Food

Darjeeling Teas : A Connoisseur’s Odyssey in Teas – Mayuri Ghosh

‘Tea’ since centuries has been an integral part of our everyday lives. A cup of tea is a daily ritual for millions around the globe and for good reasons! Be it a connoisseur worthy cup of premium Darjeeling Black Tea, or a soothing cup of chamomile tea to help you wrap up a hectic day, or the various herbal tisanes that are a perfect detox solution amidst our maddening schedules. With half the amount of caffeine as compared to a cup of coffee, tea is a perfect way to replenish and rejuvenate. But how much do we really know about this popular beverage? Did you know that all the various teas are all sourced from the same plant Camellia Sinensis ? Did you know where that gorgeous morning cup of black tea is sourced from? Do you know how does terroir and seasons bring out the wondrous nuances in tea? We at Vahdam Teas will help you explore this world with our profound knowledge of this beverage, backed by a collective experience of more than 100 years in Tea.

From a purist to a beginner, we welcome you to the enchanting world of teas.
Now that we have been inducted in the prestigious Oprah’s Favorite Things for 2018, we now take it upon ourselves to bring the luxury of Indian Teas to more and more tea lovers around the world. Today, we shall commence this journey with the ‘Champagne of Teas’, a befitting title for the prized and world-renowned Darjeeling Teas. Hailed to be a royalty in the world of aristocratic teas. From a bouquet of fruity and floral notes, to the regal muscatel Darjeeling Tea taste, this cup has a reputation that precedes itself.

In this Guide to Darjeeling Teas, we shall be read about the the mother plant Camelia Sinensis, the seasonality and the various flushes of the Darjeeling Tea, the work that goes behind us bringing you an unparalleled cup of fresh cup of tea, the different types of tea, the allied health benefits of Darjeeling tea, and everything else in between. We sincerely hope that you enjoy this guide as much I have while delving into this magnificent cup!

After water, tea is the second-most consumed beverage around the world. There are several types of tea in the world today black, green, white, and oolong etc. which have different cup characteristics but interestingly all come from the same plant — Camellia Sinensis. Steeping the leaves of this plant in hot water is what gives us this exquisite and aromatic beverage. This plant is native to Central and Southeast Asia which have tropical or subtropical climates, preferably at higher altitudes with loose yet deep soil. It grows as an evergreen shrub which produces small white flowers; but tea growers are just concerned with the prized buds and leaves which can only be harvested after 3 years of the shrub being planted. Interestingly these bushes can live for more than a hundred years, depending on the terroir and the tea type, each bush can be harvested a few times throughout a year.

Camellia Sinensis- The Tea Plant

The Camellia Sinensis plant has two popular varieties which are responsible for producing the various kinds of teas. The first kind, Camellia Sinensis (C. sinensis sinensis ) which is native to China and the other kind is the Camellia Sinensis Assamica (C. sinensis assamica ) which is native to the famous region of Assam in India. These two varieties are further used to develop clonal and hybrid varieties of tea. Once the leaves from this plant are harvested, they go through a series of processing steps to yield the various types of tea that we consume.

Camellia sinensis sinensis (China)
This variant of the plant is native to western Yunnan and is characteristic of bearing small and narrow leaves. These bushes best thrive at high altitudes up to 9500 ft. Typically pruned to waist-high, the bushes are given a flat top surface which makes it easier for the pickers to harvest the leaves. This China variant is usually dormant in winters and replenishes itself with necessary nutrients to yield some of the most exquisite teas in the first flush of the upcoming season. Some of the best green teas and Chinese black teas are sourced from this plant.

Camellia sinensis assamica (Assam, India)
Native to the region of Assam in Northeast India, this variant is responsible for producing some of the best varieties of strong and flavorful black teas, and some variants of green and oolong too. A combination of plains, generous rain, high humidity, and warmer temperatures come together to favor this Assamica variant which then yields signature malty and bold teas. Blessed with larger leaves these bushes can be cultivated almost throughout the year and is cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, and Africa.

