Darjeeling Tea: The Himalayan Champagne

The first word that works in association with the name Darjeeling that rushes to our mind is tea. The tea estates, and the flavor of the incredible two leaves and a bud! The slopes of the tea estates are mesmerizing enough to keep us spell bound. And then the tea….

Tea and the mountains

This time on our visit to Darjeeling, we noticed that the city has come up with various food and tea boutiques. Each of them carried a different flavor with designer’s interior and a beautiful ambience which complimented the Raj era in India. The variety of tea that they offered was a real show stopper too. Of course we could settle for nothing less than the aromatic brew of Darjeeling tea. So it was one such evening that we started talking to Swarnim, the manager of the hotel we were staying at. He too had dealt in tea in the past but then he had moved on to his family’s business managing the hotel. And he said…

The history of two leaves and a bud.

It had all started in 1850’s when Darjeeling was tested for the soil culture for tea plantation by the then British Empire, and tea plantation was introduced to the hills of Darjeeling. In 1750 Robert Kyd, the famous English botanist had tried out plantation of tea in Indian soil with the Chinese variety of seeds, which did not do too well in the Indian soil, no wonder! It was apparently the biologist Dalton Hooker, who was famous for his experimentations with rhododendrons, who had offered his expert advice on tea plantation and it was given a go ahead from the British administrators.

Dr. Arthur Campbell, then superintendent of Darjeeling in 1839, took up the plantation ideas and its process. By that time, one Captain Samler who had betrayed the crown and was hiding in the hills, had already discovered the wildly growing tea leaves in the land that he had bought in the Makaibari Hills and had started experimenting with the leaves. It had not yielded a very profitable return but was definitely creating interest in the tea traders’ circle. This land was later sold to Mr. G.C Bannerjee, Captain Samler’s assistant and the brand Makaibari was established henceforth. Thereon, thousands of Englishmen flocked to India to invest in the prospect.

That’s about the history of the beginning of tea plantation in Darjeeling, much after the tea revolution was started in Assam in 1770’s. Darjeeling boasts of some of the costliest varieties of tea in the world. The reasons however are manifold. The mesmerizing hills of Darjeeling is the highest tea producing altitude in the world. Most of the tea gardens here use ‘the orthodox method’ i.e the leaves are handpicked and dried and packaged with precision. The process is ‘labor intensive’ and the chemical changes are under the manufacturer’s control. The degrees of these changes and the closely monitored process push the cost of the production high. The true appreciation of the laborers and their maintenance all contribute to the factor of the high cost as very less mechanized process is pursued. But to put in an observation, some of the Japanese and Chinese variety are costlier still may be with different flavor, but nothing that matches Darjeeling tea.

Tea at Nathmul's

So What really makes this tea so unique in taste?

The terrain, the weather and the process, all contribute to the unique taste and the muscatel flavor of the brew. The highest competitor in the market, China boasts mainly of green and oolong variety but Darjeeling is all about the numerous choices of black tea. The chemical changes and sudden variation creates the uniqueness of the flavor. From the muscatel, delicate berry flavor to smoky and chocolatey delights, the range of aromas has made the Darjeeling tea ‘the champagne of Teas’ for the last 160 years.

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