First Flush Darjeeling Tea from the Lingia Estate

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

The first picking of the 2023 spring harvest hits the Deli’s shelves

In the “ABC of Zingerman’s Food Philosophy” that you’ll find in the new pamphlet, “A Taste of Zingerman’s Food Philosophy,” you’ll see this superfine tea under “D”:

D is for Darjeeling. More specifically, First Flush Darjeeling. This is the very limited supply of Darjeeling tea that comes from the first harvest of the spring season each year. … To this day, First Flush Darjeeling remains one of my favorites of all the fine foods we sell, and each spring I wait eagerly for the new season’s arrival.

That last bit led me to write this piece right now. The 2023 First Flush Darjeeling has just come in! It’s a tea that tastes like no other, one that evokes emotion, calls up my creative spirit, and comforts me all at the same time. If, as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes, each day has a smell, right now it’s the aroma of the 2023 First Flush that accounts for the aromatic activity of the whole last month for me. Even before it’s been brewed, the aroma is enticing. Fresh, lively, aromatic, and hard to walk away from—I keep sticking my nose back in the bag to get just one more sniff before I head off to do other things.

We start our selection process each year by tasting a range of samples from different gardens, or estates. For the last few years, Jackson Konwinski, Tea Buyer at Zingerman’s Deli, has ably led the work. How does he do it? He explains:

Selection for me involves tasting the different offerings next to each other, always with two steepings to see how the tea evolves. I look for a tea that has some of the classic Darjeeling flavor notes (citrus, spice, brisk finish) but that brings something extra and unique to the table. This year, it was the flowery nose and other fruits on the palate. I also insist on a tea that re-steeps well. Teas that were in the running after the first infusion have been pushed aside when the second steep fell flat. 

This year, we really liked the tea from the Lingia Estate. Lingia was founded in 1867 when a couple of German missionaries picked a small plot of land to plant in the western part of the Darjeeling district, about 30 miles from what’s now the border with Nepal. At the time the two set their tea saplings into the soil, it was the first known tea-growing activity in the area. Back in the middle of the 19th century, the British government was determined to plant enough tea to significantly reduce England’s dependence on China, which was the sole source of tea up until the British began to plant it on their newly conquered Indian colonial land in the 1850s. Darjeeling was the first region to be planted in the drive to create an independent and dependable source to meet the ever-growing demand for tea in the U.K.

The Lingia teas today are grown at an altitude of at least 2800 feet, all the way up to 6000 feet. Higher altitudes generally mean the plants work harder to grow and the tea leaves that come from them are more flavorful, and this lot is selected from the leaves picked at the highest altitudes in the garden. The tea is certified organic, and all of the harvesting and oxidation work to make the tea is traditionally done by hand, what’s known in the trade as “Orthodox production.” You need to hand-pluck something like 11,000 shoots to make a pound of good tea, just two leaves and a bud from the tip of each branch.

The flavor of the 2023 tea is superfine. In fact, thanks to Kevin Gascoyne and his colleagues at Camellia Sinensis, our longtime tea importer in Montreal, we’ve been able to get our hands on a tea that is, literally, a superfine tea. It’s formally graded as SFTGFOP, which stands for Superfine, Flowery, Tippy, Golden, Orange Pekoe. TGFOP is typically what’s available and is, in its own right, excellent. The superfine is simply next level. We’re lucky to have it. Gascoyne says it’s “bright and lively, the sustained liquor leads us to saline (soy) and fruity (green grape) notes as a base for the explosive floral notes of roses, typical to this terroir.” And there’s a particular taste of the terroir where the Lingia Estate is located that’s known to bring a “rose flavor that cannot be replicated anywhere in the Darjeeling hills.” I think the tea is terrific—edgy and excellent, almost like a coming together of the best of black and green teas in a single cup, with a nice level of tannins and a lovely bit of what Jackson says reminds him of grapefruit.

I’ve long thought of First Flush Darjeeling a bit like free jazz—intentionally a bit out of balance, thought-provoking, attention-getting, inspiring in the best possible way. Like free jazz, it’s not for everyone, but for the right people—of which I’m clearly one—it’s an inspiration.