“I’m Dealing Darjeeling”
Darjeeling is one of the best known “brands” in tea. Even those who don’t drink or care about tea have at least heard the name. But what is “Darjeeling” tea and why is the name so famous?
For starters, Darjeeling is actually a town/district located at the edge of the Himalayan mountain range in northeast India. It’s not Darjeeling tea if it doesn’t come from this district. But the tea plant is not native to this area. The only reason it grows here goes all the way back to the early 1800’s when the British were trying to figure out how to circumvent the Chinese monopoly on tea. The early growing experiments failed, and a native Indian tea plant was later discovered in Assam (Camellia sinensis var. assamica). But these Chinese teas plants brought to the mountains of Darjeeling eventually took root and thrived. The Chinese plants fared better in the higher elevations and cooler temperatures of Darjeeling and stood out for their unique fragrance and complex flavors (most Darjeeling teas are grown between 2,000 and 7,000 feet). Over time the region has developed an international reputation, which has boosted demand and prices.
The reputation is well deserved and came from a number of carefully managed factors. The Darjeeling Tea Association has protected and promoted the Darjeeling “brand” with a French-like zeal (think Champagne), highlighting their unique terroir (the total of environmental factors), beautiful estates, and seasonal variations. Three seasonal variations define the inherent character and flavor of Darjeeling tea.
These teas are produced from the first plucking of the new shoots that appear in the spring (March through mid-April) after the plant has come out of its winter dormancy. Like many spring teas around the world, first flush Darjeeling teas are highly sought after and produce a cup that is light, fresh, aromatic, and possess a fair amount of astringency. The dry leaf will often contain a lot of green color, which comes from a long withering process that removes enough moisture to inhibit oxidation, but makes the tea more fragrant.
This is the summer production of teas from the shoots that follow the first flush. In some respects this is more of a “classic” Darjeeling since it tends to bring out those “muscatel” flavors Darjeelings are famous for. The cup tends to be richer, and more full-bodied. It is usually less astringent than the first flush teas and can come off as almost “fruity.”
This last picking of the season doesn’t always get the same attention as the first two flushes, but great teas can still be produced and sometimes purchased at an excellent value. The autumnal flush teas are typically the most full-bodied of the Darjeelings with a more balanced and less astringent cup.
Unblended Darjeeling teas should (in our opinion) clearly identify which estate it came from, which flush, and the leaf grade (a series of letter that notes leaf sizes and quality of pluck). We find most of the fine, orthodox teas coming out of Darjeeling will be graded “TGFOP” or “TGFOP1” (Tippy, Golden, Flowery Orange Pekoe – with the “1” denoting exceptional quality). This has always sounded like a bit of “artistic license” to me, but it’s hard to blame them for wanting to present the tea in the best way possible. Ultimately, the leaf and cup will say what needs to be said.
There’s much more that can be said about these wonderful teas from an exotic location. Much of this was a gross simplification, but it’s easy to get long-winded and off track. For the uninitiated, I hope it gives a basic understanding of what these teas are like, where they come from, and how to identify them. Enjoy!