As the tea season opens in Darjeeling, I catch myself wondering how Darjeeling became, as writer Jeff Koehler describes it, “the world’s greatest tea”. As a brand, it continues to enjoy great recall, with tea drinkers the world over recognising it as a tea to reckon with, one worth the price tag.
But how did all this come about? For, there is no single Darjeeling tea. It spans a range, from the spring flush black tea to summer muscatel, autumn oolongs, silver needle white tea, Bai Mu Dan white tea, green tea…. There are teas plucked on full moon nights, those made from AV2 clonal cultivars for a more pronounced Darjeeling flavour. There are teas grown in a garden such as Jungpana, which can be reached only by climbing a few hundred steps, and gardens such as Gopaldhara and Rohini, which continue to experiment every season, refusing to sit back on legacy. The Darjeeling brand itself goes back more than 150 years, though most of the lore connected to it is more recent—no more than half a century old—with the name Makaibari showing up often. Makaibari is the choice of tea of British royalty. Its former owner, Rajah Banerjee, is as legendary as the tea. Quite certainly, Makaibari can lay claim to some of Darjeeling’s fame. But there’s more to the romance. The chinary varietal of the tea plant, which took root in Darjeeling, produces a remarkably “complex” flavourful cup that is attributed to the terroir. Terroir sums up, in one word, the influence of climate, landscape, soil, flora and fauna. At an elevation going as high as 7,000ft, and with the Himalayan range of Kanchenjunga in sight on a clear day, Darjeeling’s terroir is perfect for tea. Year after year, we hear of record prices; most recently, it was over ₹1 lakh for a kilogram of white tea.
Today there are 87 tea gardens that grow and produce what is a certified Darjeeling tea. Collectively, they produce about 10 million kilos of tea annually, which is less than 1% of India’s total tea production. In fact, in 2004 Darjeeling tea became the first product in India to get geographical indication (GI) protection—for adulteration and imitation had at one point so endangered the brand that one used to hear Darjeeling produced just 10 million kilograms but at least 40 million kilos of it was sold.
There is something to Darjeeling’s tea. And now is just the right time to enjoy the flavours. For this is the season of the first flush, made from leaves plucked as the bushes come out of winter hibernation. A planter friend describes it as “God’s gift”—the flavour, the aroma and the clean cup it makes is not easy to find.
The spring flush tea from Darjeeling is out now, and available easily online. Ask for teas by garden this season.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1