Tea Gardens, Darjeeling: Darjeeling’s pride and joy and the top revenue-earner is the Tea Industry – the Gardens of which occupy almost all of the Darjeeling hilly landscape at 7000 feet elevation. From a mere 11,000 acres (4400 hectares) in the year 1870, the tea gardens have spread to the present whopping 47,000 acres (19,000 hectares). What started with 39 Tea Gardens in 1866 producing a total crop of 21,000 kilograms of Tea, grew exponentially to 113 Gardens by 1874. In short, Darjeeling is synonymous with Tea world over. This gave impetus to the Tea Tourism in Darjeeling.
The ‘Champagne of Teas’ is what Darjeeling Tea is known as owing to the rare and exotic taste of musky spiciness in a thin-bodied, amber-hued delicate floral aroma – slightly similar to and compared with the taste of ‘Muscatel’ – a sweet fortified wine made from Muscat Grapes that are used to make ‘dessert wines’ – indigenous to Portugal and Spain. No Wonder then that Darjeeling Tea is proclaimed as the ‘King of Teas’ from the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’!!
Tea is an aromatic beverage prepared by brewing cured leaves of ‘Camellia Sinensis’ plant in hot water which causes the leaves to ooze a slightly bitter and astringent flavored drink which is had both hot and cold (ice tea). Tea has been central to the Indian, the British and the Chinese where each race follows a different practice of brewing and drinking Tea – which is why tea-drinking in these geographies is referred to as Tea-Cultures.
For the Chinese, the Tea Culture comprises Tea Ceremonies and revolves around their customs during their weddings and family gatherings as offering a cup of tea is a serious sign of respect among the Chinese. Tea Houses dot the Chinese landscape like their coffee-counterparts in the rest of the world.
Among the British, what started as an ‘Upper-Class’ drink in the 18th Century is currently their universal number one drink so much so that they have their own Tea Gardens and Tea Dances by the English Countryside. Tea, coffee, fruit, cake, muffins, biscuits, and sandwiches constitute every Tea Party – also known as ‘High Tea’ in Victorian and the Edwardian Eras.
For Indians, Tea means all of the above and more. They relish it fervently; they consume it frequently, and guard it ferociously. They need no rhyme or reason. They need no time or season. They parallel-process drinking tea with anything they do - from hanging by ropes from tall buildings for painting to driving taxis in Indian traffic – u name it and they do in perfect balancing act – nothing short of a Bohemian equestrian act! Let’s admit it. Indians have a fetish for Tea. ‘Ek pyaali chai’ is what Indians pine for all day – even just after they would have had one. From soul-stirring conversations at home and in Coffee Houses to mindless chatter by the road-side kiosks, Tea is simply undoable without in India. They not only have it straight….they blend it. ‘Adrak-chai’ (ginger tea) and ‘Elaichi-chai’ (cardamom tea) are hot favourites and a luxury. Tea is the most consumed non-alcoholic drink in India which is why….you’ll never find ‘tea-totlers’ in India. Cheers to that!
Though it has been commercially positioned as a ‘black tea’, Darjeeling Tea is available as black, white and ‘oolong’ – a traditional Chinese Tea flavour which is processed in a unique method of withering the tea leaves under strong sun and oxidizing it before curling and twisting. Unlike most Indian traditional Tea making methods, Darjeeling Tea is made from small-leaved Chinese variety of ‘Camellia Sinensis’ – of the genus ‘Camellia’ found in eastern and southern Asia – from the Himalayas to Korea and Indonesia. Most of Darjeeling still uses orthodox tea-manufacturing methods.
Whether it black, white, green, oolong or pu-erh tea, all Tea comes from the same source – the tea bush – Camellia Sinensis. The ‘Camellia’ genus belongs to the flowering plant family of the ‘Theaceae’ species from which white tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea is harvested. However, these teas are processed differently to get different levels of oxidation. Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis – the Chinese Tea plant (native to China, South Asia and Darjeeling) and Camellia Sinensis var. assamica – the Assam Tea plant (native to Assam in India) are the two major varieties of tea-plants that are used for tea of which the former is a small-leaved plant and the latter a big-leaved plant.
‘Camellia’ derives its name from the Latinized name of a Czech-born Jesuit (a Catholic male religious order) lay brother, pharmacist and Missionary to Philippines – Rev. George Camel (1661–1706), in honour of whom, the Swedish Botanist – Carl Linnaeus named the Tea plant.
The categories of Darjeeling Tea are determined by the processing methods and techniques:
1. Black Tea – wilted and sometimes crushed and completely oxidized.
2. White Tea – immature tea leaves are wilted but not oxidized.
3. Oolong Tea – wilted, bruised and partially oxidized.
4. Yellow Tea – unwilted and unoxidized but leaves are allowed to yellow
5. Green Tea – unwilted and unoxidized.
6. Post-fermented Tea – it is a green tea which has been allowed to ferment.
Though the tea plants can grow upto 50 feet in height if left undisturbed, the Darjeeling Tea plants are pruned to a height of 4 feet for the ease of plucking at harvest when only the top two inches of the mature plant are picked – whose buds and leaves are called ‘flushes’. Tea leaves are bright green shiny and scented leaves with a slight hairy underside at times. During the growing season, a tea plant will grow a new flush every 7 to 15 days.
