My childhood memories are largely dominated by visuals of my mom’s drinking addiction – 6 to 7 cups of tea or cha (chai) - dudh beshi, jol kom and chini diye (translating to more milk, less water and with a dollop of sugar). After reaching adolescence – when I was permitted to engage in drinking – cha, of course – I enjoyed the indulgence for the first few cups but never quite developed an exquisite taste for it. Rather, I found a strong fondness for the poorer version of it – black tea and that too, with very less sugar.
A couple of years later and with a few more pounds on me, I ditched the sugar and introduced lemon to my cha. Then there came the moment, somewhere around 2009 or 2010, when I asked my baba to get me ‘green’ tea from the cha shops in Sealdah and near Lalbazar (areas that are laden with shops selling tea leaves in Kolkata). He was quite perplexed initially, nevertheless got what I wanted, and my journey towards the wonder world of tea just got started.
Over the years and primarily in more recent years, I kept on discovering various types and flavours that manufacturers or companies mixed with packaged tea – both loose leaves as well as bags; and both black and green tea. The amalgamation of tea leaves with additional flavours such as mint, ginger, lemon and cardamom are common; but what appealed to my senses was the seeping in of elements such as lavender, chamomile, turmeric, ashwagandha and moringa into the traditional brew.
Teas from the brand, named Vahdam Teas, was one of the first flavoured ones that I tasted, and the varieties that they offered were quite widespread. Over time, the company continued to add more varieties of flavours – a range of mix and match. My personal favourite has been the classic ‘Lemon Ginger Green Tea’, followed by ‘Ginger Mint Green Tea’. I often opt for the ‘Green Tea Sampler Assortment Box’, which gives me the liberty to have a collection of tea bags at my disposal.
To push my boundaries further, I tried some other brands – Organic India, Teamonk, Tea Box, Eco Valley, Twinings, Typhoo. Of these, Teamonk’s Apple Cinnamon Green Tea and Tea Box’s Kashimiri Kahwa Saffron Green Tea wins hands down for me. A quick visit to these companies’ websites is like opening the Alibaba’s cave and there is the risk of feeling like Alice in Wonderland with the plethora of tea varieties that they offer.
Till 2018, my knowledge of tea was limited to black and green, the latter, obviously, being my chosen one and to the astonishment of my friends and colleagues, who were heavily inclined towards our own desi chai. A trip to Ooty, in September 2018, brought me closer to the tea gardens of Nilgiris and opened doors for the entry of two new types of tea – oolong and white (after tasting, I did not like any of these two types of tea). However, my biggest eye opener to the most hidden aspect in the world of tea came with the hush hush planned trip, with a friend, to Darjeeling in January 2021. Now, how can a Darjeeling trip be complete without bringing home back some tea for me and my mom? Post a quick Google search on ‘best tea shops in Darjeeling’, I hopped into the store of Golden Tips and froze in bewilderment at the utter display of packets of tea on their shelves. A glance across the shelves caught my eyes on one prominent word – flush.
The salesperson came forward with the routine smile on his face and said ‘what type of tea would you prefer?’ and I went like ‘ahh.. mmm.. what is a flush?’. With an opportunity to showcase his knowledge, the salesperson patiently and diligently explained the meaning and gravity of the word.
In a nutshell, tea (especially for Darjeeling) is plucked three times a year. First harvest is during March, which is known as First Flush or ‘Lover’s Bush’ and is characterised by fine subtle flavour, freshness and delicate taste. With a light golden colour, the Darjeeling first flush tea – full of antioxidants and stimulants – is known to be amongst the most expensive ones in the market, and is dubbed as ‘Champagne’ of teas. Having tried it for the first time in the lush laps of mountains, I felt the cup of elixir – golden to light copper colour, clear and bright – as ‘first love’ and became my absolute favourite.
The second harvest takes place in June, and hence the name, Second Flush or Summer Flush and the tea offers a distinctive strong fruity flavour. The famous muscatel flavour that Darjeeling teas are well known for is associated with this flush. The tea from this flush are mostly used as breakfast teas and can be drank in liquor form or blended with milk.
The last one is known as Autumn Flush (October) and is considered to be of a low quality one. The tea has a dark colour with a distinct nutty flavour. In India, this flush is mixed with CTC tea and predominantly consumed as milk tea.
In-addition to these three flushes, sometimes there are two in-betweeners – Monsoon and Winter – but these mostly do not possess any nuanced flavour and are not of standard quality.
Additional flavouring – vanilla, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, rose, hibiscus, lemon or any other – can be added to any of the flushes, and is experimentation depends on consumer demand and is at the disposal of the manufacturers and/or packagers.
Visiting other prominent tea shops in Darjeeling – Nathmull’s, Yule, House of Tea (Goodricke) – disclosed a very similar picture of buffet offering a range of teas. Chances are one can easily feel lost in these stores with such myriad of options, if one is not clear about their taste and preferences.
What did I end up buying??
Post gaining some knowledge and understanding about the tea types, I decided to experiment a little and brought a pack of Castleton First Flush, Kashmiri Kahwa Green Tea and Blue Tea (Darjeeling Sips) for me. Summer Grill Second Flush and Autumn Praise Autumn Flush were brought for my mom.
How to get hold of any variety of flush and flavour??
With the world becoming smaller thanks to technologies, almost endless varieties of flavours within respective flushes can be found on the websites of numerous tea companies. Dedicate some time, scroll through the offerings and select the ones you want to try and taste. It is advisable to try the sample packs first to see which ones suit the taste buds best, as some of these tea varieties can be quite heavy on the purse. Additionally, tea has a fixed shelf life; hence, buying in bulk does not really help.
Cheers to tea!!