by Phil on January 17th, 2014
Canton Tea Club Week 68: Darjeeling First Flush ‘Spring Blossom’
This week’s Tea Club tea is a hand-made tea called Spring Blossom, from the Samabeong garden. The Samabeong name is from the local Lepcha dialect, and means ‘black bear den’. The garden is one of the most remote in Darjeeling, separated from the main tea belt by mountain rivers and virgin forests. This creates a local microclimate that is unusually mild and humid, which is one of the reasons why they can produce such aromatic teas there. Another factor is a strong belief in the principles of biodynamic agriculture, working with natural materials and lunar cycles to bring out the best in the plants. We will hear more about that in next week’s blog.
How did Samabeong get to be this way? What is the story?
The history goes back to 1882, when the garden was established by the British. In the run-up to Indian independence the British started selling off their gardens to Indian companies, and this happened with Samabeong in 1936. After that the ownership pattern changed, and the garden went through periods of mismanagement and instability until the late 1960s. The garden was finally abandoned in about 1968.
Why was it abandoned? A combination of economic recession, labour and political conflict, poor communications and difficulty of access to the garden resulted in a combination of high production costs and low selling prices that made the garden unviable. It had previously been supported by an age-old trade selling ‘brick tea’ into neighbouring Tibet, but political upheaval in Tibet closed off that trade and led to the closure of the garden.
The garden was intermittently opened and closed until the mid 1980s, when there was political upheaval in the entire Darjeeling district; this affected Samabeong just as all the other gardens. During the night of 19th December 1987 agitators burnt the entire factory down, leaving only ashes. All the machinery disappeared, and this caused the final closure of the garden. This had a terrible impact on the socio-economic life of the entire local community, leading to a great deal of suffering.
In response to this, in October 1990, a Darjeeling pioneer named Brij Mohan decided to accept the challenge of reviving the abandoned garden, with support from GEPA, a German ATO (Alternative Trading Organisation), who committed to buy the entire crop each year until the garden was re-established. This was a pioneering approach, in the very early days of what would later become Fair Trade. (Just my opinion, but I would say that Fair Trade as we know it today, although much bigger, is a very much diluted version of the work that was done by companies like GEPA in the 1980s and 1990s).
Brij and his son Binod have now been involved with the garden for over 20 years, through their company TPI Ltd. TPI is a family based organization actively committed to the support and revival of sick and abandoned gardens and also in the support and promotion of economically disadvantaged Small Scale Tea Farmers initiatives in the hills of Darjeeling. GEPA have continued their active association with the work of TPI, and their long term partnership with Samabeong.
The total population of Samabeong is about 1850, comprised of 385 families, and has 260 permanent employees. The community includes a diversity of local ethnic groups including Mukhia, Bhujel, Rai, Chetri, Tamang, Sherpa, Sharma and Lepcha.
I came across this tea almost by accident. In the normal scheme of things I get to see samples from many Darjeeling gardens each season, particularly during the First Flush period, but these tend to be conventional grades made for traditional markets. I have seen a few teas from Samabeong over the years, but nothing that stood out from the crowd. I was sent the samples of ‘Spring Blossom’ (along with next week’s ‘Tara’s Promise’) by a friend in France who visited the garden in 2012. While they were there Binod showed her some special hand-made teas, available in tiny quantities and never seen through normal market channels. She bought the teas on the spot, and has let us have a small amount for the Tea Club. So, a big “thank you” to Aurelie. She named the teas herself, which I think adds to the pleasure.
I believe Spring Blossom is one of the most interesting Darjeeling teas I have tasted. It is made from the first pickings of the spring, and carried out by the most experienced and skilful female staff. The buds are laid out on bamboo trays in the shade, allowing the fresh breeze to pass through while simultaneously turning the leaves by hand. When I knew this, it helped me to understand the flavours. The process is reminiscent of the hand-tumbling of leaves in the Phoenix Mountains in China, which gently ruptures the leaf cells and results in some of the most exquisite Oolong teas. The leaves are then heated, rolled and dried to lock in the flavour. The tea is very attractive in appearance, gently twisted with many soft white buds. The leaves are only lightly oxidized and maintain their green colour when infused. The flavour is tantalising – light, fresh, aromatic, with some sweetness. A hint of dry muscatel is there, but also floral and fruit notes. As with last week, I love to drink this tea when it has cooled right down.
So is it a partially oxidised black tea? An Oolong? Does it matter?
The important questions are “Is it good?”, and “Did you enjoy it?”