Some of the traditional tea producing countries in the world are : China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Each region with its own set of influencers like terrain, soil, altitude, climate, seasons etc. produces a different variety of tea. For example, Japan and China produce some of the best green teas, while India and Sri Lanka produce quality black teas. Thanks to agricultural advances in the last few decades, there are many other countries which are slowly emerging in the tea industry for their impressive harvests, like Kenya, Vietnam, Argentina, Indonesia etc.

Darjeeling, West Bengal, India

The magnificent region of Darjeeling is located in the Indian state of West Bengal, surrounded by the mighty Himalayas. Popularized as a summer escape since the British Raj, Darjeeling emerged to be a crowned location for producing some of the world’s most exquisite teas. Owing to the unique clarity in taste, aroma and smooth texture of the teas, Darjeeling is also known as “The Champagne of Teas” in tea circles.

Speaking of our winning cup, Darjeeling tea from India is usually harvested from the small-leaved Chinese variety of Camellia sinensis sinensis, while all other Indian Teas are cultivated using large-leaf Assamica variety. While Indian teas rose to the elite stature with its inexplicable Darjeeling Black Tea, off late exclusive and boutique varieties of Oolong Teas, Green teas and White teas are being harvested by the Darjeeling tea estates. Owing to the popularity of the immense popularity that this cup has enjoyed, Under the enactment of Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection Act, 1999) in the year 2003, the prized Darjeeling tea from India received a Geographical (GI) tag in 2004–2005.

Manufacturing of Tea

Unlike the finest of wines, Tea loses its character and flavor over time. The sooner your tea reaches you from the tea gardens, the fresher it is. But Tea, like any other agricultural product, has specific harvest periods in an year and hence is seasonal.

Terroir

Climate and Geography play a key role in deciding which variety of tea can be grown in which region and hence teas from different regions have entirely different flavor characteristics. Every region differs in its kind of soil, climate, altitude and terrain, collectively known as ‘terroir’.

The process of efficiently harvesting tea is a form of art, something that we have honed carefully over time. The timing of the harvest holds the key to how good the cup would be. From the bud appearing, opening up, and then growing into the prized leaves — all of this transpires within a few days. Hence it is imperative for the farmer to know exactly when to harvest the tea for bringing us a treasured and flavorsome cup of Premium Darjeeling Tea.

This timely harvest decides the fate of the cup. Certain teas require only buds to be plucked, while some others require only the small, new shoots which appear on the bush after a certain period of dormancy.

The harvest periods in Darjeeling last from late March to early November and is broken up into 4 parts: First flush, Second flush, monsoon flush, and autumnal flush. At times, the plants will continue to flush past November, this is sometimes called a Winter flush. Now let’s take a look at what each harvest season bestows upon these magnificent Darjeeling tea leaves!

Spring Flush or First Flush Darjeeling Teas

The First flush Darjeeling Teas are the ones harvested during the months of March, April and May. Sourced from the first fresh leaves of the year- these teas have a characteristic flavor profile of being mild, soft on the palate, invigorating spring-like aroma, and mellow.

Glenburn King Darjeeling First Flush Black Tea

We source our Darjeeling First Flush Teas from some of the revered tea gardens in Darjeeling, some of which are : Okayti Tea estate, Gopaldhara Tea estate, Arya Tea estate, Glenburn tea estate and many more.

Summer Flush or Second Flush Darjeeling Teas

Darjeeling’s Second Flush Teas are harvested during the months of May, June and July and boast of a unique taste profile of being ‘muscatel’ in taste. Muscatel denotes a sweet, roasted taste and is much desired among tea drinkers. The summer flush teas of this region are also fruity
and strong in nature and hence are widely used in making flavored
teas as well. Discover the delicate flavor and aroma of some of the most sought after Teas in the world.

