Darjeeling: Choosing and Enjoying a Peak of Tea

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Darjeeling: Tea in the High Himalayas

High tea. Interesting weather patterns. Complex and vulnerable ecology.

Darjeeling is a peak of tea in two senses. It is grown on the slopes of the third highest mountain in the world, Kangchmenjunga, in the Himalayas. Around ninety estates compete on reputation and identity for their peak quality black teas.  They are expanding their efforts to become comparable elite producers of whites, greens and oolongs.

All this can be a little far off in the clouds for many tea drinkers. Ninety estates, three main harvests, many seasonal patterns, different elevations, individual styles of production, and specialized selectivity in farming, harvesting and processing…

Overall, Darjeeling teas are not part of the daily scene that most tea drinkers either know about, come across or are alerted to. They often assume that Darjeeling is a single tea, rather than some hundreds of them. Fitting with its name recognition, captured in the cliché about it being the champagne of tea, Darjeeling is then seen as a “different” and “expensive” treat rather than an everyday pleasure – people don’t drink champagne for breakfast daily.

 

The state of Darjeeling: region and tea growing

Once you know enough about Darjeeling teas to be comfortable in exploring even a few of the options, you are quite likely to love them. That’s not a certainty, of course, and some experts feel the teas are overrated and overpriced and that sometimes a new harvest results in a boring yield.

That said, even the naysayers add that when the rain comes at the right time in spring and the leaves on the bushes are nutrition-rich from a nurturing winter, Darjeeling teas are magical.

Somewhere out there, many of those will be magical for you. There is literally no other like it. Efforts to reproduce, transplant, imitate or clone it have failed again and again. It’s unique: a peak of tea.  It accumulated its heritage through its black teas. Now, many of the Moonlight white teas from outstanding estates like Castleton and Margaret’s Hope are superb. All the examples in this piece are illustrations not endorsements. There are too many outstanding estates and teas to pick out any one as best or to list, say, the top thirty candidates.

But a substantial problem with the better oolongs and fewer standout greens is price, Thiis too often far higher than comparable teas from other countries. Darjeeling’s labor-intensive operations leave it with the highest regional cost base in the industry. That reflects  its entire reliance on hand plucking, short and limited seasons and relatively low plant yield. For decades,  political strains escalate to major civil strife. The population of the region are mostly Nepalese Gorkhas. There is a militant commitment to an independent state.  Darjeeling is now part of Hindi Bengal. A major strike in the tea gardens lost the entire second flush harvest in 2017.  Add to this many environmental strains. and migration of labor in the face of sustained poverty. Darjeeling faces major challenges and its future is not guaranteed.

But it has many strengths to can draw on. There is a strong new generation of managers, who are successfully balancing the traditional and the new. Packaging and distribution have improved by a factor of twenty — that’s the cut in lead times from bush to cup. And once you have a sense of just a few of the many estates and their offers, you’ll find plenty of bargains. Darjeeling is well served by excellent online providers and by many of the leading estates selling direct from their gardens.

 How to choose Darjeeling teas

There is no typical Darjeeling. The black teas are marked by variety of garden, harvest, elevation, bush variety, and processing. They range in price from as inexpensive as a gussied-up bag to as costly as a cognac. They have increasingly different leaf characteristics and resulting subtleties in flavor and aroma. Here’s a simple orientation to finding the ones for you:

Don’t think of Darjeeling as a single tea. Even within an individual estate there are many differences among its teas. Here, for instance, is a close up on four 2015 autumn harvest teas from one of the medium sized gardens.

Same garden, same year, same harvest. Different Artisan crafting.

These are all the “same” tea: Estate XYZ Darjeeling. They are all different. Some of this comes from choice of bush: chinary may be in a section next to a clonal patch. Elevation and exposure to sun, exact soil profile and maturity of the plant are factors to tweak.

Start your exploration by getting a sense of the distinctive style of the first flush (Spring harvest) and second flush (Summer). These are separated by just a few months but produce a difference analogous to the Burgundy versus Bordeaux distinction for red wines.

