All About Darjeeling Tea, the Beguiling Brew of the Himalayas
As high as 6,000 feet above the Dooars plain of West Bengal, Darjeeling’s lush tea estates look as tranquil as zen gardens. On a rare clear morning in the spring, you can see past the rolling green hills all the way to Mount Kanchenjunga, on the border of India and Nepal.
Our friend Chandra, the manager of the Singell Tea Estate, keeps a calm demeanor despite the fact that during production, it’s only a matter of time until some new crisis demands his attention. Freshly picked leaf is coming to the factory twice a day, and after a cloudy early start to the season, his hundreds of workers are racing to keep up with the intake. Making tea well at first flush—the initial picking of the year—is crucial. First flush teas represent a small percentage of a Darjeeling tea farm’s overall yield, but account for a majority of its revenue. These delicate, early spring teas are among the most sought after in the world, and can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound on the wholesale market.
I fell in love with Darjeeling tea over 20 years ago, when I would pass through the gardens on my way to Sikkim to see friends. Since then, I’ve traveled to the Himalayan region as often as I can, to reconnect with people like Chandra, meet new managers from across the district’s 87 estates, and, of course, taste the latest harvest. At any garden, the quality of a given tea can change from year to year, and even day to day—not enough rain on that side of the hill, too much sun in the valley, or the departure of a skilled leaf sorter can make the difference between an ordinary Darjeeling tea and a superior one. So every season, we cup hundreds of individual lots, or “invoices” as they’re called in Darjeeling, to make our selections.
But what is Darjeeling tea exactly, and why is it so popular? To begin, it helps to know its origins.
A brief history of Darjeeling tea
Northeastern India is one of the places where the Camellia sinensis tea plant is indigenous, and records and ethnographies in the region document its use as a food and folk medicine hundreds of years ago. As a daily drink, though, tea really only entered Indian culture as a result of the colonial system. The British couldn’t get enough of it (tea, or the colonial system), and even before defeating China in the First Opium War in 1842—which was caused by a trade imbalance due to their insatiable thirst for the Chinese beverage—they had decided to ensure their own supply by cultivating vast gardens of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis in the sunny, low-lying region adjacent to the Himalayas called Assam. The native assamica variety, however, ultimately proved to be more suitable for the tropical environment, and became the type widespread in the region today.
The large-leaf assamica plant yields a bold, brisk, and malty black tea that has become a trademark of Assam. But in the cooler, vertiginous environs of Darjeeling, the small-leaf sinensis variety flourished, and produced a tea with delicate yet complex floral and fruity flavors. These sinensis seeds were pilfered from China beginning in the late 1830s; at that time, China wisely kept tea plants and all knowledge of tea production a state secret. In 1841, Archibald Campbell, a civil surgeon in the Indian Medical Service, first planted sinensis in Darjeeling. A few years later, the British East India Company sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to China on a mission to smuggle more tea seeds and tea planters out of the country, so that the British could continue to experiment with a range of tea plants, with the aim of achieving mass production.
You can read a more in-depth history of Darjeeling tea in the excellent Darjeeling, by Jeff Koehler, but suffice to say by the 1850s, the British and the handful of Chinese planters in the region began to successfully produce a distinctive black tea.
Something to keep in mind: While the British colonial system was eventually overthrown by the Indian independence movement, Darjeeling’s tea gardens are more or less run the same way now as they were back then. Workers live on the farm, with the owner providing subsidies for housing, food, healthcare, and education. The processing machines are in many cases over a hundred years old; managers still take notes in leather-bound ledgers and weigh out tea leaves for cupping with an a hand-held brass scale—with a 25-paise coin (now that it’s out of circulation, often taped down to keep it secure) as the standard, which weighs 2.8 grams. Lots are proudly identified by single estates. Indian corporate owners may have replaced British ones, and the once tiny hill stations of Kurseong, Kalimpong, and Darjeeling town are now congested areas, grasping to support growing populations on eroding mountainsides. Yet from a strictly tea perspective, Darjeeling is vibrant and dynamic.
What is Darjeeling tea?
Darjeeling is one of few teas with an origin certification. Since 1999, only tea made at the 87 registered gardens in the district is allowed to be labeled “Darjeeling”—though there is little policing, and counterfeits abound; much more tea is sold as Darjeeling than what those farms could conceivably produce. And to add confusion, in some countries where it’s exported, blenders are able to call a lot of tea Darjeeling as long as 51% or more of the leaf comes from Darjeeling.
Technically, any tea style from the region can be labeled as Darjeeling, which these days might mean a range of white, oolong, and green teas alongside the enduring black types. But for the most part, when we speak of Darjeeling, we’re referring to one of four sequential harvests, each of which are single estate and yield a distinctly aromatic and light- to medium-bodied cup. Some of the sinensis variety leaf which is used comes from China stock: either from the original seeds taken from China and relocated to Darjeeling, or the children (seeds) of those original plants. Others are clonal, which are cultivars bred for specific flavor or growth characteristics and propagated by cuttings. While sinensis is still the dominant type found on all Darjeeling farms, most now do maintain a small percentage of assamica leaf as well.
The particulars of production change over the course of the year, and these have been codified into a set of styles known in the region as flushes.
First flush Darjeeling tea
Early April usually marks the beginning of the annual harvest in Darjeeling. The tea bushes have lain dormant during winter, and now, as the temperature begins to rise, they shoot up new buds packed with months’ worth of stored nutrients. However, these young leaves are delicate, and require a lighter touch to highlight their fresh flavor and unique phenolic components.
