Darjeeling Tea: Know Before You Buy
The definition of Darjeeling tea according to Tea Board of India is that tea that is cultivated, grown and processed in tea gardens in the hilly zones of Sadar sub division, hilly zones of Kurseong (exceptions are mentioned in jurisdiction list 20, 21, 23, 24, 29, 31 and 33), hilly zones of Subtiguri sub division that includes New Chumta Tea Estate, Marionbari Tea Estate, Simulbari, Kalimpong sub division including Samabeong Tea Estate, Mission Hill Tea Estate, Kumai Tea estate, Ambiok Tea Estate.
Darjeeling Tea (Black)
The slope of the hills, the soil condition, the mist, the cool Himalayan breeze, amount of rainfall and many other factors all come together to make a unique combination that helps producing the tea which has its own unique natural aroma and flavor. Newly planted tea bushes take 6 to 9 years to mature. Older and deeper roots create increased muscatel flavor in the leaves. There are many gardens in Darjeeling with bushes that are over 100 years old (Singtom Tea Estate
is one of those).
The tea coming from these areas have a particular and unmistakable flavor and a ‘muscatel aroma’ that yields a light golden liquor with a signature fragrance. Historically, the tea estates in the above mentioned regions have only been producing Black tea but now Green tea, Oolong tea and White tea are also produced in abundant quantities.
In 2004 the Office of Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks awarded Darjeeling Tea the GI (Geographical Indicator) Tag, further re-instating the fact that this tea cannot come from any other place in the world. Tea Board of India stated and the world has recognized that such tea production can not be replicated anywhere else in the world. Because such natural factors and century old human practices are nearly impossible to replicate at other places.
Darjeeling tea is undoubtedly expensive especially if you are looking for top quality loose leaf tea. Prices can start from INR 700/ kg and auctions are held for the finest varieties of teas where the price goes into several thousands of rupees per kg. This is because the production process is ‘orthodox’ (more on this later) and there is a very high cost of cultivation.
And if the tea garden is committed to producing ‘Organic Tea’ the list of specifications get progressively more difficult. Darjeeling Tea is layered, complex and is often referred to as the ‘Champagne of teas’. Till date, top tea connoisseurs across the world name Darjeeling tea as their favorite brew.
Most of the best tea produce from Darjeeling gets exported leaving only a limited amount for domestic consumption. Authentic Darjeeling tea is an elusive and expensive product especially when you buy it from any other source than the particular tea estate itself.
For enjoying the much lauded ‘muscatel flavor’ you should buy Darjeeling second flush tea (first flush has strong floral note while second flush has predominantly fruity note with muscatel flavor).
It’s a miracle of nature that Muscatel is a direct result of insect infestation in the hot month of May and June. The tea plants produce an excess of terpene to ward off the attack of Jassid insects that try to suck out its sap. The Jassids pinprick the body of the leaves and cause it to shrivel downwards… Nepalis call it Kakrelo Patti. These leaves when fermented emit a terpene like fragrance that ultimately produces the delicate ‘Muscatel flavour’. Gopaldhara Tea Estate produces excellent second flush muscatel tea.
History of Darjeeling Tea
The story of Darjeeling Tea dates back to 1800s when the East India Company's as well as British Empire's main earnings were based on taxes on tea import. Those days the company depended on importing tea from China and reselling them. It was a hugely profitable business. But having lost their monopoly in China Tea Trade in 1833, they had to quickly find an alternative source of tea supply and keep it under their own control. Find out how Darjeeling popped up to be that premier source and finally went on to dominate the world with the one of the highest quality of tea ever produced.
Classification of Darjeeling Teas, how to read labels
Like wine labels, the label on your Darjeeling tea box/ packet will tell you a lot about it. It’s important to know how to interpret the label if you want to be sure about the kind of tea you are buying.
Whole Leaf SFTGFOP / (Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is the finest grade tea that’s multi tipped and produce light colored liquor. Broken Leaf FTGBOP (Fine Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe) has somewhat broken leaves but is still termed as high quality. Tea Type Fannings GFOF/ (Golden Flowery Orange Fannings) are inferior quality teas that are cheaper in price and yield darker liquor. Tea Type Dust (D) are lowest in price and yield the most inferior quality tea.
The Suffixes after the tea names specify the Grade names i.e. China (ch), Clonal (cl), and special (spl). These simply mean the kind of plant the tea leaf has come from. For example, Clonal doesn’t mean that the particular tea bush was cloned but that leaves were harvested from a specific cultivars and these in turn were probably developed by an agronomic institute.
