A hint of nostalgia, tightly packed with a light aroma, Darjeeling Tea is a fresh brew sourced straight from the mountains. This is what you’d sit sipping in your backyard on a rainy evening reminiscing the time you’d spent up in the hills. Widely exported and celebrated worldwide, Darjeeling Tea is referred to as “Fine Wine of Teas.”
It is a tea connoisseurs’ delight with musky sweet tasting notes much like Muscat wine. Though, it can also have delicate vegetal, mossy, fruity, and citrus flavors. This tea is grown in the hilly slopes of Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong in West Bengal. It is then processed and manufactured in factories within Darjeeling.
Yes, those hilly slopes you see winding up on your way to the mountains- most of it is home-grown Darjeeling Tea. The catch, however, is that Darjeeling Tea is strictly referred to as tea that has been completely grown in Darjeeling. From cultivating, growing, going through the production process, manufacturing, and the end result of processing in a tea garden.
History of Darjeeling Tea
The history of Darjeeling Tea can be traced back to as early as the 1840s. A civil surgeon, Archibald Campbell who worked in the East India Company brought some seeds of Camellia Sinensis. This type of tea plant is also commonly known as the Chinese tea plant. He tried his hand at tea planting in Darjeeling.
This motivated the then government to start tea nurseries shortly. The first tea garden in Alubari was opened in the year 1856 and there’s been no turning back since then. By 1866, there were 39 tea gardens in Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong.
This tea estate set up a withering and oxidation processing factory in the region. Post-Indian independence, in the year 1953, the ‘Tea Act’ was established. This act put the tea industry under the regulatory jurisdiction of the Tea Board of India. In 1988, the first Indian tea estate obtained organic and biodynamic certification.
In 1983, the Darjeeling Planter’s Association was established to create a differentiating factor for Darjeeling tea. The fundamental aspect of the association was to promote the product in other countries. A logo comprising the side profile of a woman holding two leaves and a bud was registered in the Madrid system.
In the year 2000, new licensing requirements for Darjeeling tea exporters were established by the Tea Board. This enabled the Darjeeling tea exporters to issue certificates of origin based on product authentication. Darjeeling Tea received ‘Geographical Indication Protection’ under the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Agreement in 2004. Subsequently, it also received ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ in the European Union in 2011.
Darjeeling Tea, which is made from Camellia sinensis are typically smaller leaves as compared to other tea varieties. Darjeeling Tea is best consumed as black tea, but that has become more of traditional practice with more tea estates specializing in oolong, green, and white tea varieties. Darjeeling Tea when brewed makes for a light drink that has a subtle floral aroma naturally infused into it. The ideal brewing of Darjeeling Tea should steep for three to five minutes.
Flushes and Varieties of Darjeeling Tea
A flush begins with the time period taken by a tea plant to grow till the time its tea leaves are harvested. Darjeeling Tea grows in three flushes- mid- March to May is the time for the first flush, June through August is when the second flush takes place, and the third flush happens in autumn- October and November.
These weather conditions helped develop the subtropical and wet temperate forest cover which had a slight acidic loamy soil with rich organic matter. As the soil was on steep slopes, it was always well-drained, and yet, deep enough for long root systems. The weather conditions remain ideal as the tea plants are planted on the sides of the hills at high altitudes.
The atmosphere in the tea plantations is a constant mix of cool dry air with warm moist air. An amalgamation of slightly acidic and well-drained soils, mostly indirect sunlight, and periods of dormancy are perfect for this plant to flourish.
Flushes highly vary with varying weather conditions and also depend on the geographical location of the area it is being cultivated in. Flushes determine the color, taste, and aroma of the tea, which is how black, green, and oolong Darjeeling tea are distinguished from one another.
Varieties of Darjeeling Tea
1. Oolong Tea
The first flush Darjeeling Tea is semi-fermented and makes for a light orange brew. It has a distinct floral aroma and is also known as oolong tea. The leaves for oolong tea are finely plucked and are never crushed, torn, or curled. It is always plucked in the two leaves and a bud combination, in the early spring. These leaves are comparatively more delicate and tender in nature. Thus, the flavor is light-toned, flowery, crisp, and tartish. These are often left to wither in the presence of natural elements of air and sun.
