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Wine & Dine
June 01, 2016

Everything You Need To Know About The Champagne of Teas

Text by Prabha Chandran

Also known as the drink of the royals, Darjeeling tea has been greatly underrated in India while the world pays optimum prices

There was an extraordinary event that went largely unnoticed outside the small and clubby world of Darjeeling tea drinkers in 2014: tea from one of the region’s 87 estates, Makaibari, was bought for an astounding US $1,850 a kilo by a private dealer. The tea was no doubt headed for luxury stores like Harrods in London, Harney & Sons in New York, century-old luxury tea boutiques like the Kusmi chain in St Petersburg and Berlin, not to mention Mariage Freres (arguably the world’s greatest tea store) in Paris. Boasting 600 varieties from 30 countries, the new Darjeeling flush is marketed here with the same hype as a Beaujolais Nouveau.

Long dubbed by connoisseurs as the ‘champagne of teas’, Darjeeling prices are now actually approaching those of champagne. And like champagne, Darjeeling is India’s only geographically indicated (GI) product, protected by a WTO patent that will soon come into force. So why does this exclusive tea — it accounts for less than one per cent of India’s one-billion-kilogramme annual tea harvest — remain something of a lesser celebrity at home?

We are the world’s largest consumers of tea, but it’s the masala chai version — not the exquisitely cultivated Darjeeling — that warms the hearth of connoisseurs in new markets like South Korea, Iran and Australia. What makes Darjeeling so special that it was the gift of choice from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Queen Elizabeth II when she invited him to lunch in Buckingham Palace earlier this year? The word in the palace is that the queen prefers Darjeeling and Earl Grey tea, not surprising choices for a woman of distinction. Darjeeling black tea is rich, fragrant and sophisticated, and serving it is a palace tradition. A tea vendor calculated that at two cups of tea a day — one at breakfast and another with her beloved Corgis in the afternoon — Her Majesty should have consumed at least 46,000 cups of the brew by September this year!

The queen isn’t the only royal devotee of Darjeeling. According to one of India’s top tea masters, who wishes to remain anonymous, the family members of the Emperor of Japan are connoisseurs of Darjeeling tea as is Gursharan Kaur, wife of ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Aparna Sen, the Bengali actor and film-maker: “She and her husband really understand the flavours of Darjeeling tea,” he says. Other Bollywood connoisseurs include director Imtiaz Ali, actor Kirron Kher, and actor and MP and erstwhile ‘Dream Girl’, Hema Malini. The brew also has a clientele of legal luminaries which includes Justices Mukul Mudgal and C K Mahajan as well as A G Noorani, former Supreme Court advocate and writer. No doubt there are plenty more, so it would be wonderful if the moribund Tea Board of India could use their endorsements to popularise a tea that is seriously threatened with extinction due to a combination of climate events, labour problems and insurgency.

Darjeeling tea is, without exaggeration, India’s only truly luxury brand with an international following. “There is simply no other Indian brand which boasts such a clientele, which may be due to our failure to create international luxury brands,” says couturiere Ritu Beri, who has floated the Luxury League together with some of the biggest names in the French luxury business to this end. At the snottiest afternoon tea salons in London — the Dorchester, Claridges, Langhams, the Ritz or the Orangerie at Kensington Palace, Darjeeling teas are highlighted on the menus and served by knowledgeable tea sommeliers.

High teas are often accompanied by champagne and make up the quintessential bon vivant London lifestyle. Sadly, the mass market seems to have gone the way of Starbucks with coffee becoming the beverage of choice for Millennials.

The unique taste of Darjeeling tea
The uniqueness of the tea lies in the manner of processing, where each step is hand crafted and influences the final flavour of the tea. Just a handful of steps turn the green leaves into something magically different as they are sorted, withered, rolled, fermented and dried before being packed. This is very different from the machine cutting and processing of other Indian teas. Air dried in long airy beds, Darjeeling tea develops its flavour and colours during the fermentation process which reaches its peak at ‘first nose’ then drops off and climbs steadily again to ‘second nose’. The trick is to arrest the process when flavours are at their best, a few hours too late and all is lost.

