This year's first picks
It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for tea lovers, at least. With spring springing all across the northern hemisphere, so too are the first delicate shoots shooting from our beloved shrub, camellia sinensis. The year’s first tea harvest, in many places, marks the change of season from winter to spring, and has given rise to a number of symbolic celebrations surrounding the beginning of ubiquitous green and overabundance – a feeling that is fragrantly summed up in the floral and fruity aromas characteristic of any good first flush.
Having introduced itself to large parts of the Western world as first flush, the terms used to name the year’s first harvest are as varied as its countries of origin and by no means limited to black Darjeelings and Assams. From Shincha in Japan, to Woojeon in Korea, or Pre-Qingming in China, the veneration of the year’s first delicate libations after the long winter months, in which tea production comes to a standstill, is a universal cause for joy among the tea nations.
A common misconception woven into the notion of first flush is its understanding as a mark of quality. Though first-flush teas do require a more attentive, usually hand-picked harvest, this does not necessarily mean that they are better quality than second- or third-flush teas, harvested in late May to mid July. The defining differences between flushes manifest in the teas’ characteristic flavor profiles. Prolonged exposure to the sun and natural environment results in the maturing of other, more robust and geographically dependent aromas. If it’s full-bodied and malty Assams you’re after, or vegetal and umami-rich senchas, the delicately floral first flushes probably won’t be your cup of tea.
However, be it their delicate flavor, or just exuberant anticipation, the first tea of the season has created a buzz around it similar to vinic vintage cults in the West, giving rise to such environmentally questionable practices as airmail tea, packaged and sent immediately to hit the shelves within four weeks of harvest, guaranteeing the fresh floral flavors expected from any good first flush. What’s more, this eager cult of seasonality has brought forth a more minute documentation of the tea’s harvest, divided not only by flushes but by day of harvest, DJ1 signifying the first day, DJ2 the second, and so on. As goes for different flushes, the day of harvest does not necessarily signify quality, but merely a unique flavor profile, usually more delicate the earlier the harvest.