WHY CHAMPAGNE, WHY NOT WINE OF TEAS?
Darjeeling Tea is distinctive mainly because of its exotic aroma. While the tea plants found in Assam are generally direct variants of the camellia sinensis plant, the original tea plant whose leaves were brewed to make tea in China, Darjeeling tea is a sinensis varietal, rather than the assamica, and has smaller leaves, and is generally not fully oxidized so is strictly not quite a black tea but a cross between oolongs and black teas. But the processing and selection of tea leaves was facilitated such that to instil a culture of producing the present texture of leaves since its initiation to suit the British palate.
It is a well-known fact British tea consists of oxidised tea crumbs black in colour which is preferably brewed in water and consumed without milk with sugar to taste.
Darjeeling was chosen and developed to cultivate and produce tea traditionally to suit the Western palate and hence emits a delicious aroma when brewed and as a result of this attribute is often titled “The Champagne of Teas”
It has a delicate and fruity essence to it, quite like champagne, and the taste is not the least of its attributes for which it is revered by its patrons in Europe and America. Its muscatel fragrance exudes it the global appellation that it finds to be accredited and famous for. And like the grapes for making champagne are supplied from a singular location in Champagne region of France, Darjeeling tea is native to the foothills of the Himalayas, in Darjeeling.
A BRITISH FASCINATION
Thus having established the uniqueness and exquisite of Darjeeling teas thus earning them the global repute of Champagne of Teas in the world of culinary teas, let us take a sneak peak into what are the controlling factors unique to this region that gives the tea such a selective taste and global appreciation. Darjeeling situated at the foothills of the Himalayas at 6700 feet is a small hill town renowned for its spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga, the heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and its tea gardens. Thus it finds acclaim as a popular tourist destination. It was early in the 19th century when the town’s documented history begins with the British setting up offices for colonial administration, finding relief from scorching summer heat of the rest of the country. It was only then that the British charmed by the taste of tea in China, discovered the slightly acidic soil of Darjeeling and its sub tropical climate alternating between sunny and cloudy allows tea plants to flourish under the shade and in the sun. Tea plants find it difficult to grow in cold climate. Although Darjeeling over here is accounted as a whole district rather than just the town of Darjeeling, tea gardens usually are located at altitudes of 4000 feet above sea level starting from Kurseong with the Alubari tea garden and extending till Kalimpong subdivision. Gopaldhara in Mirik is one of the highest tea estates in Darjeeling. Most Darjeeling tea gardens find themselves seated at an elevation of 750 – 2000 metres, receiving enough of moisture, intermittent rainfall and sunshine, which further go to contribute to the unique taste of Darjeeling tea. With as many as 87 functional tea gardens, with a lot of them being shut down prematurely due to labour problems, Darjeeling produces at least 10,000 tonnes of tea annually contributing to only 3% of India’s entire tea produce. Majority of this small produce of Darjeeling Tea is exported to foreign markets where it finds a greater demand and price. Tea is exported as a blend of leaves from different gardens and sold under the Brand name Darjeeling Tea or as single packets marked with the tea garden of origin, the grade, flush and the precise picking dates. However this mannerism is reserved only for the purest and rarest of harvests. Being globally cherished and in such high demand, the supply Darjeeling tea is unable to meet its high demands and thus gives rise to many fake tea being traded under the garb of Darjeeling tea.
Darjeeling produces at least 10,000 tonnes of tea annually contributing to only 3% of India’s entire tea produce
MY CUP OF TEA
The process of production of Darjeeling tea in various tea gardens spread across the region hasn’t evolved or undergone any modern or technological transformation from the time that British had set them up. The process of manufacturing Darjeeling teas is known as Orthodox Manufacture and is quite labour intensive and hugely involves manual control and regulation under natural conditions. It requires vast expertise on the subject matter and intuitive abilities that allow the manufacturers to control the many variables that control and affect the chemistry of the leaves and it is these chemical changes that gives every batch their distinctive colour and flavour. These subtle variations allow for flavours from smoky to muscatel to chocolaty with a aromas ranging from fruity to floral. And it is these very attributes that have led Darjeeling tea to acquire the title of Champagne of Teas and hold it since the last 150 years. The exquisiteness in taste of a cup of Darjeeling tea is attributed to the season in which it is harvested. Every seasonal harvest, known as flush adds a special flavour to the tea leaves that is unique to them and which makes it a favourite among tea lovers.
The first flush is essentially the leaves picked after the first rains in the spring, usually between March to April. And the first flush usually involves picking out of young delicate leaves that offer the brew a light green colour, mild astringency and a floral fragrance.
The second flush of Darjeeling tea is world famous among tea connoisseurs for its taste and muscatel experience. The fully developed leaves are now robust and full bodied and offer a dark colour brew.
The third flush usually between October and November is comparable to the first flush is taste and appearance.
Brewing a perfect cup of Darjeeling tea
In order to extract the best taste when brewing a cup of Darjeeling, always make sure to use spring water and pre heat the cooking vessel. Steeping time is not more than 3- 4 minutes and it is recommended to be brewed and consumed without adding anything for taste such as sugar or milk in order to savour the best experience that transports you directly to the tea gardens with every sip.