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A Guide to Darjeeling Tea

Darjeeling tea is often quoted as the “queen of teas” and for good reason. It’s grown on the high hills of the Himalayas and when prepared the tea takes a shimmery gold color with a delicate taste.

About Darjeeling Tea

Darjeeling tea belongs to the Darjeeling district in West Bengal, India. You can find it in varieties of black, green, white and oolong. After proper brewing, the tea it takes a light color infused with a floral aroma. The flavor of the tea is often described as musky and spicy with an aftertaste of astringent tannin.

darjeeling tea
Photo credit: Partha Sarathi Sahana

Darjeeling tea is unlike other Indian teas because it is commonly made from the small-leaved Chinese variety of Camellia Sinensis, while many other Indian teas are made from the large-leaved Assam variety. Darjeeling tea is mostly found in black, but the oolong and green variety are becoming increasingly popular. Green and oolong Darjeeling teas are now commonly produced and much easier to find. An increasing number of estates are also producing white Darjeeling tea as well.

History and Origin

Tea planting started in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district in 1841 and Arthur Campbell initiated it. Campbell was a civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service and he was transferred from Kathmandu, in Nepal, to the Darjeeling district in 1839. Two years later, in 1841, he brought the seeds of the small-leaved Chinese plant, Camellia Sinensis, from Kumaun. He started to experiment with the seeds for the purposes of tea planting in Darjeeling. During the same period, specifically around 1847, the British government also established tea nurseries. Then in the 1850s, the tea was being developed commercially. Finally, in 1856, the Kurseong and Darjeeling Tea company opened the Alubari tea garden, and soon enough others followed it.

Taste and Terrior

Apart from being known as the “queen of teas,” Darjeeling tea is also referred to as the “champagne of teas” for its unique taste. The taste of Darjeeling tea is often compared with Muscat wine. Some find that it has a very tangy flavor of citrus with a tinge of musk and sweet notes, which makes the flavor of this tea truly unique. Most varieties of the Darjeeling tea are faintly astringent in taste and few have a sweet floral flavor.

The flavor of the Darjeeling tea is uniquely distinct to their terrior, much like Champagne grapes. It is so attuned with its terrior that it has successfully achieved a geographical indication status, and hence the tea is named after the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The name protects all teas that are produced within the same region. The tea is produced in very small quantities, which is very similar to the characteristics of the Muscat grapes, including the early harvests and flushes.

Harvest of Darjeeling Tea

Typically, Darjeeling is marked as a variety of black tea, although the modern Darjeeling style uses a hard wither. About 35 to 40% weight of the leaf remains after withering, which means the tea is not completely oxidized. For that reason, the tea can also be categorized as an oolong tea. Some Darjeeling teas are also found to be blends of various teas oxidized to levels of green, oolong, white and black.

Like many other teas, the different growing seasons of the Darjeeling tea is marked under various categories called “flushes,” which includes the first flush, in between flush period, the second flush, monsoon flush and autumnal flush.

  • First Flush

When the tea is harvested in the first flush, which happens around mid-March, just after the end of winter during spring rains, it has a gentle aroma and very light color with a mild astringent flavor. The taste and color of the first flush is comparable to oolong teas and considered very fresh and brisk.

  • Second Flush

Sometimes Darjeeling tea is harvested in between flushes as well, especially if the winter ended early. The second flush is then harvested around June and it has a strong muscatel flavor that leaves a vivid amber color. The Muscat taste can be distinctly experienced and when brewed the tea takes the color of a dark golden liquor. At this point, you can also faintly taste fruity flavors, such as currant or peach.

  • Monsoon Flush

After the second flush, the tea is then harvested during the monsoon season when it rains. The harvest occurs right between the second flush and the beginning of autumn. The monsoon harvest is less withered, which means it is more oxidized. This tea is sold at a much cheaper rate and is rarely exported. Darjeeling tea from the monsoon season is often used for making masala chai. Out of all the harvests, the monsoon harvest is the least desired because most people find that the taste is somewhat muddy.

  • Autumnal Flush 

At the end of the rainy season, the tea is harvested for the final time, which is called the autumnal flush. The tea from the final harvest is much less delicate in flavor and also much less spicy, though the color is much darker, almost like a deep copper. The most desired flushes for the Darjeeling tea is obviously the first and second, but the final harvest is often used to create Darjeeling tea blends. The blending allows for better flavor profiles that make it more desirable.

Darjeeling Tea Varieties

While the Darjeeling tea is often offered in black only, there are many different varieties available for the real connoisseurs.

Darjeeling Black Tea

The black version of the Darjeeling tea is the most commonly available tea that has been produced by almost all of the Darjeeling gardens. The black tea goes through all the stages of processing, including withering, machine drying, rolling, fermenting and sorting.

Unlike other varieties of the Darjeeling tea, the black version is fully oxidized. It has completely dried and then carefully split so that it can absorb more oxygen. Soon enough the leaves turn into a dark color and develop a fruity, nutty, flowery and spicy flavor.

Darjeeling White Tea

Out of all the varieties, the white tea is the most delicate of the Darjeeling teas. It is also often the most expensive. The leaves are handpicked, dried in the sun and then rolled. There are no additional steps in the process for producing white tea, which allows it to remain in its organic form and is able to retain all minerals and natural characteristics.

The white version of the Darjeeling tea has a more delicate aroma than the black and it brews to a light golden color. The flavor of the white tea is very mellow with a tinge of sweetness.

Darjeeling Oolong Tea

The oolong version of the Darjeeling tea is very similar to the traditional Chinese tea and you can place it right between the Darjeeling black tea and Darjeeling green tea. The oolong variety was first introduced in the 1800s when the original Darjeeling tea was being cultivated in the district of Darjeeling in West Bengal.

Some tea gardens have reserved the old China bushes, called Chesima, and continue to produce the oolong variety. The leaves are withered hard and oxidized about 50%. There are different grades of the oolong tea available, depending on how much oxidation is done. Much like green tea, the leaves are steamed to stop further oxidation. The first flush of the oolong tea is not very popular but the second flush is high in demand because of its dark orange color with a strong muscatel flavor and fruity aroma.

Darjeeling Green Tea

Green tea is increasingly becoming very popular due to its health benefits. Much like other green teas, the Darjeeling green tea also has strong antioxidants. It is an excellent remedy for heart related problems and for controlling LDL cholesterol levels.

The green variety of the Darjeeling tea is withered and steamed but not fermented. The process of producing the green version of the tea helps it retain its many natural beneficial properties. When brewed, the tea takes the color of a light green. Be careful — Darjeeling green tea can become quite bitter if over-steeped.

 

Darjeeling iamge 2

How to Prepare Darjeeling Tea

Personally, I prefer Darjeeling tea prepared gongfu style with a gaiwan. All varieties of the Darjeeling tea, including black, white, green and oolong, are typically consumed without the addition of sugar and milk. Adding milk and sugar robs you of the opportunity to fully appreciate the rich and aromatic flavors of the Darjeeling tea. Below is a short guide of how to prepare Darjeeling tea.

Water

The type of water you use can greatly affect the taste of the tea. For best results, you should use natural spring water or non-carbonated bottled water if the tap water is hard. You can also use a filter to avoid using hard tap water.

Steeping

In addition to gongfu style…Darjeeling tea is typically prepared by placing the tea leaves in the tea pot and pouring hot water on top. Then, you leave it for the desired amount of infusion before filtering it in a cup. If you are using an infuser, then try to avoid using metallic infusion balls because they cause the tea leaves to expand. When the leaves expand, it blocks the holes in the infuser, which could affect the infusion process.

Time

The amount of time that the different varieties of Darjeeling tea should be steeped depends on the tea type, tea flush and tea quantity. Making tea to perfection can only happen with a lot of trial and error until you land your personal preference.

Pouring

Before you pour your steeped tea into a teapot for serving, it is best to heat the teapot with boiling water. A pre-heated teapot will keep your tea hot for a longer period. Pouring it into a cold teapot will immediately bring down the temperature of the steeped tea. All you need to do is fill the teapot with boiling water and then empty it after a few minutes. Then pour your steeped tea for serving.

Brewing

Take one teaspoon of your desired Darjeeling tea and add it to the teapot to make one cup of tea. In a separate pan, heat 1 cup of water up to 175 degrees fahrenheit. If the water has come to a boil then let it cool down for a bit. Pouring boiling water over tea leaves can spoil its flavor and nutritional value. Then add the water to the teapot and let it steep for 2 to 3 minutes without covering it. Lastly, strain the tea through a tea strainer and serve it. Remember to not add milk and sugar if you wish to enjoy the rich taste and aroma of Darjeeling tea.

Health Benefits

Regular consumption of Darjeeling tea can help you reap its many benefits. For starters, it is excellent for killing bacteria that are sitting on your teeth, which means you are less likely to suffer from tooth decay. Darjeeling tea is also can excellent remedy for gastric problems. It has been proven effective against stomach ulcers and gastric cancer. The properties of the tea are known to slow down the production of bacteria, called helicobacter pylori, that causes stomach ulcers.

Conclusion

If you enjoy tea, then the many varieties of Darjeeling tea will surely delight. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to try this wonderful tea from the West Bengal of India.

loose leaf tea infuser strainer

One thought on “A Guide to Darjeeling Tea

  1. Thanks for the info. I really am trying to get into drinking more green tea. I have heard that it is good for me. I had no idea that Darjeeling green tea could help my heat and raise the LDL levels in my body. I need to make this a part of my daily diet.

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