A Goomtee estate first flush may be your own choice, over a Castleton second flush, or you may prefer a Goomtee 2nd versus a Castleton 1st. The combination of estate and flush is at the base of Darjeeling variety. There are four flushes, with the monsoon and autumn ones of lesser fullness and zip. The first flush is often summarized as light and astringent and the second as full-bodied muscatel.

                   Goomtee first flush                                           Castleton second flush

Get a sense of the main “flags” that broadly indicate quality and value without your having to understand all the rich and complex Darjeeling tea lore: Estate, Grade, Harvest. There’s enough information in just these three categories to give you a clear idea of the relative attractiveness of each of the teas for you.

Learn the marketing traps of “Darjeeling tea” and where to buy and what to avoid. One simple and firm rule for shopping for Darjeelings in a supermarket is: Don’t. Buy a decent English Breakfast instead.

The stuff in a bag is regional plains CTC, or cheap broken leaf and fannings bought from growers’ leftovers. The yield from lowland farming is 3,000 kilos per hectare. The Orthodox tea harvest is 500. The gap of 2,500, a factor of five, is not two leaves and a bud.

Expand your exploration selectively to include oolongs, greens and whites but focus first on black teas. Similarly, try estate teas and then consider good value blends. The Tea Tip subjective, opinion-only, start off recommendation for value, reliability and satisfying all-around flavor is Thurbo, Goomtee and Margaret’s Hope.

Quality and pedigree flags

The range of Darjeeling flavors shows up most clearly in the variety of seasonal harvests. It’s an illustration of the amazing differences just a few months can make to the very nature of these teas.  Once you become a first versus second flush devotee, or the reverse, you’re hooked.

Harvest Season Characteristics
First/Spring flush After dormant winter, Feb-mid-April Light, bright, just a little astringent; fragrant floral aromas
Second/Summer flush May-June Fuller flavor, treasured “muscatel” mellowness; complex richness of taste
Monsoon July-Sept, rainy season Stronger: not worth paying much for and generally just a mediocre base for a breakfast blend.
Autumn Oct-Nov Lighter, delicate; not as complex in flavors as 1st and 2nd flushes.

 

In many regions of the world teas are harvested year-round, as much as every few weeks, with rest periods. In some, the first Spring harvest is by far the best; pre-Chingming (the Spring festival) China greens are premium and prized. With Darjeelings there are two bests, the Spring first and Summer second flush and two later and lesser ones. If the flush is not mentioned, you will be getting a mix of harvests in a blend.

Focusing on the two main flushes is a better option than a blend, though there are some good ones on the market. Those will generally be a mix of leaf from several estates or from grades that are not quite in the top category, a little broken up and not as well-formed. For the beginner, blends may seem an obvious choice but they tend to be a little disappointing in that they average out the distinctive characteristics of each individual ingredient.

For Darjeeling black teas, only first (or “spring”), second (“summer”) and autumn flushes are pedigree: monsoon and in-between ones mean “you can do better.”  Autumn flush teas are what one expert terms “muted” versions of second flush ones. They can be very good buys.

Don’t bother with in-between and monsoon harvests. South Indian and Nepalese teas are strengthening the quality of their winter “frost” teas and there are some terrific Nilgiris and Nepals but try these after you map out your preferences and favorite estates.

The next flag is not as important as it once was and can be misleading. This is the grade of the finished leaf’s wholeness and appearance. There are over thirty grades. SFTGFOP is the very highest. Almost every elite garden will be SFTx or FTx.  If you start seeing a B in the grade, the leaf quality is lower. It stands for Broken leaf. The shorter the grade, the more ordinary it is: FOP, BOP, GOP, etc. OP is a minor exception. It’s average whole leaf that doesn’t get an adjective added.(Technically, it’s Orange Pekoe, which is often marketed as a tea type. Its name appears to refer to the Dutch Royal House of Orange. This of it as standing for basic whole leaf grade.)

