Kevin Gascoyne, tea hunter
By KEVIN GASCOYNE, Special to The Gazette June 15, 2012
MONTREAL - For four weeks this spring, Kevin was doing what he does
every year: tearing around tea gardens in the Himalayas to sample
hundreds of teas.
It is his annual quest to find the few select teas that will end up on the
shelves of Camellia Sinensis Tea Houses in Montreal and Quebec City.
Three other tea tasters who co-own the shops with him were off in other
parts of Asia doing the same.
The month was anything but leisurely, with nine flights to get around
India – to Darjeeling and Kangra Valley – and on to Nepal. Days often
included visits to two tea producers and more than three hours on the
road, ending with a well-earned sleep in a different bed each night.
The goal: to buy a collection of teas, using all his wits and resources, that
represents the magnificent diversity and sophistication of the teas from
this legendary growing region. Kevin and is fellow co-owners each
specializing in one of Asia’s principal tea-growing regions, put together a
catalogue of teas, selling to individual tea aficionados and stores all over
the world. I brought back a selection of what’s called first-flush
Darjeelings, made from the first spring leaves of this small appellation of
tea gardens in the Indian Himalayas. The teas chosen by the rest of the
team have also been flown back, and waiting for their arrival was like
waiting for the Beaujolais nouveau to be uncorked: This is when the teas
are tasted here and in Quebec City.
We call it the Spring Tea Event, and its 800 tickets are long gone. On
Saturday, at the Cinérobothèque on St. Denis St., many tiny cups will be
raised and examined with the intensity of a botanist, and in between sips,
the story of those tea leaves will be shared in two-hour conferences.
Here are excerpts from Gascoyne's month-long journal:
Mumbai airport, March 27, it’s 2 a.m., and I am in the zone, that strange
physical and psychological state that accompanies the miracle of long
distance travel. The wonder of getting into a flying metal tube on one side
of the world to magically walk out into the extreme cultural and climactic
differences of the other side still far outweighs any strangeness or
discomfort for me.
With half-glazed eyes I absorb the airport scene, sipping a hot, sweet and
spicy chai. One more short flight to the familiarity of Kolkata, after almost
20 consecutive years of spring-tea buying and research in this part of
Asia, my base in the East.
Avoiding jetlag with a blend of denial and caffeine, I cab directly from the
airport to my first appointment. Kolkata is India’s tea capital; the leaves of
Assam, Dooars and other growing regions are all channelled through this
city for auction and onward transport. Darjeeling, a small isolated
appellation of tea gardens up in the Himalayan foothills, is no exception. I
will head for the hills and try to select some of the best lots of fresh tea
before they leave the gardens, heading them off at the Pass, before they
are trucked down to the auction houses in Kolkata where they are usually
I arrive at Samir Changoiwala’s office, taster and exporter. It is a
comfortable 30 degrees. He greets me with a knowing smile and a sweaty
hug. We have been friends for many years. I was friends with his father
before he left school and ‘joined tea’. We exchange stories and chuckle
through the week’s tea gossip ... gardens changing hands, outrageous
prices for bad teas, favourite managers moving from one garden to
another ... while we share a pot of fresh tea he has selected for my
arrival. First taste of the year is always special: I sip and savour the
explosive rush of aromatics, complexity and balance for a few moments
while Samir gives me a moment, pretending to be busy ... The amber
nectars of First Flush Darjeelings have been the centre of my working life
and annual cycle for so many years, so the first sip of the fresh year is not
only an explosion of sensorial information but also a moment to
contemplate both what I do and why I do it. I love this stuff – no other
liquid tastes better to me! I have a strong feeling of: Great! Here we go
Having followed the weather for weeks, I know it is bone dry up in the
mountains, the flush, growth of new shoots, has started a little late as we
predicted. Samir assures me he has some “quality leaf to cup” samples
that have arrived from the gardens ahead of the teas to be tasted.
Stringing our aprons, we move to the tasting room, where 12 Darjeelings,
the produce of as many different gardens, are infusing by the window in
the standard 120-mL tasting cups. A rich morning glow pours over the
white ceramics on the black marble surface. I examine the samples of dry
leaves from each lot. The aroma of fresh is like a punch in the face, a
heady verdant-floral blast. These teas will only remain in this state of
extreme freshness for a week or two; they are still too green for market but
will mellow out. Evidence of the dry conditions is visible through the
shade and texture of the exterior membrane of the leaves, but there are
few signs of serious damage. Inspection of the infused leaves, the
infusion, gives more visual clues.
I inhale and analyze the rich aromas of central chemistry unlocked by the
water. Then on to the all important tasting: the cups of golden and amber
liquors each have their own texture. Though all have the thrill of
freshness, some are too average for my very specific needs. I am looking
for around 12 outstanding batches of tea that showcase the incredibly
diverse possibilities of flavour profile within the Darjeeling aesthetic.