First flush, Second flush, Rain flush, Autumn flush; these are the names of the basic tea seasons in Darjeeling. The First flush happens from late February to mid-April and the tea yielded is light and translucent with a lively astringent character. The Second Flush happens from May to June and yields a mellow, muscatel flavored liquor that has full bodied character. The first and second flushes are the most popular and the rRain flush (July to September) and Autumn flush (October to November) are believed to yield completely different tastes.
Oolong is very similar to traditional Chinese tea and can be called as a cross between black and green tea. Oolong tea needs a higher altitude to grow. Second flush Oolong tea in particular is very popular… it is dark orange in color and has a bold muscatel flavor along with a fruity aroma.
Darjeeling Green Tea has also become very popular and is lauded for its natural antioxidants. It’s even believed to rival Japanese Green Tea which has been the world leader since ages. White tea is the priciest and yields a sweet pale golden liquor with a very low caffeine content, making it suitable for sufferers of diabetes and hypertension.
Several tea estates in Darjeeling produce white teas. However traditional Darjeeling Black tea still remains supreme and most tea estates have become prominent brands like Castleton Muscatel Tea and Makaibari Organic Tea.
How is Darjeeling tea produced
Darjeeling tea has always been produced using the traditional / orthodox methods and not the usual CTC (crush, tear, curl) method. The leaves are selectively plucked (only two leaves and a bud) and then withered gradually for close to 17 hours before being rolled in accordance to stringent specifications. The fermentation process (this is the step that lets the leaves develop their splendid aroma) and the drying process are also closely regulated.
The final step happens when automatic sorting machines separate the leaves into 4 different varieties; full leaves, broken, fanning and dust. There are some variations in this process in case of Green and White Darjeeling Tea. For example, leaves are withered and then steamed in case of Green Tea and the lack of oxidation keeps the leaves green. In case of White Tea, there is only steaming and drying and all natural ingredients of the tea leaf is preserved making this the purest form of tea.
The term orthodox essentially means that the blends are processed mainly by hands and by machinery that imitates the movement of hands.
Remember that ‘Organic Tea Gardens’ have to follow a stricter set of specifications when it comes to maintaining their environment as well as employing production techniques.
Organic Tea Estates in Darjeeling
In a world filled with brands that claim to be organic, it’s important to know what this term means in context of Darjeeling Tea. Organic teas are teas that are grown using natural manure and ecologically sustainable processes and with zero use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Apart from this, there are several regulations that specify soil conditions, promotion of ecological diversity and sustainable farming practices.
In 1988, Makaibari Tea Estate
was awarded the status of a fully organic tea garden making it the first organic tea brand in Darjeeling. All its specialty teas like the Silver Tips Imperial, Silver Green, Baimu-Dan, Apoorva Tips, Signature, Oolong etc. are organic teas. Only a small portion of the Makaibari tea estate actually grows tea… the rest contains rainforests hosting a number of endangered plant and animal species.
Other tea gardens soon followed suit and right now about 70% of the tea estates in Darjeeling produce organic tea. Darjeeling tea gardens can well be divided into 7 tea districts and they are Darjeeling East, Darjeeling West, Kurseong North, Kurseong South, Mirik, Rungbong, Teesta and all districts except Teesta have a good number of organic tea gardens.
For example, Darjeeling East has Arya, Liza Hill, Marybong, and Bloomfield Tea Estate while Darjeeling West has Bannockburn, Barnesbeg, Ging, and Happy Valley. Kurseong North has Ambootia and Moondakotee while Kurseong South has Jungpana and Makaibari. Rungbong has Chamong, Nagri Farm while Mirik has Seeyok and Singbulli.
The names of the tea strains produced from the gardens include the name of the garden as a historic way of identifying its heritage. When the particular tea garden is identified, the customer knows that he is buying into the verified reputation and production practices of the garden.
Most Darjeeling tea drinkers have their own list of favorite gardens they buy from!! Darjeeling tea gardens work hard to preserve their heritage and since 2019 Darjeeling tea has both its logo and the name ‘Darjeeling’ registered under the GI act, therefore assuring customers that they are receiving only genuine Darjeeling Tea. So now you know what to look out for when buying your Darjeeling Tea.
Tea tasting and how to do it in Darjeeling
Once the tea is processed in the factories, it is time for the professional tea tasters to taste tea prepared from different grades of tea leaves of the gardens and determine the quality of tea leaves. This is done mainly from the flavors. And this quality or grade eventually commands the price of Darjeeling tea in the market.
However from tourism perspective, it won’t be incorrect to say that tea tasting is as popular in Darjeeling as wine tasting in Paris. Most of the tea estates in Darjeeling now offer tea tasting sessions as an integral part of tea tourism. The tasting session may be offered as a standalone activity or as a part of the tea tour experience.
