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Darjeeling is an incredibly common style of tea, often represented in both everyday bagged and premium loose leaf selections. With so many options carrying the Darjeeling label, it is also easily misunderstood. So what, exactly, is Darjeeling tea?
Provenance and Terroir
In the most basic sense, Darjeeling teas are made from leaves grown in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. One reason these teas are coveted is because of the unique terroir of this region, nestled high in the Himalayas. As with teas grown in Taiwan or other parts of China, elevation plays a big part in the quality of these teas. The cold weather in this mountainous region serves to slow the growth of the tea plant, and encourage development of natural sugars and complex flavors.
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With growing popularity, of course, comes imitations, and today there is more Darjeeling tea on the market than could ever be grown in the small Darjeeling region. Most modern imitations now come from Nepal, where similar elevations help replicate the classic Darjeeling flavors.
The Darjeeling region is also home to cultivated varieties of the Camellia sinensis plant that are unlike those found anywhere else. In part, this is thanks to the British effort, undertaken in the 1800’s, to steal the secrets of tea production from China and build their own tea industry in India. Unaware that India was a native home to broadleaf Assamica tea plants, British botanist Robert Fortune was tasked with smuggling live tea plants out of China to be transplanted. After a few tries, this effort culminated in success when the tea took root in Darjeeling, but was shortly followed by the discovery of Assam plants, and the subsequent abandonment of dodgy transplant efforts.
By Bourne and Shepherd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
However, the Chinese plants in Darjeeling continued to thrive, and it is now believed that they naturally cross-pollinated with the native Assam variety to create something totally new. While the Assam variety brings characteristically Indian full-bodied flavor, the Chinese Camellia sinensis var. sinensis offers more delicate complexity to the brew. Together, they create a unique balance in the natural hybrid now grown in Darjeeling.
Just like the cultivar of Camellia sinensis, methods of crafting Darjeeling tea are also an unique hybrid of Chinese traditions and British and Indian innovations. With seasonal weather changes more akin to those of Chinese growing regions, Darjeeling teas are graded by harvest date, much as many Chinese teas are. In India, these seasonal distinctions have been codified into a sequence of “flushes”, with the most prized spring harvests named the first flush.
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One of the most distinct aspects of Darjeeling tea, though, is a “hard wither”, which is unlike techniques used in either Chinese or other Indian teas. Basically, this means that the fresh leaves are reduced to about 30% of their original moisture content during the first withering step of the crafting process. Often, heated air is used to facilitate this process and speed the loss of moisture. This extreme form of the initial crafting step slows oxidation throughout the rest of the process. Though the final product is usually called black tea, Darjeeling teas are rarely more than 80% oxidized, putting them firmly in the oolong range of the oxidation spectrum by Chinese standards.
In the end, the most notable feature of an authentic Darjeeling tea is its flavor - typically musky yet bright, and almost always with notes of fruit on the palate. Though this fascinating region falls outside our area of sourcing expertise, we occasionally find similar flavor profiles in unexpected places, like our Xin Gong Yi (New Craft), a modern white tea with non-traditional levels of oxidation and distinct notes of dried apricot.
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