1. First Flush – following spring rains, the first flush is harvested in mid-March. This tea is a light-colored tea with mild aroma and astringency.
2. The In-between – between two flush periods is another harvest.
3. Second Flush – producing an amber-coloured, full-bodied and muscatel-flavoured tea, it is harvested in June.
4. Monsoon Flush – between second flush and the Autumn is the rainy flush which produces less-withered and more oxidized Tea which is not exported but used in India in ‘masala chai’ and sold at lower prices.
5. Autumn Flush – this tea has less delicate flavor and less spicy tone but fuller body and darker colour than others and is harvested in autumn season following the monsoons.
Darjeeling Tea is the first Indian product to receive the GI Tag in 2004 through the Indian Patent Office post the enactment of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection Act, 1999) in 2003. Falsification and adulteration being the two biggest problems of the Tea Trade, Darjeeling certification mark and logo have been administered by the Tea Board of India.
What’s all this hue and cry about ‘chai’ you wonder? Well, to begin with…
1. Darjeeling produces about 10 million kilograms of Tea annually.
2. India is currently the largest producer and consumer of Tea in the world after China. If it wasn’t for the better land availability in China, India would have continued to be the highest producer of Tea in the world.
3. Just growing high and good quality Tea plants is not enough. The tea leaves have also got to be plucked right which involves plucking of the smallest shoots – each of which has two leaves and a bud. It is plucked by hand. Similar to the harvest-to-processed ration of Saffron, it takes 22,000 shoots (two leaves and a bud per shoot) to produce one kilogram of Tea.
4. Though the demand of Tea world over is humungous and India does produce a sizeable amount of Tea in Darjeeling, Assam and in Nilgiris, we still cannot meet the global demand as Tea Plantation requires a specialized atmosphere like tropical climate, with atleast 127 centimetres of rainfall a year, requires acidic soils – plus, it takes a minimum of 4 years for a tea plant to bear seed and 3 years before harvesting if it’s a new plant – which are conditions that are available at only select locales in India such as Darjeeling, Assam and the Nilgiris.
5. The Government of India established the ‘Tea Board of India’ to promote the cultivation, processing and regulate the domestic and international trade of Tea and was established post the enactment of the Tea Act in 1953, headquarters being in Kolkata and offices in London, Moscow and Dubai.
6. The cultivation and brewing of Tea in India was first documented by some Buddhist Monks in the first century AD with references to Tea in Darjeeling and Assam. However, the commercial cultivation of Tea in Darjeeling commenced only after the arrival of the British East India Company.
7. At present, Germany is the largest importer of loose Tea from Darjeeling Tea Gardens.
8. About one lakh jobs were created with the establishment of the Tea Gardens in Darjeeling. Interesting fact is that women constitute more than 60% of the work force in the Tea Gardens.
Darjeeling Tea Production Process comprises Plucking, Withering, Rolling, Fermentation, Drying, Sorting and Packing which are all done in the Tea Factories within the Tea Estates.
Slurping the Tea liquor noisily into the mouth which might seem awkward at first but is the mark of a true tea-taster, ensures that both the tea and plenty of oxygen is passed over all the taste receptors on the tongue to give an even taste profile of the tea. The tea is spit out into a spittoon (rarely swallowed) before tasting the next sample of tea liquid. For the purpose of professionally tasting tea, the ratio of 3 grams tea leaf to 150 ml is used, with boiling water and steeped for 3 to 5 minutes.
The aromas that can be detected during a tea-tasting session are earthy aroma (such as mushroom); woody aroma (such as oak or vanilla); floral aroma (such as linalool); fruity aroma (such as black-current and apricot); vegetative aroma (such as eucalyptus); spicy aroma (such as licorice); nutty aroma (such as walnut and hazelnut); caramelized aroma (such as butterscotch); microbiological aroma (such as yeast); oxidized aroma (such as acetaldehyde); pungent aroma (such as alcohol) and chemical aroma (such as sulphur).
Tea-grading is done by size and quality and Darjeeling Tea Grades fall into 4 broad categories:
1. Whole Leaf Tea:
a. SFTGFOP: Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe indicates the finest Tea and that it contains many tips which are long and wiry in appearance. It is also called ‘Orange Pekoe’ and pronounced ‘pecco’.
b. FTGFOP - Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe indicates the finest Tea – suffixed with # 1 on labels, is produced only at the best plantations. They comprise one quarter tips and are hand processed.
c. TGFOP: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe found mainly in Darjeeling and Assam and comprises the highest proportion of tip.
2. Broken Leaf Tea:
a. FTGBOP: Fine Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
b. TGBOP: Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
c. FBOP: Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
d. BOP: Broken Orange Pekoe
a. GFOF: Golden Flowery Orange Fannings.
b. GOF: Golden Orange Fannings.
Indicates the lowest grade in the tea categories comprising small pieces of Tea leaves and tiny granular tea dust.
a. D: Tea dust.