Darjeeling Tea

By David Shaub Stallings

  • 2017 First Flush Darjeeling from Gopaldhara Estate
  • 2016 Second Flush Darjeeling from Oaks Estate.

In an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea production, the British introduced the plant, using Chinese seeds, to India roughly one and a half centuries ago. In the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since, India has become both the largest producer of tea in the world and also the largest consumer of tea in the world. Over one million acres of land are under tea cultivation in India and the industry employees over two million people. Unlike the small producer model under which China has historically operated, tea has, since its inception, been big agribusiness in India with large estates dominating. Total production for tea sits at roughly 1,750,000,000 pounds a year. Of this staggering volume of tea only 10% is produced using orthodox tea production methods. The remaining 90% is produced by a method known as CTC, or Crush-Tear-Curl. CTC production is cost efficient as it requires significantly less labor, it is ideal for tea bags and it produces more cups per pound than orthodox processing. In the CTC method tea is shredded into uniform particle size, achieves quick and thorough oxidation and then is fired. The result is a tea with a darker liquor and a decidedly more aggressive (i.e. less delicate and nuanced) palate. Orthodox tea production, on the other hand, is the traditional method of tea production and is the method under which all of the world’s great teas are produced. Orthodox production requires an incredible amount of labor and is very time consuming. That said, orthodox production is capable of producing teas which take us beyond the mundane and allow us to enter into the otherworldly.

As a geographical snapshot, Darjeeling is fascinating. It is cold, high and wet. Growth of the evergreen tea shrub is slow and harvesting tea on the steep, misty slopes is laughably challenging. Darjeeling produces no CTC tea. All of the production in this north-east region of India is orthodox and total production accounts for less than 1% of the countries entire tea production. Most plants are either China (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) or China-hybrids (a cross between China and Assamica). These plants are more resistant to cold than India’s native Assamica (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) which is helpful as Darjeeling contains some of the highest grown tea in the world, and thus the plants are exposed to some fairly cold winters. However, the China and China-hybrids are also much lower yielding than Assamica plants. A typical plant yields 100 grams of finished tea. Thus, it takes 4.5 tea shrubs to yield one single pound of finished tea. Within that one single pound of finished tea there will be, on average, over 9,000 individual shoots, each one hand picked per standards of orthodox production in Darjeeling.

After the tea shrubs experience a winter dormancy, they awake in early March and put forth their first flush. These springtime gems foretell the coming season in a cup that is light and floral. These teas could almost be mistaken for green teas if it wasn’t for their vibrant aromatic qualities that possess the aforementioned floral qualities, but can also present a striking bergamot note. These qualities result from the intense daytime sunshine and cold Himalayan air that the plants experience in the spring months. As a rule, the higher the elevation a tea was produced at, the more delicate the body and the more accentuated and nuanced the flavors. Of the 90 some tea estates in Darjeeling only Gopaldhara can claim to contain the highest grown tea in all of Darjeeling.

We are both proud and pleased to present a small first flush lot from the famed Darjeeling estate Gopaldhara. Located in the Mirik Valley of Darjeeling, Gopaldhara’s company motto is “To provide pure tea, fit for the Gods.” A lofty motto possibly, but one that, in our humble opinion, they are able to execute upon! Our first flush lot from this estate was withered until 65% of the moisture was removed from the leaf. The leaves were then rolled in a Taiwanese oolong rolling machine at a very light pressure and left to oxidize from thirty minutes to an hour, the exact time being different from lot to lot and being dependent upon a number of factors ranging from the elevation of that particular picking to the exact weather and time of day at which the lot was plucked. The tea maker makes this decision based on the aroma of the tea, rather than time. The tea is then fired for 23 minutes to halt further enzymatic activity. The result is a tippy, olive green to brown leaf that produces a royal yellow liquor that is light and vibrant. A slight bamboo shoot aroma accompanies the bergamot note and speaks to the plants genetics: a clonal hybrid, AV2 contains Camellia sinensis var. sinensis genetics which show strongly in the cup.

A welcome harbinger of spring, and fetching some of the highest prices in all of the tea world (in 2014 $1,850 was paid for one single kilogram at the Darjeeling Tea Auction), first flush Darjeelings are notoriously evanescent. A tea that was once a great beauty can weeks later be but a ghost of a tea. At Passenger we are experimenting with extending the life of some of our most delicate and fleeting of teas in a similar fashion to our unroasted coffee - by storing them in low temperature environments and in vessels in which the air has been completely evacuated. Our 2017 first flush from Gopaldhara is one such tea undergoing special storage.

A second flush, and thus a second harvest, begins in early summer and will last until the monsoon winds arrive in late June. These richly aromatic teas do not possess the floral characteristics of their first flush counterpart, but instead can display complex fruited qualities. Unlike first flush Darjeelings, second flush teas hold up very well over some time. So much so that one could argue the Oaks Estate second flush harvested in the late spring of 2016 is just now reaching its full potential. Located in Sonada Valley in Darjeeling, Oaks is one of the oldest plantations in the region, well known for its Chinary plants. The garden is located at an ideal elevation of 1,300 to 1,700 meters above sea level.

The difference between the liquor of a First Flush compared to that of a Second Flush is fairly dramatic. Both black teas, the First Flush produces a royal yellow liquor, whereas the Second Flush has a distinct copper hue.

We welcome you to taste these two teas side by side. To experience the amazing craftsmanship displayed. These two teas are from the same region, both fall under the broad category of “black tea” and yet they present strikingly different experiences. The royal yellow liquor of the Gopaldhara is light, floral, slightly herbal with a refreshing eucalyptus like finish, whereas the copper liquor of the second flush Oaks Estate is bracing, fruity, spiced and full bodied. There is, however, a bergamot character that, for me, ties the teas together. The famed tea author and educator James Norwood Pratt refers to Darjeeling as the “Tea Gods gift to mankind.” Drinking these teas it is quite easy to understand why.