terms of quantity.
However, if one is purely objective, it could be said that the reputation of English tea is often better than its quality. But one has to admire the aura that the average British housewife manages to create around a pot of the simplest tea. Her five o’clock tea party would hardly be complete without the proverbial cream, sugar lumps, biscuits or cakes, would it? In few other Western European countries is the tea-time ritual so revered. As a rule, the British taste in tea is for the rougher, more robust, quick-brewing variety. The subtler, higher quality teas are rarely featured on the average British household’s shopping list.
Only the Irish surpass Britain’s tea consumption, which has slightly decreased in the last few years. They are now the world tea drinking champions.
The Irish market prefers rich teas that “go far”, such as the high-quality teas from Kenya, Rwanda or Burundi. Their choice of tea is mainly based on its strength. They are partial to brews that are very strong and robust when poured.
East Frisian Tea
It may be somewhat daring to call East Frisia (A region of northwest Germany bordering the Netherlands and the North Sea) a “Nation” and its tea the “National Drink” but East Frisians are avid tea drinkers and the whole process of brewing and drinking tea can take on the dimension of a sacred ritual. On average, East Frisians consume a stunning 2500 g per person/year. This is even more surprising when one considers that the total tea consumption in Germany (including East Frisia) is on average no more than 250 g per person/year! All East Frisian blends have a strong Second Flush Assam content, mixed with quite small amounts of teas from Sumatra, Java, and Ceylon. These blends, peculiar to East Frisia, are drunk with the addition of a lump of “Kluntje” (a large white rock candy sugar) and a small spoonful of cream in each cup. The locals refer to tea made this way with the trilling alliteration “n lekker Koppke Tee” (a delicious cup of tea). The flavor is malty, strong, spicy, and highly aromatic. Protocol demands that the tea must never be stirred in the cup, because the true sensory experience comes in three layers: First the cream (“sky”), then the tea infusion (“water”) and finally the sweetness of the sugar (“land”).
Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States, as well as Turkey and Persia, have long and celebrated traditions of tea-drinking. The plain, mechanically-picked qualities that are produced in Georgia, Turkey, and Iran are mostly consumed locally, so they rarely attract buyers from abroad. Traditional tea blends are also imported from China, Ceylon and India. Just as the English have their strong five o’clock tea, so the Russians have their own favorite blends, often smoky in flavor. These date from the time when caravans transported tea in sacks from China to Russia.
The mild blend no. 739 “Russian Samovar Tea” is best-suited to preparation in a samovar, an item no self-respecting Russian household would do without.