The Great Escape : The Dramatic And Dangerous Story Of How Tea Came to Darjeeling


  • 22 June 2020

 

Darjeeling always evokes mystique, mystery and magic. The crisp, clean air, the misty clouds, the mighty mountains - and its most famous product - Darjeeling tea!

 

What Champagne is to sparkling wine, Roquefort is to blue cheese, