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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.

Continue reading A Guide to Darjeeling Tea

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Tea Cliffsnotes — Pu-erh

The People’s Republic of China is known for its fine assortment of teas, but perhaps none is more coveted than pu-erh. The one-of-a-kind, large leaves hail from the Yunnan Province’s famed tea region, which is located just beyond the Yunling Mountain. It has everything high quality, wild teas could every hope for — including a temperate climate, nurturing soil and clean water. Once the leaves reach their peak flavor, they’re normally harvested by the bud and put through a rigorous fermentation process.

puerh tea cake

The process starts with an elaborate drying method that includes pan-frying, bruising and rolling. It’s designed to stop oxidation. Afterward, the leaves are traditionally fermented with the aid of microorganisms and pressed into a wide variety of shapes before being tucked away to age in climate controlled areas. For many tea enthusiasts, only the oldest cakes or bricks of pu-erh tea will do (and come at a premium price). Other connoisseurs are willing to buy bundles that are much younger and continue aging them at home solely for the pure joy of it. However, those that do give it a go must take great pains when storing their little treasured bundles. Otherwise, the tea won’t taste nearly as good.

In future editions of “Tea Cliffnotes” we’ll get into more detail about the nuances and differences among sheng and ripe pu-erh.

Regardless of whether a tea drinker is willing to hold out for 75-year old leaves or not doesn’t matter when it comes to the brewing process. The majority of all vintages are prepared with gong fu sets and steeping rituals to help bring out their inherent flavors. The sets are readily available online and tend to sell at various price points. As we indicated previously, pu-erh tea prices will also vary. Therefore, there’s a good chance that many tea lovers will be able to pick up loose pu-erh tea and a gong fu set that fits well within their budgetary constraints.

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Famous Quotes on Tea

Many of history’s greatest minds – from philosophers and writers to politicians – harbored a strong affinity for tea. To them, the beverage served to elevate their mood, give them focus, and (after a full day of mental labor) allowed them to relax and unwind. The significance of tea can be observed through the documented words of many notable individuals. Here are just a few favorite tea quotes from some historical names you may recognize:

“Tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country.” 

— George Orwell

This quote comes from Orwell’s own essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea“, written in 1946. In this essay, the author shares what he believes to be the golden rules of tea preparation. He specifically propounds the use of Indian and Ceylonese tea over Chinese tea, as “there is not much stimulation in it.” And looks down upon the use of sugar or other additives to tea, which will compromise the bitter flavor of the drink.

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

— Henry James

James here speaks of the ritual beverage in his novel, The Portrait of a Lady.  This is actually the opening line of the first chapter, and succeeds in setting the tone for the novel. The passage goes on to explore the splendorous, if commonplace, pastime of tea socials prevalent during the era (later 19th century England). At the peak of description, James observes tea’s power to transform a summer’s afternoon into “an eternity of pleasure.”

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. . . . It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

— Okakura Kakuzō

Okakura Kakuzō wrote a book on tea, named aptly, The Book of Tea. The Book of Tea is a luminous account of the history and tradition of tea drinking, but further expounds on the significance of tea as a cultural influence. Addressing a western audience, Kakuzō attempts to dispel notions that ascribe an adverse sense of strangeness towards the eastern world’s appreciation for tea.

Perhaps the most apt description of tea, however, can be found in a quote by essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Some people will tell you there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

These quotes are just a few examples of the near-universal appreciation of tea.  What are some of your favorites?  Please share in the comments section below.