Castleton Muscatel Darjeeling Second Flush Black Tea

Autumn Flush Darjeeling Teas

This marks the final harvest season in Darjeeling, otherwise known as Autumn Flush which lasts for the months of September, October and November. The harvest period for Darjeeling Autumn Flush teas arrives post the monsoon season and this is when the temperatures begins to drop. Revered as one of the most sought-after harvest seasons, these teas boasts of enticing characteristics like the signature floral and fruity flavor and the deeply refreshing aroma which makes them every tea connoisseurs’ choice.

Autumn Gold Darjeeling Organic Black Tea

Hibernation Period

This marks the harsh, cold winter months in Darjeeling which lasts from the month of November to February. During this period, the tea bushes are in hibernation and hence there is no production. The season again opens up in the month of March.

Your beloved Darjeeling black teas are cultivated by renowned Darjeeling tea gardens which span over a thousand acres or by individual small growers. Often elevation of tea gardens is a crucial factor in deciding the quality and flavor of teas. Some of the most exquisite Darjeeling teas are grown at higher elevations on steep slopes. It is one out of the many factors that decide the quality of a pure Darjeeling tea from India.

The tedious processing of Tea is an art in itself and has been developed over the last several centuries and now is classified into two types : Orthodox manufacturing and Unorthodox or CTC manufacturing. Both these methods have gained its fair share of audience and produce outstanding teas, but the Orthodox manufacturing is the more traditional and is famed to produce teas with nuanced cup characteristics, complex flavor profiles, and enchanting aromas.

Once the harvesting season opens, tea pickers handpick the tea leaves and once a significant quantity is plucked, the harvest is carried to a tea facility with a controlled environment where these leaves go through a series of procedures and depending on which procedures are involved in the processing, we get various kinds of tea. Typically in a day, tea pickers fill several baskets with freshly plucked tea leaves which are carefully inspected and weighed to ensure only premium quality tea leaves go for processing. An interesting fact here, it takes approximately 2000 leaves to make one pound of tea. Once the weighing is done, the leaves go for processing wherein a total of 5–6 procedures are involved, namely : Withering, Rolling, Oxidation, Firing, Sorting, and Tasting.

Withering

Courtesy : Gavin Gough

Freshly plucked leaves from a Darjeeling tea garden have a lot of moisture and hence are quite fragile. Hence wilting of the leaves is a necessary step wherein the freshly plucked tea leaves are laid out on troughs for a couple of hours to lose some of the moisture, allow the flavors to open up, and eventually ‘wither’. This process ensures that the tea leaves soften and withstand the processing steps without tearing apart. Depending on how long this withering process, the leaves either retain their original green color or they put on a darker color with a strong aroma if withered for a longer period of time.

Rolling

This significant step is responsible for tightly shaping the leaves. Rolling brings out the exquisite flavor profile and leaf appearance. Darjeeling Tea leaves are either hand-rolled or pass through a rolling machine. Typically rolling twists, curls, and turns the withered leaves into a wiry and thin form. A variety of rolling techniques are used to produce kneaded tea leaves or leaf pellets.
This process of rolling is very important for the withered tea leaves as this process extracts the prized oils and and other nutrients from the leaves and further intensifies the flavor, strength, and aroma of the tea. This process is necessary before the leaves proceed for oxidation.

Oxidation

The process of Oxidation radically determines the tea’s type, color, strength, and flavor. For this process, the rolled tea leaves are laid out on troughs and are left for a certain period of time at a set temperature of 25–30ºC, controlled humidity between 60–65%, and aeration. During oxidation, active enzymes in the leaves react with oxygen in the air and a series of enzymatic reactions convert the catechins (polyphenols) in the leaves into flavanoids which contribute to the briskness of the liquor, decide the color of the tea, and also provide a depth to the tea’s characteristics. Oxidation also leads to the breakdown of the chlorophyll which is responsible for the leaf’s color to turn from green to beige and eventually a dark brown/black color. Experts use various methods to initiate or halt the process of oxidation at various stages of processing to develop various kinds of teas. In order to stop oxidation, the tea leaves are sent for drying or fixing.

