Large bamboo trays loaded with green tea leaves.

Understanding the Flushes of Tea: One Country, Two Regions

Michele Lillie

Understanding the different harvesting seasons of tea plants is fundamental to appreciating the nuanced world of tea. Each seasonal harvest offers a unique taste profile, appearance, and aroma influenced by the timing of the harvest. These variations affect not only the sensory experience of tea but also its cost and antioxidant properties. Let’s embark on a flavorful journey to discover these differences.

Different countries have unique terms for their teas harvested during the various seasons of the year. This post will concentrate on the terms used in India, both in the Darjeeling and Assam regions. Tea farmers from Nepal, located very close to the Darjeeling region of India, will also use the same terminology.

The time when a tea plant puts out new shoots ready for plucking is called a “flush.” In Darjeeling, four separate flushes correspond to the changing seasons. The exact timing of these flushes can vary each year due to weather conditions.

Green mountains of Darjeeling, India with tea plants in foreground.

Four Flushes of Darjeeling

  • First flush
    • This is the early spring flush, starting in February or early March and lasting through April or early May.
    • During the winter dormancy, the tea plants store up the healthful nutrients that we find in tea. The leaves picked at this time will have the highest concentration of these nutrients.
    • These leaves undergo what is termed a “hard wither,” meaning 63-65% of the moisture in the leaves is removed during this time. As the moisture content is reduced, biochemical changes in the leaf occur including changes in tea polyphenols, proteins, lipids, sugars, and enzymatic activity. These compounds are what are responsible for the tea's color and astringency.
    • This hard wither leads to less oxidation than expected in a black tea. In terms of oxidation, they are closer to an oolong than a black tea. Most in the tea world still consider them a black tea, although some tea experts do not. Since they are not truly a traditional black or oolong tea, they term these “hard wither” teas.
    • Because of this reduced oxidation, the leaves appear greener and they are somewhat delicate and lightweight.
    • The tea brews into a golden cup with a fresh, floral, crisp flavor and a fair amount of astringency. They have a light body with with grassy notes and subtle vegetal aromas.
    • Many considered the first flush Darjeeling the finest of teas. This is why they have gained the name the “Champagne of Teas.”
    • As the harvest is more limited, great skill is required in the plucking, and the tea is in high demand, there is usually a higher cost for a first-flush Darjeeling tea.

  • Second flush
    • This late spring harvest lasts from May through June, just before the monsoon season begins.
    • After the first harvest/flush, the new leaves grow rapidly, resulting in larger leaves over a short period of time.
    • This harvest yields higher volumes of tea leaf.
    • The leaves undergo less withering and a longer oxidation time. The tea leaves look darker, more like a black tea although they may have some golden tips.
    • The brew is stronger and less astringent with a floral, fruity, and nutty flavor. They are said to have “muscatel” notes, a term that comes from the muscat grape.
    • These teas are fuller-bodied with more intense flavors.
    • This type of Darjeeling tea is much more common and is the one that comes to mind for most tea drinkers when they think of Darjeeling tea.

  • Monsoon flush
    • The rainy monsoon season starts in June or July and continues throughout October.
    • During this season, the plants grow very quickly and often need to be plucked every 8-10 days.
    • The leaves are large and result in a cup of strong and bold tea. However, it is less complex or nuanced than the previous flushes. The flavor seems almost as if the rains dilute it.
    • This is the least desirable of the flushes and is typically used for commercial tea bags and iced tea blends.

  • Autumn flush
    • The last harvest of the year is for tea leaves that flush from October to mid-November when the plants once again go dormant.
    • The leaf growth slows down during this period.
    • It is uncommon to find an autumnal flush tea, but when you do, it will yield a rich copper-colored brew. The flavor is described as rich, full, nutty, and smooth. 

One of the other major tea-producing regions in India is Assam, where are three seasons.

Three Flushes of Assam

  • First/Spring Flush (March-May)
    • Tea brewed from first flush Assam leaves is somewhat grassy and astringent.
    • As opposed to the Darjeeling region, tea farms in Assam rarely sell the first flush teas as a stand-alone tea. They are usually added to tea blends.

Tea garden in Assam, India.
  • Second/Monsoon Flush (May-June)
    • The second flush leaves yield a smoother, sweeter brew with more of the characteristic Assam flavor.
    • This is considered the highest quality Assam tea.

  • · Third/Autumn Flush (October - November)
    • With the rains and the high temperatures, the tea bushes grow rapidly during this time. This means a loss of flavor.
    • These teas are usually sold in Assam blends or even sold to tea companies that blend them with leaves from other countries.

Although the general perception is that certain flushes are higher quality than other flushes, it really comes down to your personal preference. What is fascinating, though, is to experience the difference that just a few weeks can make to the qualities of a tea.

Try our First Flush Darjeeling tea from the Glenburn estate. This tea has light green leaves with silver tips. There are delicate fruity and floral notes with a mild sweetness, creating a lush and harmonious flavor that is sure to delight your palate.

Contrast that delightful tea with our Second Flush Darjeeling tea from the Ambootia estate. The appearance of the leaves is darker with pale yellowish tips that brew into notes of grain, nuts, and dried apricot with a crisp, clean, and slightly astringent finish.

Our Assam Hathikuli is a first flush Assam tea. It is a robust, full-bodied tea with a malty and nuanced flavor with generous astringency.

We also offer a second flush Assam tea – Assam Kanoka. The flavor profile is very smooth with malty, woody notes balanced with hints of sweet honey and fig. 

Understanding these seasonal variations allows tea enthusiasts to choose a tea that best suits their palate and budget while appreciating the distinct qualities brought forth by nature’s rhythm. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned tea lover, exploring the diverse flushes of tea can enhance your appreciation for this timeless beverage, making every sip an exploration of its rich cultural and agricultural heritage.

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