'It's the Champagne of teas' - Highly sought-after tea hits the Irish café scene
We're a nation of tea drinkers, but are we connoisseurs who'd appreciate a Prized 'first flush' Darjeeling more than an Irish breakfast blend? Leslie Ann Horgan samples a pot to find out
From slow roasts to flat whites, Ireland's coffee culture has developed rapidly in the past decade, but we are still primarily a nation of tea drinkers. In fact, according to statistics compiled by Euromonitor and the World Bank in 2016, we have the second-biggest tea consumption in the world. Sipping an average of 4.83lbs of tea per person each year, we come only behind Turkey, which gets through an immense 6.96lbs per person. So, yes, we love our tea, but can we call ourselves true connoisseurs?
Granted, there are a multitude of what could be considered 'fussy drinkers' among us. From those who insist on loose leaf to the pot scalders and the milk-in-first brigade - and of course those who, like myself, take theirs black - we tend to know how we like our tea made. But beyond the great debate of the Cork brand versus that stuff from the Pale, how many of us really know what tea we like? Is yours a Ceylon or an Assam, an Oolong or even a Lapsang Souchong?
That's the thought that's running through my head as I prepare to taste the Castleton Estate 'First Flush' Darjeeling at Bewley's cafe on Dublin's Grafton Street. An avid tea drinker - I get through between eight and 10 cups on an average day - I know exactly how I like my tea made, but not the specifics of the leaves and blends that appeal to me. And so, what better place to start than with an invitation to sip what's described as the 'Champagne of teas'.
As the loose tea leaves are added to some hot - but, crucially, not boiling - water in a white porcelain pot to brew, Maria Cassidy, Head of Training at Bewley's, explains that a first flush Darjeeling is a highly sought-after tea. Bewley's are adding it to the menu at Grafton Street this week at €5 per pot (for comparison, a pot of breakfast tea costs €3). Maria says that the tea "must be drunk in season" so it will be only available until stocks run out.
Paul O'Toole, Bewley's Master Blender, tells me that he first tasted the tea in April and knew straight away that he wanted to order it for the refurbished Grafton Street cafe. "It is an absolutely beautiful tea, so I wanted to let our customers taste it," Paul says. "We bought 25 kilos, which we had flown over specially. I'd estimate it will make about 5,000 pots."
Tea is very much a "live product" according to Paul, who explains that tea auctions are held weekly in large tea-producing countries such as Kenya, from which Ireland imports the majority of its tea. Tea is produced year-round in equatorial countries, with the best leaves coming after the 'long rains' begin around St Patrick's Day. Paul jokes that the auction catalogues are "like something out of Harry Potter" since tea is still sold by the chest, as it has been for centuries. "They haven't found a better way to sell tea, as every chest tastes slightly different, so the buyers need to be in the room to taste it," he says.
Tea is thought to have been discovered around 2700BC in the Yunan province of China. It was brought to Europe in the 17th Century, reaching London around 1657. In the houses of the upper classes, the valuable leaves were not stored in the kitchen where servants could pilfer them. Instead, tea was kept in the drawing room and was the only beverage that the lady of the house would make herself.
The English East India Company imported tea directly from China, but there were risks associated with having a single supplier, especially during the Opium Wars of the 1830s. It was in that decade, however, that tea was discovered growing in Assam, in northern India. (It was also in that decade that Samuel Bewley took a risk on tea and broke the East India Company's monopoly by chartering his own ship to bring 2,099 chests directly to Ireland.)
By 1850, a tea plantation had been established in Darjeeling, in the west of the country, where the original Chinese plant, Camellia Sinensis, was shown to grow as well as its Indian cousin in the rich soil.
Today, India is the largest tea producer in the world, though its output is seasonal. In the Darjeeling region, there are 87 gardens producing around 10,000 tonnes of tea each year. Darjeeling tea is India's first Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) product, meaning only teas produced in named plantations and to set standards can be called Darjeelings (Irish products with PGI status include Clare Island Salmon, Connemara lamb and the Waterford blaa).
Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Darjeeling's tea develops slowly in the colder conditions found at high altitude. This results in the floral notes that make the region's leaves so precious.
Among the estates is Castleton, which is located in the misty Kurseong South Valley and was established by Charles Graham in 1865. Its 'first flush' are the teas produced from the first buds of spring, which are harvested between late February and April. A second flush comes later in the year when warmer temperatures create a tea with more astringency and less flavour - and a lower price point.
Some first flush Darjeelings can sell for as much as €730 a kilo. A late monsoon coupled with a pluckers' strike in the region last year meant that most of the 2017 Darjeeling crop was lost.
When Maria pours the Castleton Estate, I'm surprised to see that this prince of teas is a green tea; I'd automatically assumed it would be black. Maria explains that the six main types of tea - black, white, green, yellow, Oolong and Puerh - all come from the same plant, with the differences created by how it's processed.
