What would be the single most important thing you need to know about this tea variety? Simple - it should have been produced in Darjeeling, a small town in the state of West Bengal, India. Just like you would not dare call any random sparkling wine ‘Champagne’ unless it is indeed produced in the Champagne region of France. Because the region where the grapes are grown matters when it comes to giving a particular variety of wine its signature characteristics, and so is the case with tea.
So, what’s so special about Darjeeling teas? Darjeeling is located in the foothills of Himalaya at an elevation of 6,700 ft, which makes the tea produced here the highest elevation produced teas in the world. Sounds like a ‘tall’ claim? Read on. When it comes to tea plantations, the higher elevation creates a specific environment - a mix of different temperatures during the day and evening, varying atmospheric oxygen content, altering UV exposure for the plant etc. All of these factors together give the tea leaves their unique flavour (known as muscatel- a spicy deep fruity flavor) and aroma that cannot be replicated by growing it anywhere else. Which makes it one of the most unique and distinctive teas in the world. No wonder it is popularly known as the 'Champagne of Teas.
A fun fact about Darjeeling tea is that its origins are not exactly Indian. Its arrival in India has been attributed to the famous Scottish adventurer and botanist - Robert Fortune, who smuggled tea seeds from China, almost 200 years ago. It just so happened that Darjeeling’s altitude and its high rate of precipitation made it an ideal spot to grow them commercially in India.
But how do you know you are buying the real Darjeeling tea and not its extended cousins from Nepal, Bhutan or Sikkim? Good question. Let’s look at some numbers. When it comes to the statistics, about 11,000 tons are produced every year officially. But the business side of this says about 40,000 tons are sold yearly as Darjeeling tea. That doesn’t add up at all, right? Yes, a lot of what is sold as Darjeeling tea are in fact, wait for it, not Darjeeling tea. So how can you make sure you are not drinking fake Darjeeling tea, or even worse, paying the high price for it? Well, make sure that you buy only from trustworthy sources
Another thing worth noting is that the flavour of Darjeeling tea also depends on the season when it is harvested. It is produced in Darjeeling only during March to November, and this particular harvest period is known as Flush.
When it comes to taste, Darjeeling tea is quite subtle and mild, although it does have a slightly astringent or spicy aftertaste – one of its defining characteristics.
There are different types of Darjeeling tea even though the black tea is the most common and traditional form of Darjeeling tea. It is the most fermented variety which gives it its characteristic colour and flavour. The other varieties are:
Similar to the traditional Chinese tea and technically comes in between the black tea and green tea. It is partially fermented and partially processed which gives it a lower caffeine count than the other Darjeeling teas.
Darjeeling Green Tea
Darjeeling green tea is dried and steamed but not fermented at all, and as a result many of the natural beneficial chemicals are retained. The liquor is usually light green in colour.
Darjeeling White Tea
This is the most expensive of the lot, and also considered the most delicate. It is crafted with extra care - first, it is hand picked, dried in the sun, and then hand rolled. There are no other steps followed in white tea processing. The tea leaves keep their original organic form retaining all the minerals and natural ingredients. The liquor is pale golden in colour.