Through many years and many litres of tasting, each cup conjures up a
three-dimensional landscape in my mind. A method of analysis I use that
is centred around the timeline following the initial attack, as the flavour
opens in the mouth, all the way through to the aftertaste. Around this are
all the characteristics and features of each liquor’s unique makeup,
texture, bouquet, pulse, drive and so on, as well as all the information I
need as to how this tea was made, the cultivars used, how it will develop
over time and how long the leaf will retain its flavour.
Two teas really stand out enough to negotiate prices, though through
experience, we both know what they are worth. I joke low: he jokes high
and we agree in the middle. Not all negotiating is as jovial, but it rarely
gets unfriendly as they know I know whet the teas are worth. I scribble
tasting/pricing notes in my little black book for later as there is no
pressure to buy these lots immediately. As I find teas over the next weeks I
will juggle my findings by temporary reserve and immediate commitment
until I have all I need.
Each day through re-evaluation and phone calls, the list will gradually fall
into place. These teas will be accumulated in Kolkata before flying them to
We head off for breakfast before my next appointment.
The relaxed road across the plains from Bagdogra airport hits the steep
forested slopes at the base of the Himalayas and flicks to the right into the
first hairpin bend. The road snakes and whips in narrow shelves of asphalt
up the side of the rift from 300 metres to 1500 metres above sea level as
fast as those crafty engineers that found and cut the route can get us
there. For a couple of hours, we lurch around from corner to corner with a
warning toot at each. We pass through the stunning tea-quilted valleys
and come to a crawl through the bustle and stink of market day in Mirik.
Once out of the small town, we twist down onto the road for Gopaldhara
Tea Garden, a notorious track that is rarely mentioned without a smile.
Darjeeling’s tea gardens all cling to the steep valley sides, and the rough
garden roads can be a rodeo of fun. After many years of practice my body
naturally takes position: plant the feet wide, loosen the hips, anchor the
hands, arms loose so that the centre of the body is free to rotate and the
skull is safe from a nasty cracking. The jeep kicks around for 40 minutes of
intense gear grinding and skillful reversing to negotiate curves before we
draw gently up to the calm serenity of tea and biscuits on the lawn in
front of the manager’s bungalow.
The sun is going down. Lights from the sprinkle of homes in the gardens
of Selimbong and Sungma flicker in the twilight on the distant flanks of
the valley as they turn to layered silhouettes for a 1000 metres below us.
The air is crisp, clear and peaceful. Sporadic flashes of distant lightning
illuminate the cloud cover. The garden’s manager, once a field assistant, is
an old friend. He has a typical Nepalese round face, reserve and a
suppressed smile. We chat while he serves a delicious tea made that day.
Enhanced by the setting, I relish the bright liquor remembering the
“Never judge a tea when parched with thirst after many tea-less hours in a
jeep as the quench can be very deceptive.”
I am glad to have this experience, as when I taste his teas early the next
morning all are sub-standard. I have to diplomatically ask for samples and
give the old euphemistic line, “I will try them again in a few days.” They
understand what I mean and why I am saying it.
This garden was one of my favourites a few years ago – they had a star
manager who made some excellent and very innovative teas that made
Gopaldhara quite a name in the tea world. Three years ago this manager
left through frustration with the in-house politics and, without his magic
touch, the teas have seriously suffered. Each year I visit, hoping things will
change and Gopaldhara’s previous potential will be reborn, but this is not
the year. I am disappointed but not surprised.
Juggling possibilities in my mind and making a few phone calls, I have
bought two teas so far but have three good possibles on reserve as backup
for my findings over the next few days. Despite the sense of urgency that
drives my momentum, all is going according to plan so far. I am having
fun and keen to move on.
I have been up since 5:30, checking the horizon to the north for a
precious, early-morning view of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third
highest peak. I take my usual early morning pre-breakfast walk through
Darjeeling Town toward a favourite view point where a small kiosk makes
the best chai in town, serving it in little china cups. The familiarity of
tradition, the clear air, the sweet, milky tea and the beautiful mountain
location come together to fill me with a sense of comfort and well-being.
After a few days, I am really getting into the momentum of my trip,
continually moving and permanently wired on the thin air and the
caffeine of tastings and days regularly punctuated with pots of fresh tea.
I have already found half the teas I need, at good prices, and am ahead of
schedule with some very interesting visits to come.
Early morning, the sun breaks over the distant hills tinging the tops of the
clouds and charming them out of the deep valley below. The jeep rattles
through the misty quiet of morning, out of Darjeeling Town for another
day in the gardens. The entire region has had no rain since October and is
Cloud cover during the last couple of weeks has saved the new shoots
from burning, but the production in all gardens is down 40 to 50 per cent
that of last year. Another week or two without water and the plants will
move into ‘banjhi’ or dormancy. Though they do this naturally after each
growing season, it is too early. A short, lightweight season is starting to
As always, the growers are stoic and philosophical about the situation,
doing the best they can to adapt their manufacturing techniques for the
leaves coming in from the garden with a much lower water content than
usual. Unlike the teas of other bad years of drought or sunless-cold, the
quality is high. I have tasted some outstanding teas in the last week. The
theory of high performance under stress has been mentioned many times
during conversations with the growers; the overall quality seems to be
very solid this year.