The least oxidized teas retain most of their original green color and vegetal taste as the catechins are intact. Semi-oxidized teas will only have a part of the catechins being converted into flavanoids, resulting in the partial browning of leaves and an amber-colored liquor. In case of fully oxidized teas, the enzymatic reaction is complete and lipids, amino acids completely break down resulting in dark brown/black leaves. Since most of the catechins are converted, the liquor is brisk and reddish in color. This is a very significant step of manufacturing of the quintessential Darjeeling tea flavor.

Drying and Aging

Drying is an essential part of tea processing to keep the final product moisture-free and hence is employed at various stages. Once the leaves have been oxidized to the desired level, they are passed through hot-air drying machines. This brings down the moisture content in the leaves to less than 1%. The leaves are either simply dried or fired/roasted at a set temperature for a set period of time. This makes the leaves ready to be further sorted and packed. All of these steps, if they achieve the set precision, produce a beautiful and delectable cup of Darjeeling Tea.

Besides the celestial and uplifting Darjeeling tea taste, the cup brings you a world of good health. Being the world’s second most consumed beverage, Tea has an abundance of natural goodness. From building immunity to regulating blood pressure, the list of Darjeeling tea benefits is compelling! Let’s start with the caffeine levels in Darjeeling tea. When compared against a cup of coffee, the levels of Darjeeling tea caffeine are almost half! A cup of Darjeeling black tea contains anywhere between 40 to 70 milligrams, which is half the amount of a 8-ounce serving of coffee. Yes, it also does depend on the strength of your brew. Low levels of Darjeeling tea caffeine means that there are no jittery spurts of energy or the common restlessness that people experience after having a cup of coffee. But not only this, along with low caffeine levels, having a cup of Darjeeling tea regularly brings you the following health benefits :-

An Abundance of Antioxidants

Darjeeling teas, just like any other tea, contains an abundance of health-promoting antioxidants.The two most commonly found complex antioxidants in Darjeeling teas are ‘theaflavins’ and ‘thearubigins’. Flushing your body with antioxidants will help with neutralizing harmful free radicals and will help in flushing out toxins from your body, which otherwise could contribute to a host of diseases.

Reduces the Risk of Certain Cancers

Darjeeling teas possess a class of antioxidants known as ‘polyphenols’ which have been proven to reduce the risk of getting certain kinds of cancers. With anti-mutagenic properties, Darjeeling tea benefits your body by drastically reducing the risk of cellular mutations, the start of a variety of cancers. So indulge in the sumptuous Darjeeling tea flavor while giving yourself a priceless gift of health as well!

Improves Overall Immunity

Thanks to the abundance of complex antioxidants, having a cup of Darjeeling tea from India regularly strengthens your immune system. The ‘Theanine’ present in Darjeeling teas block the negative effects of the cortisol, improving the body’s innate defense against a variety of common diseases.

Improves Cognitive Functions of the Brain

The perfect amount of Darjeeling tea caffeine and a class of amino acids called ‘L-Theanine’, together help in significantly improving the cognitive functions by increasing the level of alpha activity in the brain. This improves focus and overall alertness. So if you are looking for a healthy cup to start your day with, we would advise getting on with a cup of Darjeeling Tea.

Beneficial for Your Heart

Drinking a cup of Darjeeling black tea everyday will help improve your cardiac health. The class of antioxidants called ‘Polyphenols; present in Darjeeling black teas reduce the oxidation of harmful LDL-Cholesterol and bring down its levels. Black teas also help in increasing blood circulation and regulating blood pressure levels. Additionally, Darjeeling teas are blessed with a flavonoid called ‘Quercetin’ reduces the risk of cardiac strokes. Give your heart the positive attention it deserves with a delicious cup of Darjeeling tea from India.

With so many more health promoting benefits, Darjeeling Tea truly deserves the prestigious title of ‘Champagne of Teas’. So the next time, you pick up a garden fresh cup of Darjeeling tea, picture yourself in the blissful lap of the grand Himalayas and picturesque misty tea gardens, as that’s where the quintessential Darjeeling experience begins!

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