“Premium Darjeeling tea is from a single estate, unblended and unflavoured,” says Jeff Koehler, author of the finely researched and engaging book, Darjeeling: a History of the World’s Greatest Tea. Much of the information in this essay is culled from Jeff’s book which reads more like a thriller than the history of a beverage. Darjeeling tea’s “characteristic brightness is frequently likened to newly-minted coins, its fragrant aromas and sophisticated, complex flavours are delicate, even flowery with hints of apricot and peaches, muscatel grapes and toasty nuts,” says Koehler. These teas “must not be blended with other teas or spiked with milk, sugar or even lemon, as their flavour and taste will be lost,” he adds.

“Darjeeling tea’s story is romantic,” says Koehler. “It is rich in history, intrigue, empire, Indian mythology and even opium, set against the looming Himalayas with its distinct geographic features. All these elements have contributed to making Darjeeling tea unique,” including the fact that it continues to be handpicked by third and fourth generations of tea pluckers. For it takes 22,000 selectively handpicked shoots — just the first two tender leaves and a still-curled bud — to produce a single kilo of Darjeeling tea. “The world’s most celebrated tea is more than just a crop — it’s the history of India and Britain, the legacy of colonialism, the rise of global commerce, the perils of climate change and much more brewed into one glorious cup of amber liquid.”

The greatest act of industrial espionage
Darjeeling tea came to India in one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage in history intended to save the British East India Company from bankruptcy. The British had developed a large appetite for tea by the 18th century, but the plant remained protected in China, where it had originated in the jungles of Yunan. Tea was first mentioned as a beverage some 2,500 years ago in China and became a prized ceremonial drink at the royal court. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, called it ‘the elixir of life’. The Chinese would only trade this commodity for silver, which began to drain the Company’s exchequers over time. Tea was the Company’s most important commodity — in 1887 England imported some 36,234,380 pounds of tea for a population of 10 million.

In an attempt to create a barter product, the British started cultivating opium along the Gangetic plains and started exporting this to China, no doubt hoping to create a dependency that would give them leverage over the tea business. The result was massive addiction in China and two Opium wars were fought as China tried to ban the import of the drug that was a key cash crop for the Raj.

Meanwhile, a Scottish adventurer, Robert Bruce, had discovered indigenous tea growing in Assam, camellia sinensis assamica, in 1823 and brought it to the attention of the Company’s botanic gardens in Calcutta (now kolkata). The Tea Committee nevertheless decided to try and smuggle the seeds and saplings of the tea plants from Yunan as they produced a more refined flavour. They found their man in the furtively talented George James Gordon who set sail for China in 1834. The plants were duly smuggled in glass jars to survive the month-long journey to Calcutta, along with Chinese tea planters who were to prove invaluable in introducing the camellia sinensis sinensis or China leaf to Darjeeling, where the Maharaja of Sikkim had given land to the Company. Not long after, the first British planters came to tame the wild jungles of Darjeeling where, in a serendipitous geographic coincidence, the Chinese tea bushes not only took root but started producing an even finer variety of tea than in Yunan.

The advent of tea in India
Early histories of the Raj confirm that only those Englishmen who failed to make it in any of the professions, took up life as tea planters: ‘Scoundrels, rascals and scallywags enlisted to become lord and master of a little fiefdom called a tea garden in the exotic misty hills of Darjeeling,’ wrote one contemporary historian quoted in the book. Perhaps that’s what it took to survive the impossible journey from the plains to the hills two centuries ago and carve out the gardens from snake-infested forests over which tribals and Gorkhas from Nepal laid claim. Darjeeling soon became a designated hill station, a bastion of aloofness where the British could segregate themselves from the heat, dust, chaos and crush of Indians in genteel Tudor-style cottages, churches, sanitariums and that symbol of exclusivity the Planter’s Club.