First stop this morning is Aloobari Garden (which means potato field) of
pure ethno-botanical interest as I am not interested in buying, but they do
have the oldest plants in the Darjeeling region and I want to see how they
are doing. Aloobari is not far from Darjeeling Town, and after a short
drive, we park the jeep and hike down the steep path to see the old, sad
looking plants clawing to the dusty dry slant in desperate need of water, a
prune, compost and some TLC.
Early morning in Steinthal Garden, Darjeeling, the drizzly tapering end of
last night’s storm. The type of thundering deluge that gives Darjeeling its
name: “Dorje Ling,” the Land of Thunderbolt. The sun breaks with warm
glow and I am snooping around in a section of old plants from 1852, the
region’s first commercial year. These gnarly old trunks grew up from seeds
imported from China. The storm has released yesterday’s low diffused
grey, revealing brighter, higher skies. On a clear day, Everest is visible from
here; though unexpected breaks of visibility are common in the ever-
changing cloudscape, I am not too hopeful to see the crisp white peak of
the top of the world this morning.
By 7:30 a.m. I am hopping back into the jeep and grinding up the steep
garden track toward Darjeeling Town and the rest of my day. The track
loosened up by the rain has some challenging mud slicks. To add ballast, I
suggest we start picking up all the schoolchildren hiking up toward school
with their brollies, blue and white uniforms and neatly parted hair or
braids. Before long we have a very lively bunch of giggling and healthy
smilers acting politely rowdy in the back. The children go to St. Michael’s
College, one of the many English Medium schools established in the early
1900s by the British. Their fees are paid for by the tea garden as part of a
legal obligation to the workers and their families.
On the subject of legacy: Teddy Young, Darjeeling’s last surviving
Britisher, died this week. In 1946, when the British left, he and a few other
young Brits in their early 20s stayed on as employees of the new Indian-
owned companies. Teddy continued to work until the 1990s as a
consultant and played a big part in creating Sikkim’s only tea garden,
Temi, just over the Teesta River from Darjeeling. Nobody seemed to know
exactly how old he was, but do the math!
After Darjeeling, I spend a couple of weeks on a diversity of other
projects. I give a conference at the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource
Technology in Palampur, Kangra, to a room of 80 tea growers and set up a
flavour profiling lab series with a laboratory there. I also develop some
material for our new Green Tea book there – not easy to find a green tea
story in India the Land of Black Tea, believe me! This new book follows
our award-winning book Tea: History Terroirs Varieties, and concentrates
on some of the legendary green teas of the world and the techniques and
cultures behind them. I also continued with some research and buying of
select teas in three areas of Nepal. I then returned to an exchange project
I set up in Fikkal, Nepal, last year when I brought a 17th generation
Japanese tea farmer to this area on the border of Nepal and Darjeeling.
He wanted to learn how to make Darjeeling style black tea and taught the
Nepalese tea farmers to make Japanese style green sencha in exchange.
Due to political trouble I was forced to rush to the border and leave Nepal
at speed on a motorcycle. All interesting and stories in themselves but...
Now it is Friday morning and I am back in Kolkata walking back from a
150-cup tasting with friends at one of the auction houses. Though I never
buy in the auctions, it is a good opportunity to taste the wares of almost
all the gardens in one place and chat with taster friends who work there
and see all the teas of the region as they pass through. We discuss trends
in manufacturing techniques and garden practice, highlights of the year
and disappointment in gardens that had a bad year. The overall feeling is
of a good year.
I love this city, countless millions of easygoing people going about their
independent business in a thick flux of good natured activity. There is, of
course, the usual ratio of tricksters and trouble- makers to look out for but
the heat slows the city down and the throngs remain remarkably positive:
tempers rarely fray. The air is 38 degrees, just above body temperature,
and rich with humidity.
I weave through the densely crowded streets at a good clip. Speed and
purpose are great deterrents to the inevitable bothersome faction of the
Indian city crowd. I enjoy the functionally chaotic social dynamic here
with an unfading fascination. Everyone is on their toes: surviving and
taking care of themselves because they have to. They cannot sit back and
rely on luxuries such as streamlined infrastructure, unfounded trust or
fixed price. Where the West would rapidly get all Mad Max about this kind
of set-up the Indian people have a profound tolerance and respect for
everyone’s place on the social food chain.
The roads make a great metaphor for this: with no law enforcement to
speak of, you drive either side – wherever there is space. The defensive
driver is the survivor: rich and poor, fast and slow all make it home safely,
even the random elements such as the dopey munching cow or the
nervous scatter of goats are protected with respect. Try that set-up on the
road rage crowd of a North American city!
Over a few weeks I have put together an exquisite selection of teas that
will stand tall in this year’s catalogue. Now I am ready to get back to my
family, shopkeeping and sipping my prize Darjeelings as Montreal
explodes into its own spring fever.
Kevin Gascoyne, who has been buying tea in Asia since 1989, started his career as
a tea writer for publications in the U.K., U.S.A. and Japan.
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