I find Darjeeling Tea a common presence on a lot of restaurant menus. While just restaurants, even in the little kettle kept in my hotel rooms, with a side tray containing a range of different tea bags, coffee pouches, creamers and a choice of sugar packets – refined white sugar, demerara sugar and sugar free. Most of these places, on ordering a Darjeeling tea, you get a standard commercial tea bag and a glass of hot water with or without a pout of warm milk. Is that how simple Darjeeling tea is? Is Darjeeling tea just one type of tea? No and No. Darjeeling Tea is not the mass-produced branded tea bag with a fancy tag at the end of the string. It is an umbrella of a wide variety of teas produced by various plantations in the hills of West Bengal, with lots of effort, attention to detail and patience.
Long time ago, when the British found it really tedious to remember all the different gravies made by Indians, they gave it one common term – curry. Apparently that is exactly what has happened with Darjeeling Tea.
The Tea Board of India recognizes 87 tea estates across the Darjeeling district, and these are the only ones allowed to call their tea as Darjeeling Tea. The term ‘Darjeeling Tea’ s protected under the Geographical Indications Act and the Trademarks Act. Anybody using the term and the logo apart from these 87 estates can be criminally prosecuted.
I’ll share a simple rule of thumb I follow when it comes to Darjeeling Tea.
Say NO to tea bags and tea dust.
Darjeeling tea estates are pretty orthodox when it comes to producing and processing tea, and in order to maintain the quality, they stick to their proven processes. The tea leaves are hand-picked, hand-processed, graded and packed, and all of this is done within 24 hours of plucking. The highest quality of Darjeeling tea is obtained with the first two and the terminal bud are plucked for processing, and every plucker is highly skilled in plucking the right leaves. Around ten-thousand of these terminal leaf-bud sets could yield about only a pound of tea. Once plucked, the tea leaves are weighed and recorded and then sent to the on-site factory. At the factory, the leaves are withered, rolled, fermented and dried, after which the tea is sorted, graded and packed. The entire process is time-consuming and labor-intensive, and it is believed that the human touch brings out the beautiful colors and aromas in the tea. Obviously, the amount of tea produced would be much less compared to other tea producing regions of the country. For instance, in 2018, Assam produced about 645 million tons of tea, while Darjeeling produced only 8 million tons. No wonder, Darjeeling tea sells at a super-premium price all over the world. A good Darjeeling can fetch all the way up to Rs. 8000 per kilo and has been auctioned for upto Rs. 54000 per kilo. Darjeeling tea is, after all, a dear favorite among tea connoisseurs globally.
How to pick the perfect Darjeeling Tea for you?
Choosing the perfect cup of Darjeeling Tea can be boiled down to some basic factors – flavor, aroma, taste, flush, color, etc. And it goes without saying, the more you experience, the more you expand your palate and the more you learn. So, here’s a quick reference guide to follow when looking for a perfect Darjeeling Tea for you –
You’ll find fake Darjeeling teas available a dime a dozen in the market. Learn to identify them. If it is an original Darjeeling Tea, it will have the Darjeeling Tea Board logo on it. No logo means its definitely a fake. Also, original Darjeeling Tea does not have fancy flavor variants – so no Rose and Jasmine and Almond and Raspberry. Darjeeling tea is just that – plain good tea, no strings attached. Darjeeling tea does get used for making these flavor variants sometimes, but that’s a result of popular demand and a commercial avenue. If you want to try the real stuff, skip the flavor variants.
What type of tea are you looking for?
There are six types of tea that comes from Darjeeling – black, green, oolong, yellow, purple and white. The differentiating factor among these teas is the fermentation time for each. Faster the fermentation of the tea is stopped, lighter the color of the tea and its body.
F is for ‘Flush’ of the tea
There are four main tea production seasons –
1. First Flush – late February to mid April
2. Second Flush – May to June
3. Monsoon Flush – July to September, and
4. Autumn Flush – October to November
The First Flush produces the most delicate tea among all the seasons (Its first after all! :P) The first flush tea would be soothing and loaded with flavor (not the sharp strong flavor, but a soothing one).
Then comes the second flush tea which will have a little more body and stronger flavor, compared to first flush.
If you’re someone who looks for tea that is beneficial for health, then Monsoon Flush tea is what you buy. This is the season when majority of the green tea gets produced.
And then is the Autumn flush which is considered to produce tea with the most complex and sophisticated flavors.
Tea connoisseurs would generally pick the Autumn Flush first.
Brewing the perfect cup of tea
To have the true experience of the perfect cup of Darjeeling Tea, it is best had as it is, without any additives. It is generally brewed for 3 to 5 minutes in warm water, but the timing can vary based on the color and flavor you prefer. Follow the below steps to brew your cup of Darjeeling Tea:
1. Take a teaspoon of tea leaves in a pot
2. Pour water that has been heated to just before boiling over the leaves
3. Cover the pot and let it sit for your preferred time (I let it sit for about 4 minutes)
4. Then strain out the water, and enjoy your cup of tea
If you’re someone who is used to having their tea with milk, sugar and all the spices, Darjeeling Tea might be an acquired taste, or at least something that will take a little time getting used to having without any milk, sugar or additives.
For a beginner, I would recommend beginning with a tea with a milder or lighter flavor and then work your way up towards stronger brews. Avoid sugar, but if you still need it, add it to your cup, not directly to the tea. You can try balancing the flavors by having your tea with tea cakes or cookies.
How to learn more about experiencing tea?
Visit good tea cafes. Request them for a tasting. A good tea café will know the different tea and its differentiating factor thoroughly, they should. If they don’t, then that’s not the place you want to be at. The staff will help you choose the right tea for you. They will also guide you through the tasting process – from experience the aroma of the brewed tea to the different hues the brew takes.
When the British brought tea to India from China, they chose Assam over Darjeeling. And yet, today, tea connoisseurs swear by and value Darjeeling tea, over Assam tea!
Try the Darjeeling tea, and tell me what you think. Or if you want to learn more about tea, or talk about your experience, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.