Focus on the broader categories that the grades reflect:

Whole leaf: Look for FTG. Don’t worry about whether it has an S for special in front of it and ignore any number at the end SFTGFOP1 or Spl, another special claim. To some extent, the longer the acronym the superior the leaf’s finish but all you really want is some indicator that this is premium, not special ultra-premium (reserve).

FOP and OP are so-so and generally well-priced. They reflect less than perfect processing results that loses a little of some element of flavor or aroma.

Broken leaf: Here, the loss is more marked and by and large this is not a good deal. Darjeeling prices are high and you can get a better quality whole leaf Ceylon or Assam for the same amount. FOP, maybe. BOP, not really. Many Darjeeling lovers point out that a top estate may produce a better quality final tea that is BOP than, say, a lesser harvest mid-grade one. An analogy here is a fruit dessert. The unblemished, plump and uniform farm-fresh ingredients in a strawberry torte aux marrons are SFTGFOP but the fine hand of the dessert chef can make a pretty good strawberry shortcake out of more average ones. It’s certainly worth keeping you eye and credit card open to BOP deals but in general go for the estate first and an FTG second.

Fannings: These are indicated by the F being at the end not the beginning: GFOF, FOF, for Golden and Flowery. If it’s fannings, it doesn’t matter if it’s G, F or whatever, there’s no formal definition beyond fragments that are bigger than dust. In practice, it’s re-used rejects from processing that fall through the sieve in the final sifting. It’s lower end tea bag ingredient.

Dust: Try some instant coffee instead.

This summary applies to Assam and all other Indian and Nepalese black teas, as well as Darjeeling. The main differences are that you will see many higher grade Assams that are TGF, below the top SFTGF and FTGF. Far more of the teas for sale will be Broken OP. The Agribusiness mainstream of CTC is also part of the scene; Darjeeling is strictly Orthodox processing, not rotorvane machined.

Sampling the garden estates

The first/second flush choice is the main step in selection of Darjeelings. Now comes the more arbitrary step: choose an estate. Think of that not as picking a tea but like selecting a restaurant.  There are so many outstanding estates, with so many individual strengths and so much special expertise that it is impossible to recommend any one of the best above the other bests. Every Darjeeling lover has a personal list.

With deep hesitation, here are a few suggestions. They are just that. A search online of estates and offers from suppliers will give you a sense of the reputation and record of individual ones. You can’t go wrong with Castleton, Goomtee, Puttabong, Margaret’s Hope, Thurbo, Makaibari, Giddapahar, Ambootia, or Tindharia. Then there’s Singtom, Rohini…

Just pick a few to try. Of the three “starters” suggested earlier, Margaret’s Hope second flush is a joy and surprisingly inexpensive. Thurbo is reliable, with tippy teas at a good price. Goomtee is at the higher end in costs but has a wide range of distinctive teas.

The best way to get started is to buy sample packs online. The elite providers offer vacuum-packed 10 gram envelopes for $2-3, with many special deals. You can get, for instance, a collection of maybe ten first flush teas or even dozens of, say, breakfast Darjeelings at very attractive prices. 10 grams makes four cups of tea.

On a per unit basis, the samples cost about double what you’d pay per ounce from the same provider. But for $20 or less you can get a good sense of estates and their teas instead of risking the same amount on a hit or miss single purchase of a mid-range 100 grams (3.5 ounces). Make sure any sampler package mainly includes estate names and not generic blends, Earl Greys and flavored teas.

Buy online. There are a small number of excellent Indian providers, several fine US ones and the largest is German. The UK has some high end, but also high price, providers. Some of the gardens are marketing their teas direct to the customer. You can easily find every single Darjeeling tea on the market for sale online. Packaging has improved and shipping is fast and efficient.

Look for a supplier whose teas are presented by pedigree. Estate, Harvest, Leaf grade. You don’t need fluff.

 

 

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