Fresh Tea Is the Best Tea Posted on 06 Apr 11:11
We hold high standards when it comes to our food. Vegetables should be crisp, bright, and preferably not fuzzy. Fruits should be sweet, firm, and juicy; not brown and mushy. This brings me to the issue of fresh tea. Especially on the eve of the arrival of our first Spring flush of the year, the Organic 2015 First Flush Arya Pearl White Darjeeling SFTFGOP1, this is worth discussing! We are very privileged to be the very first place in America to receive this elegant, super-rare white tea from the Darjeeling region of India. What is a First Flush and why is this special? It refers to the very first plucking of the year after the tea plants have lain fallow, typically through the winter seasons. And it’s very special because, as tea connoisseurs the world over agree, the freshest tea is the best.
Excluding Pu-Er’s in this scope, fresh tea has always been the highest regarded. Like our forthcoming Arya Pearl, First Flushes were originally white teas. This traces back to the very roots of tea growing, in the heart of the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Fujian. Yes, even 5,000 years ago the reigning Chinese Emperor would require a tithe from every tea estate’s first plucking of the year and this is what he would drink exclusively. In the royal gardens there, the first teas were plucked by virgins in silken garments with golden shears! And even today, there are rumors of rich Shahs and Sultans buying out whole First Flushes from Darjeeling’s estates.
Now this is by no means typical grocery store tea (try to find out when any of those were picked). Nor does fresh tea have to come exclusively from First Flushes! Indeed, any time tea is plucked and processed, you have a window in which that tea is optimal. White, green, oolong, and black teas have a series of procedures which the growers take to ‘set’ the flavor of a tea. Once that tea has undergone it’s final, crucial bake it’s packaged and sent to tea rooms across the globe, like yours truly here at American Tea Room. And make no mistake, freshly processed good quality tea is always sent to specialists like us, since we know what to do with it and have customers who are always on the lookout for these gems.
So what makes tea so much better when it’s fresh? When tea is processed, a tea-maker must take care not to process out all of the ‘juices’ inherent in the tea leaf. Like an expertly baked bread, the interior of tea should still retain a volume of living amino acids and enzymes, not to mention their polyphenols and catechins (the antioxidants everyone loves). It is in these, contained in the natural saps and juices of the tea leaf, that make a tea so beautifully rich, or sweet, or tannic, or grassy. Combine that with the hundreds of variations in the processing of tea and you have a truly gourmet product. The best tea in the world will usually be plucked by hand, but then was it roasted? Steamed? Rolled? Tumbled? Twisted? Prepare yourself a cup of a fresh oolong and compare it with something you’ve probably had sitting around for ages and just see what you find.
Given the emphasis on the freshness of tea, why would you ever want to drink anything but? And long does it last? Those who take their coffee seriously like to claim that once a coffee has been roasted, it’s shelf-life is like that of an orange (remember coffee is a fruit). Teas, being heated, but not usually roasted, have a somewhat longer optimal freshness. It’s similar to that of a potato (tea is a vegetable), about three months tops before the optimal flavor of a tea has depreciated. This isn’t to say it’s gone bad… technically, after processing it will never really go bad unless moisture is reintroduced. And if stored properly, in vacuum-tight bags, shielded from light and heat, this can be extended for a long time, so people like to stock up. Because I take these precautions, I continue to enjoy an amazing First Flush Darjeeling from nearly two years ago!
The Japanese emphasis on seasonality is crucial to their cuisine and aesthetic; so too is the seasonality of your tea. There is something to be said about drinking a tea that was plucked only a few short weeks ago in the highland hills and mountains of Sri Lanka or Taiwan. Like the terroir is important to a fine wine, the seasonality is similarly important to a fine tea. And once you taste the difference, you will never go back…