The Makaibari Tea Estate, Glenburn Tea Estate, Goomtee Tea Estate, Ging Tea House, Tumsong Chaibari all offers well-structured tea tasting sessions … the details of which are accessible from the individual websites of these gardens. Some like the Singtom Tea Estate & Resort retain their Victorian style and offer a plethora of tea centric programs like an insight into tea plucking, tour of tea factory and tea tasting sessions.
A genuine tea tasting session will expose the visitor to at least 7 different qualities of tea while the guide/ estate staff will point out differences in flavors and textures between the different steaming cups. The proper soaking time, temperature control and flavor differentiation of teas are just a few of the things you will learn on a tea tasting session and then you can put your superior knowledge to use in future tea parties!!
Many tea shops in Darjeeling like Nathmulls
at Chowrasta (Mall), Golden Tips Tea Lounge (also at Chowrasta) etc. offer preliminary tea tasting experiences. The Windamere luxury hotel offer grand afternoon tea sessions
with genuine chinaware and a decadent selection of snacks.
How to brew the perfect cup
It’s so easy to spoil the delicate flavor of Darjeeling tea that it’s important to be ultra-careful in order to brew ‘the champagne of teas’ correctly. Avoid using tap water (salt, iron and chorine will ruin the tea flavor) and use the water from your trusted water purifier.
Store tea leaves in airtight container and make sure that the chinaware used for consuming tea isn’t used for anything else. You should always put the tea leaves in the pot and then pour hot water on it instead of using metallic infusion balls. Specifying seeping time is tricky as that depends upon how strong you want your tea to be and the type of tea, flush etc.
Darjeeling tea is flavourful and doesn’t need an additive except a couple of drops of lemon juice (if you want). However you can add your favourite sweetener but certainly not milk which will spoil the flavor altogether!! Remember that Oolong tea, Green Tea, White tea etc. all have specific processes that need to be followed in order to get perfect results.
Where to buy Darjeeling Tea
If you are visiting Darjeeling then it’s a sin to leave this beautiful hill station without acquiring a casket of fine tea. There are great tea lounges and outlets in Darjeeling to taste and buy pure Darjeeling tea of fine quality. There are some that are outlets of specific tea estates and offer tea from those gardens, while the others are collectors of tea and source from various gardens in Darjeeling.
Walk in to Nathmull’s tea store at Ladenla Road (this is the original Nathmulls store) or Nathmulls at Chowrasta Mall
for a lovely tea tasting and guided tea buying experience. Close by is the Golden Tips tea lounge that stocks a good collection of Darjeeling Tea. Or else, you can shop for Goodricke Tea on Nehru Road… this sells tea from Goodricke’s at a much lower rate than market price.
If you randomly search Darjeeling tea online then it’s very simple to get hold of it as most e-commerce sites like Bigbasket, Flipkart, QTrove, Spencer’s are seen selling Darjeeling Tea from renowned estates like Makaibari, Happy Valley and Castleton. If you walk into any standard Fab India store you will notice Black Darjeeling Makaibari tea sold there.
However there is a lot of doubt about the authenticity off such teas and it’s very difficult to buy good, high quality, loose leaf Darjeeling tea from any other source than the tea estate’s own website and some specialty websites like Chai & Mighty and Teabox. You can buy authentic Darjeeling tea from the online tea shops of Makaibari
, and Goodricke Tea
Darjeeling Tea Garden Tours
Tea tourism is catching up fast in this part of the country. Several tea estates in Darjeeling offer tea tourism which essentially means experiencing the garden life while enjoying luxury amenities and comfort. Tea garden tour or tea tourism is about staying in the tea garden (many estates offer the original but upgraded planters' bungalows with modern amenities), watching the garden workers pluck tea, enjoying the serene garden atmosphere, learning about the tea manufacturing process in the tea factory, experiencing the village life and culture of the workers, hiking the nature trails, and indulging into many other nature activities.
Many tea garden workers have now opened homestays at the tea estates (mostly by extending their own houses) and offer tea tourism to budget travelers that includes garden and village walk. These homestays are usually clean, offer homemade food and western type toilets. You can stay with the local family, dine together and get to know their culture.
Darjeeling Tea Industry: Present & Future
Since its commercialization, the plantation and production of tea in Darjeeling had grown in leaps and bound. Year after year new gardens had opened up and the quality of tea only kept improving due to growing competition between the gardens, improved technology and innovation.
However the first world war put a check to the influx of Nepalese garden workers and later India's independence forced the change of ownership from British to Indian planters.
So did all that impact the tea gardens in Darjeeling? Where does Darjeeling Tea Industry stand today and can it retain its leadership position in world tea market and keep growing further from here?