Darjeeling: What's all the fuss? - Edward Wilkins
It’s hailed as the champagne of teas, compared with the finest wines of Bordeaux and held up as one of India’s greatest exports, it’s the name that is synonymous with the very best of teas: Darjeeling. But where has Darjeeling’s reputation come from? What is the reason behind the occasionally eye-watering prices of these leaves? And where can you find a bag of some of the most famous tea on the planet? Look no further, you can find these answers, and more, right here.
First, a little history. Tea, in its current form, has been around for thousands of years, connecting the modern and the historical - having a lovely cup in the morning is just one of the many similarities between myself and the Emperor Gaozu of Tang. Darjeeling tea, however, has a much more recent story. The first plantation of seeds in Darjeeling occurred in 1841 as a result of the British searching for sources of tea outside of China, Archibald Campbell of the East India Company smuggling seeds from across the border into the tiny hill station in Northern India. In 1847, after some very successful experimentation, tea nurseries were established, initially controlled by the British but later maintained locally, and the population of Darjeeling exploded to just under 100,000 in 1885, compared to the initial area population of 100 in the 1830s.
Throughout the late 19th and the 20th Century, the number and size of the tea estates continued to grow gradually, eventually reaching a yield of 14 million kilograms of tea in the 1990s. In 2004, Darjeeling tea became India’s first product to receive legal geographical indication protection under the World Trade Organisation’s initiatives.
But how far does this go in explaining the reason why Darjeeling tea is so highly prized and sought after? There are several reasons as to why this is the case, and its history is just the tip of the iceberg. The tea estates that surround Darjeeling are handed down through generations of tea gardeners, their enormous skill in growing the leaves as invaluable as the tea itself. Their specific practices have helped to cultivate Darjeeling’s reputation for an ultra-premium, very fine product, and has no doubt aided in the marketing of the tea at home and abroad.
If we consider Darjeeling in the same way as wine, then we must consider the terroir of the plant, that is, the specific soil and climatic conditions that affect the growth of the tea leaves. The soil of the Darjeeling area is very poor soil, it is gravelly and stony, and conversely this is the perfect conditions for growing tea. The roots of the plant are made to struggle and fight for water in the soil, which results in the tea adopting the delicate and unique flavour that it is famous for – aromatic, flowery, and subtle notes of muscatel.
Along with these positive explanations, there will always be negative and logistical reasons that push the price up – Growing Darjeeling tea incurs high production costs. The hills are so steep that machinery cannot be used, only manual labour is permitted to harvest the leaves, and a lack of infrastructure around Darjeeling means that vehicles weighing over 5 tonnes are banned from accessing the hilly roads. There is a lack of land for expansion of the tea fields, and therefore yields will remain low for a tea where there is so much demand, both in the domestic market in India and for exportation, namely to the European Union and Japan. And finally, as we see with so much agricultural practice in the modern world, there are the environmental issues to consider, and the threat of climate change on the production of the tea.
So there you have it. A concise explanation of what, where and why of some of the finest teas in the world, and a hopeful justification of why you should truly consider getting your hands on some Darjeeling. As a shameless plug, we at Cooper & Co. have three outstanding Darjeelings in stock, one second flush and two incredible, organic first flushes.
Take a sip, close your eyes and be transported to the foothills of the Himalayas, between the tea bushes and the forests, with the Balasun River meandering its way past you.