Like little soldiers, tea shrubs all stand in rows, organised, uniformed and in harmony.Tea plantations are like a picture postcard of ever-expanding rolling hills with well-manicured greenery.
But this isn’t really for the benefit of the beholder, rather it represents the traditional tea planting process.
Tea shrubs grow at an altitude of 3,000ft- 7,000ft above sea level, and they love a climate that is at once chilly and sunny.
Always grown on hill sides, stripes of narrow pathways run along the shrubs, to allow tea pickers navigate the plantation.
It takes an approximate of 7 years for a tea plant to grow from its seeds, and 3 years till the plant is ready for harvest.
Back to Botany
What’s in the tea- is it a bud, a stem, leaves from the entire shrub, a combination of them all?
Well, the tea leaves that we brew represent a rather small portion of the tea shrub. The top 1 to 2 inches of a tea plant is called a “flush”. It’s the leaves and the buds from the flush that are harvested in order to make tea.
The top of tea shrubs is flat or dome-like in shape allowing maximum exposure to the sun, which results in the best quality leaves.
Usually it takes between a week and a fortnight for a new flush to grow. The slower the growth the better tasting the tea.
The plucking round or interval is the time taken for a new flush to grow and to be harvested.
The finest tea comes from leaves that are picked by hand, as it requires great care to pluck a bud and a leaf in a consistent manner. Machine cut leaves often damage the flushes resulting in a lower grade or quality of tea.
“Flush”, the term you see on tea boxes and labels
“Flush” is also a term used for teas grown in India, in particular Darjeeling Black tea, that is synonymous to “harvest season”.
There are four distinct Flushes: First Flush, Second Flush, Monsoon Flush and Autumnal Flush.
Just as climate and geography have influenced human civilization, culture and race, so to the seasons and altitude shape the flavour and colour of tea.
The First Flush is the first harvest of the year. It usually takes place between March and April and is therefore also known as Spring Flush. It’s a tea connoisseur’s favourite as the leaves carry the freshness of the winter winds and the softness of the spring sun. The taste is subtle, refreshing with a delicate sweet aroma.
The liqueur is a pale yellow and First Flush tea is one of the most expensive teas in the market.
The Second Flush is the summer harvest. The plucking takes place in June. The leaves turn a purplish hue from the long days of summer. The flavour is full-bodied and bold. The world-renowned muscatel flavoured Darjeeling tea is a Second Flush.
When brewed the tea turns a deep copper.
The Monsoon Flush follows the summer harvest. The tea shrubs drink in the rains resulting in larger leaf sizes and giving the leaves a more robust flavour. Though tea connoisseurs tend to skip this flush of tea, in India, it is the leaves of this harvest that makes for the famous Masala chai.
The tea is amber in colour and is strong and addictive.
The Autumnal Flush. It’s the end of the year harvest. In Darjeeling and Assam, this harvest takes place in October while in the southern hills of Nilgiris, the Autumn harvest happens between December and January.
It is the season after the rains and when the sunshine is mellow, and the leaves are matured.
The brewed tea is copper in colour and though its stronger than the First and Second Flush tea, its uniqueness lies in its spice-like after taste and aroma.
While flavour and colour is a reflection of the season, the quality lies in the leaf and its plucking.
As per research done by the Guardian news, it takes about 24 litres of water to produce 250ml of tea, while for the same amount of wine it takes 74 litres of water.
Tea absorbs moisture and therefore it is always recommended that tea is stored in a dry and air-tight container.
When hot water is poured on loose tea leaves, they slowly begin to uncurl. This is known as “the agony of the leaves”.