The leaves are less oxidized so that it retains its natural flavor. First Flush Darjeeling Tea is one of the most high-priced and highly desirable products in the tea industry. It is referred to as the “Champagne” of teas worldwide due to its unique and exceptional taste. Tea connoisseurs advise that the first flush tea is best had without milk or sugar. Firstly, flush teas should not be steeped more than 2-3 mins as it turns bitter. It is best stored for a maximum of a year in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dark place.
2. White Tea
A more exotic form of Darjeeling Tea known as white tea makes for a golden brew. White tea is also referred to as the ‘Second Flush.’ It generally has a really pale look and has a subtle sweetness in taste. White tea is also hand-picked and then left to sun-dry. However, what makes it unique is that it is mostly grown at an altitude of above 2000 m.
The climate there is generally gloomy, rainy, and colder. The second flush is harvested in the months of May and June. Certain insects like ‘Empoasca’ (a certain breed of grasshoppers) and ‘Homona Coffearia’ (a certain breed of moths) are allowed to infest the tea leaves. These specific insect attacks release compounds in the second flush tea leaves. Subsequently, a natural oxidation process takes place within the leaves leading to its unique flavor. The tea leaves of the second flush are larger and more mature. The leaves have a slight purplish color with a silver tip.
The strong and smooth flavor of the ‘white tea’ is also due to the large and fast-growing leaves. Darjeeling teas from this flush are renowned for their muscatel and fruity flavor. The second flush tea also tastes best without milk.
3. Green Tea
The third flush, also known as the ‘Monsoon Flush” is plucked from June or July till October. This is the rainy season in Darjeeling. The tea plants for this flush need a lot of moisture. Green tea is not fermented; instead, it is steamed to prevent the process of oxidation. It also is a lot less bitter in taste. The large leaves from this flush have a bolder flavor.
It is less nuanced and complex compared to the previous two flushes. The processed leaves from this flush are generally used for commercial teabag production and iced tea packaging. There are plenty of leaves during this flush due to monsoon but of inferior quality. Darjeeling tea from this flush is dull flavored and dark in color.
4. Black Tea
The ‘Autumn Flush’ or commonly known as ‘Autumnal’ runs through October and November. This is the most traditional form of Darjeeling Tea consumption and has undergone complete fermentation. The tea gardens need to be carefully tended after their previous harvest for this flush. Fresh fertilization and proper weeding are essential after the monsoon season.
The fourth flush is well known for its extra-large leaves. It makes for a thicker, darker, richer brew with a nutty and smooth flavor. The fourth flush brewed tea is a rich copper colored liquid and is full-bodied in taste. The leaf growth is slowest in this period as the tea plants inch towards winter dormancy.
What sets Darjeeling Tea apart?
Darjeeling Tea is set apart for its distinct taste, aroma, rarity, and the prices it fetches. Darjeeling approximately produces around 11,000 tons of authentic Darjeeling Tea. It is a fairly small number if you look at the consumption and export ratio. The higher elevated terrain of Darjeeling and its surrounding areas are where most tea gardens are based. This is what lends each variety of tea the distinct characteristics it possesses.
It is a fact that an immense amount of manual labor coupled with expertise, care, and love goes into the entire process. Starting from cultivation till production; this is what makes Darjeeling Tea all the more special.
Darjeeling Tea is well paired with carbohydrate-rich foods due to its high tannin content. Due to its shorter fermentation window, a great deal of care goes into the cultivation of Darjeeling Tea.
Darjeeling Tea health benefits
Darjeeling Tea is also known to have various health benefits. It acts as an antioxidant and helps do away with toxins in the body. It hydrates the body and is effective in aiding digestion as well. According to studies, semi-oxidized Darjeeling Tea speeds up the weight loss process. It is extremely effective in reducing belly fat. Most importantly, a good old cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling Tea can help reduce stress levels, making us happier and healthier. Let us look at some of the health benefits as listed below:
- Weight Loss: According to scientific analysis, a high amount of catechins are present in Darjeeling Tea. This induces the process of burning fat in our bodies and boosts metabolism.
- Boost in Cardiovascular Health: Consumption of Darjeeling tea reduces the oxidation of LDL cholesterol in our bodies and increases the flow of blood. Due to the high level of quercetin being present, Darjeeling Tea is known to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.