Even though it’s usually classified as a black tea, Darjeeling First Flush should have a category all its own, because no other tea is made quite like it. After plucking, fresh leaves are brought indoors and laid out in withering troughs: long rimmed tables with screens on the bottom, and fans at the end to move air through the leaves. If it’s especially warm or humid, these fans may blow hot air to speed the loss of moisture, but under ideal conditions the hard wither, as it’s referred to, takes place at room temperature for usually around 12 hours. After this, the leaves are much more pliable, and a heady floral aroma starts to develop.
The next stage is rolling the leaves: this ruptures their cell walls, which furthers the release of oxidative enzymes, and redistributes moisture, which draws flavorful juices to the surface. During this step, batches of leaves are emptied into the hoppers of massive, cast-iron rolling machines that in many cases date back to the earliest days of Darjeeling cultivation. The pressure can be adjusted in the hopper, which will determine how tightly the leaf is pressed against the bottom tray, where it is kneaded over raised ridges. It’s thought that these particular rolling machines contribute an essential element to Darjeeling teas’ unique taste.
Rolled leaves may then be set out to oxidize for a brief period (usually not more than 15 minutes), or in some cases, not at all.
Then the leaves are fired, as they are distributed into thin, even layers on metal conveyor belts and baked in a large oven, often at about 250°F degrees for about 20 minutes. After a final sorting of the dry leaves by size into grades, and compiling of individual invoices, First Flush is ready for drinking.
This is a major departure from other kinds of black tea production, in which rolled leaves are left to oxidize for much longer periods of time. That lengthy oxidation step allow tannins, theaflavins, and thearubigins to develop in the leaf, transforming it from fresh and vegetal to dark and fruity. Since this process occurs only minimally in first flush Darjeeling, the tea retains a springy character with notes of herbs, flowers, and nuts, with a light golden color in the cup.
On my trip this year, I got into a fascinating discussion with some estate managers, tasters, and long-time industry producers about how modern first flush production truly is. Up until the 1980s, Darjeeling First Flush was made more like a conventional black tea (like the Second Flush style we know today), with an extended oxidation period of the leaves—which the Soviet Union, the largest importers of Darjeeling tea, preferred. But when the USSR collapsed, so did the Soviet tea market, and producers suddenly had to find other buyers for their early spring lots. Some longtime German tea buyers, curious about a different flavor profile, worked with a few gardens to start making a new, “light, bright” style. One manager posited this matched the German preference for beer and wine: tart and crisp. With their newly increased purchasing power, the German market encouraged Darjeeling producers to decrease the oxidation time for first flush teas until it all but disappeared; this is now the beloved and highly valued standard.
Second flush Darjeeling tea
Three weeks after the first flush harvest, new buds have regenerated, and the bushes are ready for another round of plucking. These later spring leaves are at a more mature stage of growth, but they still contain compounds that yield a rich and complex cup. This deeply fruity, spicy, and musky character has become become a hallmark of Darjeeling tea.
Second flush teas follow the same basic steps as first flush, but each step has different parameters: the withering process doesn’t have the same extreme loss of moisture; rolling is more intense; the oxidation period after rolling is more pronounced; and the firing may be hotter and for a longer period.
Monsoon flush Darjeeling tea
By June, the monsoons hit West Bengal, and the abundance of rain sends the tea bushes into overdrive. New growth is fast and furious, which is good for the plants, but bad for tea’s flavor. Monsoon flush Darjeeling teas are typically thin in body and monochromatic in taste, which doesn’t mean they’re bad, just suited for lower-value purposes. Their woody taste can benefit from milk and sugar, and since they’re sold at a fraction of the price of first and second flushes, they are ideal for blending and teabags.
Autumnal flush Darjeeling tea
If conditions are right in October and November, estates may also produce an autumn flush that’s close to a second flush in character, but with a little less nuanced flavor, and often a much lower yield. This style is relatively rare, and not just for agricultural reasons; fall is an important holiday season for the Nepali and West Bengali workers on the estates.
How to brew Darjeeling tea
As it is sensitive to overbrewing, Darjeeling can be a misunderstood tea. Steep it too strong, and the flavor can quickly turn astringent. When prepared with a bit of care, however, it reveals an incredibly sweet cup.
Start with preheated teaware, and preferably not a too-small vessel. In general, Darjeelings shine with a lower tea-to-water ratio, so try an English-style teapot and roughly half the amount of leaf you’d use for other black teas. Let it infuse without agitating the leaves, and pour out a small sip to taste every 30 seconds or so, until the flavor seems balanced. At this point, immediately decant the entire vessel, or remove the leaves.
And remember: taste is subjective. If your cup of Darjeeling tastes good to you, it’s a well-made cup.
How should I store my tea?
When it comes to Darjeeling First Flush, the best answer is not at all, or for as little time as possible. First flush teas are like extra virgin olive oil: they start out fresh and full of life, then fade with time. Early in the season, you’ll notice subtle changes in the brew from one week to the next, and while you can store them well, they are at their peak closest to harvest. Second flush teas have more staying power, but they tend to drink best within a year.
At home, limit exposure to heat, light, and air. Keep your tea sealed in its pouch, or in an airtight container roughly the volume of the leaf inside, placed in a cool, dry place away from strong odors—not in a kitchen pantry with the onions, or in wooden cabinets with distinctive scents.