The main problem with Darjeeling tea is quantity: there will never be enough to satisfy demand. The region is small and produces much less per acre than Assam, for instance. It is colder and higher, growth is slow, and the crop devilishly difficult to harvest. Even in a good year production amounts to only twenty two million pounds or so, less than one percent of all the tea India produces. Yet this is unquestionably India’s best-known tea and the passionate aficionados of the Cult of Darjeeling are among the world’s most discriminating tea lovers. Like the great Burgundy wines of France, Darjeeling teas often disappoint. In exceptional years, however, when a flavor unique to Darjeeling which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world is pronounced, these teas are simply spectacular. In these favored years it takes no connoisseur to explain why the name Darjeeling deserves its fame. In the 1990s some estates began producing small quantities of white, green and oolong teas, less well-made than China’s but promising.
Kanchenjunga, one of the world’s tallest peaks, rises east of Darjeeling and is among its chief attractions. Mountain slopes of less than forty-five degrees are considered almost level by Darjeeling standards; planting on slopes up to sixty or seventy degrees is the rule, not the exception. These steep slopes provide natural drainage for the generous rainfall the mountainsides receive from seasonal monsoon winds. Tea will not grow at elevations much above six thousand feet. In these Himalayan foothills it is planted from approximately eighteen hundred to sixty-three hundred feet, which makes much Darjeeling pretty nearly mile-high grown tea. Each garden varies considerably in altitude and many a property could follow the example of Namring, which sells a Namring Upper to distinguish its higher-grown tea from the lower-grown Namring, tout court.
The higher it is grown, the thinner a tea’s body and the more concentrated its flavor as a rule. Yet altitude is only one factor determining the quality of Darjeeling. The intermittent cloud and sunshine playing over the slopes make their contribution, as do exposure, that is, the direction a slope faces, and a host of other variables like the soil chemistry, temperature and rainfall unique to the area. Another – and more surprising – factor affecting tea taste is the wind.
Tea plantation in Darjeeling
An additional explanation for Darjeeling’s uniqueness is the type of tea plants grown. Most are of the China or China-hybrid type, which are found almost nowhere outside China (and Japan) except in Darjeeling and the Caucasus. These plants are more resistant to cold than India’s native bush, the Assam jat or type, but their yield is much lower and the leaf smaller. On China bush this small leathery leaf is a dark glossy green, often covered with silvery down.
Since the tender young shoots must be harvested as soon as they are ready, each bush on an estate must be hand-plucked every four to eight days throughout the growing season. A typical plant yields only about one hundred grams per year, that is, maybe four ounces, of made tea. This is less than a third the yield of Assam plants growing in the plains. Each kilogram of Darjeeling consists of over twenty thousand individual shoots; about half as many are required for the same weight of tea produced from the large-leaf Assam jat. Such figures serve to illustrate the extent of human effort that Darjeeling tea requires.
All Darjeeling is processed by the traditional Orthodox method of black tea manufacture, but today’s teas are made in a different style from previous ones. As Prohibition destroyed the U.S. wine industry, World War II – and Indian independence soon after – unsettled Darjeeling’s traditional ways. The style of teas produced there since the 1950s is widely attributed to the inspiration of German tea man Bernd Wulf. Today, individual Darjeeling teas are often as recognizably unique as human personalities. The different batches of fresh leaf brought to a factory require intricate variations in processing to realize their full potential. Each day’s batch is plucked from a different section of the garden and is processed and packed as a separate “invoice.” In less than twenty-four hours this batch of green leaf has been transformed into an invoice of “made tea” in chests, usually five to ten, which are then sold together as a single lot at auction. For tea professionals and connoisseurs, each invoice produced in the spring and summer has a separate and memorable personality. In response to growing appreciation, more and more retails shops and catalogs identify teas from Darjeeling for these discriminating consumers by garden name, flush, and even specific invoice number: Pussimbing First Flush DJ6, for example.
The character and quality of Darjeeling tea varies dramatically over the course of each year. Foliage functions as the skin of a plant. The texture and flavor of the tea leaf change continuously with the climate and season, even in the same sections in each plantation. In fact, these alter not just with the seasons but also week to week, day to day, and morning to evening, depending on the type of bush, the wind, humidity, sun and other factors already mentioned.
