Darjeeling tea is famous the world over for its delicate, yet complex flavor and enchanting, unmistakable aroma. Often referred to as the Champagne of tea, the name Darjeeling congers images of high society and refined taste that are usually reserved for fine wine or rare scotch. There is a romantic idea of Darjeeling that often pops up in movies, books, and deep conversation. Darjeeling seems exotic, far off, and full of one of a kind flavors and smells, yet it still holds a strong connection with Europe and our western sensibilities. It has been a constant favorite in tea parlors across Europe and America for almost 200 years, but few really know the full story behind this classic beverage and why its so special.
Darjeeling is a place. A district, to be more precise, nestled on a mountainous strip of land tucked between Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh in the far north of the Indian state of West Bengal. The story of tea in Darjeeling dates back to the early 19th century, but the place goes back much further. Partially belonging to the kingdom of Sikkim and partially belonging to the kingdom of Nepal, the area of Darjeeling was historically a sparsely populated group of small villages dotting the slopes of the lower Himalayas. Eventually, the area was leased by the British military and developed as a Hill Station in the early 19th century. Tensions between the British and the Sikkim Monarchy led to full annexation of Darjeeling by the British in 1850.
By this time, the British, and Europeans in general, had been hooked on tea for a while. The demand for tea in Europe was exploding, but the Chinese had a virtual monopoly on the tea market. The British had tried to circumvent this Chinese monopoly through many attempts at growing tea in both England and in other parts of India with little success (the Opium Wars were also a direct result of the Chinese tea monopoly, but that is a story for another time). In 1841 a British doctor, named Dr. Campbell, began experimental planting of stolen Chinese tea seed in Darjeeling. The experiments were a great success, and by the late 1850s, full scale commercial tea production in Darjeeling had begun.
Ever since those first days of production, Darjeeling tea has captivated tea drinkers around the world with its unique flavor and aroma. So what makes it so unique? The plants are direct descendants of many grown across China, but the final product is markedly different. Darjeeling tea has been recognized as a special product of geographic origin by the India Tea board and the WTO. This means that Darjeeling tea, like Champagne in France, is defined by its region and can’t be replicated anywhere else. There is an intangible relationship between altitude, the plants, the air, the land, the water, the weather, and the people that leads to truly unique flavors and one of a kind character. Others may produce similar teas in similar styles, but the flavors and aromas found in a Darjeeling tea can only be achieved when the plants are grown and processed in the district of Darjeeling in the far north of West Bengal, India. Period.
Darjeeling tea is classified by its time of harvest, or Flushes. The first spring harvest is called First Flush. This harvest is marked by amazing freshness in the leaf. Tender, young buds are hand plucked in the cool, misty Himalayan morning. The tea is relatively light bodied and intensely aromatic. This one-of-a-kind, characteristic Darjeeling aroma is known as muscatel, a musty, spiced flavor whose name comes from the tannic flavors associated with the skin of Muscat grapes. This first spring harvest is often small and extremely anticipated, making for highly prized and often highly expensive brew.
The second harvest, or Second Flush, takes place in the early summer and is the main harvest for the year. Second Flush tea is the most balanced and full flavored. Where as the First Flush is more of a connoisseurs tea, the Second Flush is the most popular. There are several other flushes throughout the year, including the banji (in-between), monsoon and autumnal flush, and each has its own special character. All of these harvests are processed in a similar manner. The lush leaves are hand plucked and carefully withered to soften the leaves. After withering, the leaves are gently rolled to release some of the cell liquid and start the oxidation process that develops the tannins and creates that unmistakable Darjeeling flavor. The leaves are then left in large piles, under controlled temperature and humidity, that are turned occasionally. When the tea maker feels that the tea has reached its optimum level of oxidation and flavor profile, the leaves are quickly dried and sorted into different sized grades.
In 1866, there were 39 tea gardens in Darjeeling producing a total of 21,000 kilograms of tea per year. Today, there are 87 separate gardens producing over 10.73 million kilograms of tea a year. The Darjeeling tea industry, as a whole, employs over 52,000 people on a permanent basis and an additional 15,000 people on a seasonal basis. Over 60% of these employees are women. The Indian government sets minimum wage standard for all tea workers and the individual gardens are required to provide free housing to each worker and their family, primary schooling on the premises, subsidized food, and free medical care. Darjeeling tea is truly a vast enterprise that not only produces a world class product, but also provides a livelihood for thousands. This special tea can only be made in this special place and over time, the place has become indistinguishable from the tea it produces.