What is Darjeeling?
By Emilie Holmes
An aromatic black tea from the Darjeeling region in West Bengal, India. Grown high in the Himalayas, the ‘champagne’ of teas is highly sought after the world over. Celebrated for their wine-like profile, thanks to a unique, musky-sweetness, Darjeelings make for a deliciously fragrant, afternoon tea. While the 1st Flush, the first ‘picking’ of the year, is typically delicate, fresh and even vegetal, the more mature leaves of the 2nd Flush tend to have a more pronounced muscatel flavour, as well as a fuller body.
How Darjeeling is made
Picking and withering
Unlike other Indian teas which are made from the assamica varietal of the tea plant, Camelia Sinensis, Darjeeling tea typically comes from a smaller leaf, Chinese varietal. The leaves will be picked, then withered - a process involving blowing air through the leaves to dry them, until they lose around 60% of their moisture.
Rolling, oxidation and firing
The now supple leaves will then be rolled. The rolling of the leaves, in a large, mechanised rolling machine, for between 30 - 60 minutes, releases the juices in the leaves and kickstarts the process of oxidation. The rolled leaves will then be moved to ‘fermentation’ tables, where the leaves will turn from the green we see on the bush to the brown we see in our cup. The oxidation phase in all tea production is a fine art and one of the most important steps in shaping the flavour in the cup. As Darjeeling is (typically) a black tea, the leaves will undergo a full oxidation, before being fired in large dryers.
Most Darjeeling tea is produced using the Orthodox method, meaning the leaves are kept whole during production. However, the final stage of production is sorting the leaves into different ‘grades’ or leaf sizes. The large, whole leaves at one of the scale tend to be lighter and brighter in colour, while the finer leaf particles, known as ‘dust’, are typically kept for lower quality, tea bags.
When Darjeeling is harvested
The first flush (or growing season) of the year happens in Spring, when the fields awaken from the cold, winter months and the first young buds appear on the bushes. The flavour of these young leaves and buds tends to be fresh, floral and lively, with a pale orange liquor. Following a brief period of dormancy, the second flush then follows. Picked around mid to late June, these leaves are more mature, well-rounded and fuller in body. It is also in this second picking that the the ‘muscatel’ flavour so unique to a Darjeeling is most pronounced, making it a perfectly aromatic, afternoon tea. The two remaining flushes, Monsoon Flush, after the heavy rains in July & August, and Autumn Flush, in October, tend to be the most full-bodied, with less distinctive aroma and more fruity notes, making them well-suited to blends but less desirable as stand-alone Darjeeling teas.
Where our Darjeeling is from
We source our current Darjeeling from the family-run Glenburn Estate, where tea bushes cover an area of around 350 acres, from the low river banks at 800ft all the way up to 3500ft, high up in the Himalayas. A four hour, bumpy uphill ride from the nearest major town, the estate has magnificent views across the valley, including of the majestic Mount Kanchenjanga and two rivers that wind their way through the fields. But this magical place doesn’t only produce some of the world’s best tea, the estate is also home to around 700 worker families, as well as schools, a hospital and even now a Music & Dance Academy, making Glenburn a thriving community in its own right.
We started working with the Prakash family, one of India’s pioneering tea planting families, over 4 years ago when a sample of their 2nd Flush Darjeeling was one of the first teas we fell in love with and included in our collection. The warmth and enthusiasm of the team at Glenburn over the last few years has been a huge source of support and we are thrilled to be continuing this relationship into 2017. Most importantly, their tea has never tasted better.
"It's not just the rain and the sun... there's a soul there we have to look after and that's what gives our tea, Glenburn tea, that very special flavour"
– Sudhir Prakash
How best to enjoy Darjeeling
We love ours straight up, brewed with freshly drawn water just off the boil - it makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. Or on a very hot day, try cold-brewing it and serving with a dash of elderflower cordial for added sweetness.