After a period of dormancy in winter months, Darjeeling’s tea plants wake up in early March and begin putting forth the first new growth or “flush” of the year, delicate slender shoots with a glazed grey-green appearance. First Flush season often lasts into early May, though unseasonal rains sometimes render the whole crop a disaster. This crop’s unique quality results from the leaf growing in intense sunshine but in the cold crystalline Himalayan air of early spring. These growing conditions make First Flush Darjeeling a puckery young tea, almost as light as any green but, unlike greens, flamboyantly aromatic. Infused leaf shows a pronounced lime greenish brightness. These are the Spring Teas, as they are also known, always amazingly fresh and flowery tasting. Amazingly astringent too, and easily oversteeped. I like them best after three minutes, or three and a half, seldom more.
First Flush Darjeeling fades rapidly and is best drunk before autumn. It is a tea said to have no keeping quality, just as young Beaujolais does not. It gradually dwindles into a ghost of a tea, whereas weeks or even months after its birth it was unforgettable. Though fermented as a black tea, it is characteristically greenish in both appearance and taste. I prefer to drink these teas in a Chinese fashion, multiple steepings in a guywan or covered cup. So delicate is First Flush Darjeeling that it especially well repays using water about thirty degrees below boiling, as in preparing green tea.
Incredible prices are paid at the Calcutta auctions each spring for the most stylish or prestigious invoices (lots of usually two to five chests) of Darjeeling’s Spring teas. Throughout the ’90s each year’s priciest tea at auction regularly brought over US$500 per kilo. Except for certain rarities, Chinese and Taiwanese mostly, First Flush Darjeeling is the world’s costliest tea. It is much sought after by wealthy Indian buyers, who must compete with brokers acting for German and Japanese importers and the occasional sultan as well. A particular cachet attaches to the first new tea offered for sale, and Namring seems to have mastered the knack of always coming in first.
From May onward the famous Darjeeling Summer Teas are produced. This Second Flush leaf is more succulent, resulting in very attractive looking teas with a purplish bloom or sheen and a sprinkling of silver tips, or leaf buds. The cup shows more color and tastes lush and mellow compared to the spring teas preceding it. The quality most prized in Second Flush teas is a pronounced muscatel flavor, so called, an intense fruitiness which must be experienced to be believed. At its best, Second Flush Darjeeling is unquestionably the most complex black tea the world produces, with an everlasting aftertaste it shares with no other. During this period the infused leaf will show a bright copper/purple color. Second Flush is characterized by more fruit, fuller body, richer aroma and rather less astringency than First Flush.
Second Flush season lasts until the rains arrive from the south on the monsoon winds. The Darjeeling district receives so much monsoon rainfall from the middle of June until the end of September that it must be measured not in inches but feet – sometimes over sixteen, seldom under ten. With October the weather clears and the Autumnal Flush season begins, to extend through November as the air cools and sunshine slowly wanes. In appearance, the tea of these two months takes on a light copper/brownish tinge and liquors have a delicate but sparkling quality, with a delightful flavor which is different from both Spring and Summer Tea. Infused leaf has a coppery gold brightness with a sweet fresh nose.
Besides these generalized changes from one season to another, Darjeeling tea offers an even more subtle layer of complexities. There are nearly ninety gardens in Darjeeling. Those whose teas are available by name in the U.S. market include (in alphabetical order): Ambootia, Balasun, Bannockburn, Castleton, Chamong, Gielle, Ging, Goomtee, Gopaldhara, Jungpana, Lingia, Margaret’s Hope, Makaibari, Marybong, Namring, North Tukvar, Orange Valley, Phoobsering, Pussimbing, Tukvar, Puttabong, Risheehat, Selimbong, Soom, Sungma, Teesta Valley, Tongsong, and Tukdah. Year after year, from one season to another, various gardens consistently distinguish themselves by their recognizable styles. It is as if they were expressing personalities, just as individual wineries in the Napa Valley or chateaux in the Medoc also do. Just how much of this personality belongs to the garden manager and how much to the vegetation under his care it is impossible to say. The spirit of friendly competition among garden managers seems to have filtered down to the very laborers; all involved take pride in skills that have been passed down for generations and in the traditional practices of their particular garden. No Darjeeling is an assembly line product.
This article has been reformatted and updated from the original December 2013 publication.