Membership and attendance at the club was de rigeur on weekends and the dress code was strict. Darjeeling was the chief recreational ground for Britishers based in Calcutta and it came of age with the pompous arrival of the Viceroy, Lord and Lady Lytton in 1880, to a 21 gun salute. Balls, dinner dances, afternoon teas, croquet, horses, gossip and gin fizzes were on the club menu which offered inebriated guests a room for the night in the days when the winding dusty tracks back to the plantations were impassable by night. Dependency on horses was so high, says Gillian Wright, that every tea planter had a monthly allowance of Rs 300 for his horse and Rs 150 for his wife.

The romance of the tea gardens, still apparent in their spectacular beauty and essentially unchanged lifestyles from the days of the Raj, is threatened today by erratic weather events, loss of gardens due to landslides and high levels of worker absenteeism as the younger generations want to make their way to cities and towns where life looks more like what they see on TV in their isolated Darjeeling tea estates. Planters have not been able to share what makes their tea so special and media hasn’t done its bit either.

Excerpted from Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler.

The Four Flushes

Tea is normally classified in six categories: black, oolong, green, yellow, white and pu-erh. All come from the same plant, it’s the processing that makes the difference. Nearly all the tea produced in India is black, indicating it has been withered and fermented. Green tea is neither withered nor fermented while oolong is semi-fermented. Pu-erh is a variety of dark, fermented and aged black tea.

Darjeeling tea is always classified by the season or the flush, when it is picked.

The First Flush: From late February to mid-April is the most delicate Darjeeling tea of all. The tea bushes, stimulated by the moisture after a winter of dormancy, begin to flush new shoots so quickly they must be plucked every four or five days. “Slender leaves, lacquered green, the tea produces a pale-gold liquor that’s grassy with fresh cut field aromas, a floral bouquet with an intense fruitiness in the mouth,” says Koehler. It’s a spring tea highly priced and sold to aficionados sometimes as ‘Darjeeling Nouveau’ by the Parisienne Maison de the, Mariage Freres, who advertise the tea estates the same way they do Bordeaux’s most prestigious chateau.

The Second Flush: After a period of inactivity from mid-April to mid-May, sudden and intense spring showers stimulate the tea bushes, birds and fruit trees. Tea pluckers pick leaves that are larger than the first flush with a purplish bloom and a high number of silvery tips. The finished tea is darker, the hot weather resulting in deeper amber and mahogany hues. Second flush tea benefits from an infestation of tea jassids — green flies — that suck all the moisture out of the leaves which stunts the growth of the leaf and helps concentrate flavours without killing the leaf. The second flush tea commands as high prices as the first flush for this reason.

The Monsoon Flush: From July through September, the monsoons do their worst, increasingly causing landslides on denuded hills as rainfalls have increased. Still the pluckers work trimming bushes of weeds with an umbrella wedged between their shoulders and necks. The tea bushes begin to flush out great quantities of larger and coarser leaves that have lesser flavour. Half the year’s harvest comes in a single flush sometimes but it’s a case of quantity over quality. The most luxe stores, including the famous Nathmulls in Darjeeling, rarely sell a monsoon flush, though increasingly estates are now using this crop to make unfermented green teas.

The Autumn Flush: From October to November, the final flush is short but sophisticated and refined, producing a rich amber, even burgundy coloured tea very different from the green hues of spring.

‘It has that body, amber colour, very defined favours, from malts to chocolates to fruity notes,’ Koehler quotes Sanjay Sharma of Glenburn estate. But by the time these teas reach international markets, the festive season is over, which is why connoisseurs say this is the most underrated, marvellously complex tea for its price.

The Perfect Cup of Tea

Steeping the perfect cup of Darjeeling tea is simple but exacting.

Bring a kettle of freshly drawn (or bottled) water to a boil. Rinse out a teapot and quickly discard the water. Add one level teaspoon — about 2.5 grams — for pure long leaf Darjeeling tea per cup to the pot. Pour the water over the leaves, cover the pot and steep for three to three-and-a-half minutes, letting the leaves breathe and stretch. Strain into warmed cups.

Darjeeling’s nuanced flavour is best appreciated without milk, sugar, or, because of its natural astringency, lemon. But if it is impossible to drink it straight, increase steeping time to four minutes for adding sugar and five minutes for adding milk.

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