- Risk of Cancer Reduced: Polyphenolic compounds suppress the growth of cancer and stop the development of a tumor. These compounds are present in abundance in Darjeeling Tea. Also, its anti-mutagenic properties reduce the frequency of mutations on a cellular level.
- Lowers Possibility of Neurogenerative Diseases: Neurogenerative diseases are majorly caused due to a combination of stress and poor lifestyle. Studies have shown that certain bio-active compounds like L-theanine are effective in preventing these. Darjeeling Tea contains a moderate content of L-theanine, thus, making it quite beneficial.
- Contains Essential Anti-oxidants: There is an abundance of anti-oxidants such as thearubigins and theaflavins in Darjeeling Tea. These anti-oxidants help combat cellular damage, chronic illness, and the process of aging.
- Aqua Intake: A minimum of 8-10 glasses of water is recommended for an adult. Lesser intake of water or liquids could result in dehydration and fatigue. A cup of beneficial Darjeeling Tea would help in the minimum liquid intake.
- Stress Buster: Cortisol is regulated in our bloodstream by regular intake of Darjeeling Tea which helps combat stress. Also, a tiny dose of caffeine which is present in Darjeeling Tea makes us feel less fatigued and more alert.
How to make the best cup of Darjeeling Tea?
With a lot of love and care, even if you’re brewing it for yourself! You can experiment before you settle for your favorite version of Darjeeling Tea, however, the most common technique involves steeping one teaspoon of tea for 3-5 minutes into water that’s at a slightly lesser temperature than boiling water. You can then add milk, more water, lemon, or sugar- whatever you prefer on the steeped tea or drink it the old-fashioned way. Add a porcelain teapot and an antique China cup and you’re all set!
Darjeeling Tea is a result of its altitude, weather, soil conditions, and ultra-careful processing. Fresh, crisp leaves are picked by mainly, women workers. These tea leaves undergo various process of manufacturing in the tea factories as mentioned below:
- Withering – The tea leaves first goes through the process of ‘Withering’. The leaves are spread on a withering trough to dry them. Two-third of the moisture of tea leaves are removed by letting them dry naturally or artificially with dryers. The drying process depends on the flush.
- Rolling – The tea leaves are weighed after the withering process. After which, the process of ‘Rolling’ starts. The tea leaves are rolled for 20 to 60 minutes depending on the quality of leaves and flush. Cast-iron rollers are used for this mechanical processing of tea leaves. The withered tea leaves are twisted, which speeds up the fermentation process. The purpose of rolling is to achieve the desired color and flavor.
- Sifting – This process of sifting helps sort out the unrolled leaves for a second roll.
- Oxidization or Fermentation – Also considered the ‘art of tea manufacture’, it is the most critical part of the tea manufacturing process. The processed tea leaves are thinly spread in a cool, humid room to ferment. The duration of fermentation could be anywhere between one to four hours depending on the weather conditions.
- Drying – The purpose of this process is to stop the ‘enzymatic mellowing’. The leaves are dried at a temperature ranging from 110 – 115 degrees centigrade. In this process, the moisture content of the leaves is reduced by 2-3 percent.
- Sorting – Shifters use meshes of different sizes in this process as tea grading is based on the leaf size. Dried leaves are sorted for final grading by this method.
- Storing – Special dryers are used to ‘dehumidify’ the leaves before storing them in large tea chests. This process is known as ‘Gapping’ and helps in reducing the moisture in the tea leaves. This is not an ordinary process of storing and has to be done with extra care and precision.
While the packaging of Darjeeling Tea, the size of the tea leaves is considered. This process is known as ‘Grading’. The quality of tea and price are directly related to the grading. There are various grades of Darjeeling Tea such as follows:
- SFTGFOP: Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Leaves are whole and of the highest grade.
- FTGBOP: Fine Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe. High quality broken tea leaves.
- GFOF: Golden Flowery Orange Fannings. These are smaller in size compared to broken leaves.
- D (Dust): These are tea dust and the cheapest among Darjeeling tea leaves.
A sip of Darjeeling Tea courses through the veins to give you numerous health benefits. The unique taste and rare charm make it irresistible. In today’s age of mechanization, a machine-driven model of production has been adopted by a majority of tea growing regions.
On the other hand, Darjeeling Teas uses the same age-old technique since 1845 to produce tea. In Darjeeling, tea tasting sessions are de rigueur. Darjeeling Tea is one of the most expensive teas in the world.