Editor’s note: Thomas Kasper is from Germany but now resides in Thailand where he studies and writes about tea. He is also a freelance writer and translator (German and English). We are pleased that he will now be contributing some of his tea knowledge to this blog.

Flight tea? What is that, you might ask now, tea that flies? Actually, yes. In short, flight teas are teas from the year’s very first harvest being air-shipped as streamlined as possible from the tea gardens to the tea shop counter. In Germany, passionate Darjeeling tea drinkers are lining up in front of tea shops every year starting from some point in March to get hold of some of the “first First Flushes” of the year being flown in by airplane straight from Darjeeling.

One of several sites carrying flugtee ("flight tea") (Photo source: screen capture from site)

One of several sites carrying flugtee (“flight tea”) (Photo source: screen capture from site)

The tradition goes back to the 1960s when Darjeeling lovers, being starved of fresh supplies after the 4 to 5 months long winter break, created a special market segment by showing a particularly strong demand for the year’s first fresh Darjeeling teas, known as First Flushes, as soon as the harvest time for those had come. Producers reacted to this demand by loading their first tea charges on airplanes and sending them to Germany right after harvesting and processing their very first teas in spring.

Darjeeling teas produce the best qualities in the year’s first two harvests, the “First Flush” and the “Second Flush.” While the discussion of whether the first or the second flush is the best is an old and still ongoing one, with the balance tending to be in favor of the first flushes, there’s agreement regarding two things:

  1. After the second harvest season, the quality of the remaining (monsoon and autumn) harvest seasons will progressively deteriorate.
  2. The very best Darjeeling teas are the flight teas, offering a freshness and potential that no other Darjeeling tea coming later in the year will live up to.

These “flight teas” (German: Flugtee) show a particularly mild, round and balanced character, along with a unique set of taste properties, owing to both the long period of accumulation and enrichment of the juices in the tea plant and the preservation of absolute freshness through vacuum-packaging and quick air transport.

Only very high quality, famous, and valuable tea gardens are chosen to produce flight teas. With the tea plants driving new shoots only slowly in the relative cool of early spring, these are often available in rare amounts only. To this adds the high costs for the express air transfer, resulting in generally high prices for flight teas in the tea shops.

As the climate conditions are basically quite similar for teas from the Asia region, teas from China, Japan, and other Asian countries show clear parallels to Darjeeling teas in regard to winter break and the deterioration of quality from harvest to harvest during the year. In this light, especially Japanese green teas have meanwhile gained significant importance as flight teas in Germany, while the discussion on whether Chinese “red” (black) and Oolong teas has only just started.

“Why have I never heard of flight teas before?” A good question! While a Google search for the German term “Flugtee” returns page after page of explanations of the term and concept, embedded in a flood of entries of online tea shops offering their this year’s flight teas from Darjeeling or Japan, a search for relevant English language keywords returns about nothing. Why is that so? A lack of consumer awareness or initiative on the producer side? I don’t know, maybe a bit of both, but as somebody lucky enough to have tried freshly harvested and processed early spring tea on various occasions, I can clearly sense the significance of this concept, and would consider it well worth establishing an English language term for it. So, next month, when you’re in a tea shop, just give it a try and ask for flight teas!

See more of  Thomas Kasper’s articles here.

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