Darjeeling: The Champagne of all teas

by Steven Popec 13. May 2010 00:16

 

Darjeeling is the Chinese variations of the Camelia sinensis tea grown on Indian plantations in the province of Darjeeling and considered one of the most exquisite and expensive teas in the world. By the methods of cultivation and production, Darjeeling is closer to the Chinese teas rather than to the Indian teas. This is a small leaf tea, with slightly astringent taste and rich delicate floral aroma. Although Darjeeling is marketed commercially as "black tea", almost all of them have incomplete oxidation (<90%), so they are technically more Oolongs than black teas.
 
This tea has a delicate taste due to the unique natural conditions of the region where it grows: cold and humid climate, high altitude location of plantations and the characteristics of the soil. Depending on the location and time of collecting, the taste, aroma and characteristics of Darjeeling are highly different. The most significant impact on tea quality has seasonal factors. Not everyone will be able to distinguish the differences, for example, between Darjeeling Makaibari and Darjeeling Lingia. The difference between a drink obtained from the leaves collected in the spring, versus leaves from the same plantation, but harvested in early summer, will be obvious. The best varieties of Darjeeling is consider the "champagne of teas". The methods of processing tea leaves are very traditional, it includes withering, rolling, fermentation and drying, which is why this tea is so highly valued. 
 
First of all, today there are only 86 existing plantations of Darjeeling with a total area of about 19.000 hectare. Annual production on average is 11-12 thousand tons. This is about 1% of the total cultivated tea in India. It should be be noted that it would be impossible to obtain the taste qualities if Darjeeling if cultivated outside this region, therefore, making it an exclusive beverage. 
 
The labor on plantations is very tedious and demanding, the normal requires a production force of  about 52 thousand people that are constantly engaged. While in the tea harvesting season, which lasts from March to November, an additional 15 thousand workers are hired. More than 60% of workers in the tea gardens are women.
 
The collection of tea leaves takes place 4 times per year. The first harvest is the so-called Easter (March-May) begins immediately after the winter lull. Leaves collected at this time are light-green color. The characteristics of a good First Flush Darjeeling are a lively fresh, delightful flowery aroma and a honey color infusion. The connoisseurs of Darjeeling tea compare the first collection to tasteful green grapes "muscatel." Perhaps, that is why Darjeeling is called “champagne of teas”. Tea mixture of the first collection is very highly regarded by experts; it consists only of the upper leaves and buds that give this tea such exquisite taste. First Flush Darjeeling is sold at auctions, and prices are several times higher than the subsequent harvest from the same plantation.
 
The second collection takes place during the months of a May - June. Tea leaves collected during this period have a reddish color. Infusion is softer, intense, featuring a bright amber color. Because this tea is collected in the last month of spring and early summer, it has a light fruity aroma and a peculiar aftertaste. Darjeeling from the second collection, also called "In-Between", is considered a tea of high quality and is recommended as an afternoon tea. The leaves and the infusion are already turning darker and the diversity of the flavors varies from full-bodied to slightly aromatic. The "In-Between" is often used as a profitable blend, due to the high demand, the prices are not as cheap.
 
The summer collection takes place from June - July. During this period, the properties of the tea leaves are changing, along with the nature of the infusion. It becomes more robust, but it retains all the traditional characteristics of Darjeeling. The taste is a full-bodied, with a distinctive nutmeg note. The third collection is no less interesting and appreciated by connoisseurs, sometimes higher than the first crop.
 
The last collection, "Autumnal", is October - November. The infusion obtained from the leaves of the autumn collection, has a unique characteristic, the leaves are a light-copper color and has a somewhat milder taste. 
 
All this together ensures the highest quality of the famous Darjeeling. Because of its exclusivity and small production volumes, forgery of this tea was very popular. It is a big problem for world trade, the number of Darjeeling sold each year is more than 45 thousand tons, despite the fact that its official production is only about 11-12 thousand tons. The falsification and blending of tea has led to a drop in prices for real Darjeeling, resulting in considerable losses for the Indian economy. To prevent further tampering, the Tea Board of India jointly with the Darjeeling Tea Association have agreed that only 86 tea plantations, with special certificates, will be entitled to call their tea "Darjeeling".

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