I still have pretty vivid memories about bringing first flush Darjeeling to the Deli ... probably 20-plus years ago. At the time it was almost unknown in the U.S. Not that tea connoisseurs couldn't have told you about it; even back then, it was described in most every tea book that got published. The thing was that while it was easy to read about it, it was almost impossible to actually find in North America. In fact, even then there was plenty of Darjeeling around, most commonly in the form of Twinings tea bags and some high-end brands that packed loose tea into tins. Nearly of all it, though, was not very good, low-grade leaves from the rainy, high-yield, low-flavor summer season.
We got going on bringing in first flush, which is harvested in the early spring, thanks to a very nice tea importer named Walter Jewell. I can't remember what year it was but I'm thinking the late '80s. With a long history in the tea business behind him, he set out to solicit a few specialty shops that would want to bring over an entire seventy-or-so-pound chest of the new season's tea. I have no idea how many shops he actually signed up—I'm guessing not all that many, but I know that we were one of them. And that's really, thanks to Walter, where my long and very good relationship with this stuff started.
As with most everything else in the food world the supply situation has most certainly improved significantly. Today there's first flush Darjeeling all over the place (at least "all over the place" in the way I experience it, which is, of course, radically different, I know, than how most folks do). First flush is in a lot of specialty shops and catalogs. You still don't see it all that often in restaurants (regardless of how upscale they might be), and it's not something you'll get in too many, even high-end, grocery stores. When you come across it, quality can be quite good, which I like, since it gives me a much greater shot at getting some when I'm out on the road somewhere.
It takes all the greenness, sharp edges, edgy beats, free jazz, cutting edge, slightly-crazy-but-in-a-supremely-endearing-way stuff about Darjeeling and puts it out front where you can get it.
Having said all that, and knowing that there are certainly other good first flush teas out there each year (many or most of which I haven't tasted), I'm not going to tell you that our Jungpana is the only one worth getting. Tea is much like wine, and just as the wine world is now flush with good offerings, so too tea has taken off in leaps and bounds. I'm not generally competitive anyways, and I'd have to do a lot more homework to make any kind of pronouncement about this being the best of everything you might buy. But I don't have to do any additional work at all to tell you that the Jungpana is very, very good and a pretty exceptional tea. Vanessa, Sly, and I both agreed within a matter of minutes that it was by far the best we'd tasted in a long time. Usually, like I said, we take weeks to taste everything and decide what we're going to do. But as soon as we tried this one ... we called up our contacts and ordered.
Although it usually doesn't get to us 'til August or thereabouts, first flush Darjeeling is usually harvested sometime in April, depending on altitude, and by the time the tea auctions take place, samples get sent, and we sit to taste, make a decision on which one we want, and get it shipped over, it's usually pretty late into the summer. I suppose we could act faster but the truth is there are so many samples to taste and they usually keep coming to us throughout the spring. And unlike buying berries at the market (where if you aren't thrilled with what you bought on Wednesday you try a different vendor on Saturday), with the first flush, the one we've selected is what we're going to be sipping (or stuck with if it sucks) for the rest of the year. Which is why our quick consensus on which tea to take this year was all the more impressive. All else aside, as someone for who speaks Darjeeling as his primary drinking language, I will say that having it at home and at work to drink at will has been making me really happy. It's better, I think, than any first flush I've had in a long time.
Like all good Darjeelings, its flavor is more than a little bit difficult to describe. It's like a lock with 15 tumblers: starts out one way, moves back toward where it started, then back again a few more times before ending someplace unpredictably different altogether. To say it's one of the "mysteries of the universe" might be a bit excessive, but it is kind of hard to quantify. Giving it my best shot anyways ... I'll say that it's full in the mouth but that it sort of starts out by moving first from side to side, then from there on steadily up to the top and finally down the bottom. Nice long finish that sits well on the palate. Amber, but in a light golden kind of way (none of the smokiness of say, a Taiwanese amber oolong). Alive. Nutty. It definitely has some of the tannins that are typical of this tea. If you don't like that sort of astringency, then first flush probably isn't the tea for you.