Tea Profile: Darjeeling

The main problem with Dareeling 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.

Mist mountains make for the finest teas.
Mist mountains make for the finest teas.

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 worlds 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.

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 Minting 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.

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 hush, the Assam jat or type, but their yield is much lower and the leaf smaller. On China hush this small leathery leaf is a dark glossy green, often covered with silvery down.

Lush, green Darjeeling hills.
Lush, green Darjeeling hills.

Since the tender young shoots must be harvested as soon as they are ready, each bush on an estate must he 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. vine 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 retail shops and catalogs identify teas from Darjeeling for these discriminating consumers by garden name, flush, and even specific invoice number.

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. 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.