White tea, which is simply made from the bud of the plant, is tea in its most natural state. The colour of the leaves, and therefore the tea itself, comes from the fact that the hand-picked buds have not been oxidised. Green tea is cooked or steamed to stop oxidation, before it's rolled and packed. Black tea is fully oxidised. Flavours can be added to any of these teas, however other flavoured brews such as chamomile tea are not, in fact, teas since they don't contain any camellia leaves; they are more correctly termed 'herbal tissanes'.
Though white tea is the purest, it is also the lightest blend, with very little in the way of flavour or what Maria terms "mouth feel" to my palate. It is highest, however, in polyphenols - an antioxidant that helps to protect against heart disease and other illnesses. The caffeine content is also highest in white and green teas, with the camellia plant developing the stimulating chemical to protect its tender buds from insects. The longer you brew your tea for, the stronger the caffeine content of your cuppa will be.
Where tea differs from coffee is in an amino acid it contains called L-theanine. This unique chemical binds with the caffeine and slows down its absorption rate. Maria quotes studies which have shown that this produces 'alpha brainwave activity', meaning that tea both stimulates and calms the body, rather than giving an instant buzz like a coffee. It's thought that this "Ahh factor" is the reason that tea first became so popular in China, where a calm but focused mind was needed for Buddhist meditation.
With my own mind suitably calm and focused, I'm ready to taste the first flush tea. Maria tells me to expect a scent of roses and a delicate taste, with "notes" of soft apricot and peach, from the golden-green liquid. Paul - who spent five years training as a tea taster - compares the tea to a muscatel wine, saying it is similarly floral and fragrant. Using the lingo of the trade, Paul adds that the tea is "brisk", meaning that it looks pale but when tasted has lots of flavour and is refreshing to drink.
Unaccustomed to thinking of the taste of tea in the same way I might approach a glass of wine, I find it difficult to relate what I'm tasting to specific flavours. The tea certainly has a lighter mouth feel than my usual choice green tea, and has none of the grassy astringency that I would have expected from a three-minute brew (I'm more of a 30-seconds lady for tea bags and one-to-two minutes for loose leaf). There is certainly a floral element to both scent and taste that's light and pleasant as opposed to 'perfumey'. However, I couldn't tell you whether it was peony or jasmine that I was tasting.
Overall, I find it a very pleasant tea to drink: not as boring as some green teas are, but not as cloying as flavoured greens can be. It is particularly nice when tasted against the pistachio and strawberry tart that Bewley's suggest as an accompaniment - the light tea complements rather than competes with the sweetness of the confectionery. If you like a cup of green tea, then chances are you'll enjoy this premium variety. However, if, like many Irish people, you prefer your tea strong, then the gulf is like crossing from Prosecco to Champagne.
"It's not as punchy as an Irish Breakfast tea would be," admits Maria, who says that the familiar tea - a blend of black Assam and Darjeeling - remains the company's most popular tea offering by far. And there's another potential problem if you're a more traditional tea drinker: the first flush teas are never drunk with milk. "The second flush can take milk, if that's how you prefer it," says Maria, "but there's no way that the first flush should be drunk that way. The UK and Ireland are among the only places in the world that take their tea with milk."
Whether we'll be swapping our milky morning cuppa for a flavoured green tea in the years to come remains to be seen, but Paul says that the speciality tea market is huge in Ireland - and it's rapidly expanding. And no matter whether yours is a first flush Darjeeling or an Irish Breakfast right now, you can rest assured that you are indeed a tea connoisseur. "We get a lot of good stuff at the tea auctions," says Paul, "as a nation we drink very high quality tea."
How to make the perfect pot of tea
Though making what you consider to be the perfect pot of tea is a matter for individual tastes, there are some general rules that will help you to make a good brew, according to Maria Cassidy. Water temperature is key, as many people "kill the flavour" in green and white teas by making them with boiling water, says Maria. This leaves the tea tasting grassy and astringent, rather than having fruit and floral notes. Here are her guidelines:
● Your tea leaves or bags should be stored away from light, humidity and strong odours.
● Tea should be made with fresh filtered water that's free of limescale and chlorine. The correct pH level is 6.8.
● Tea needs oxygen to brew correctly, so you should never reboil the kettle.
● After the correct brewing time, you should separate the leaves from the liquid to stop it getting stronger and therefore more astringent.
● In general, use 1.5g of tea per 100ml of water.
● Black teas need the hottest water, with 98˚C recommended and a drawing time of 3-5 minutes.
● Oolong and Puerh teas also need this temperature, with a brewing time of 3 minutes, and 3-4 minutes respectively.
● Green teas need cooler water - 70˚C is the recommended temperature. Chinese greens should be brewed for 3-4 minutes, while Japanese greens need only 30 seconds to a minute to be ready.
● White tea should be made at a temperature of 80˚C and left to draw for 3-5 minutes. Yellow teas should also be brewed at 80˚C, and for 3-4 minutes.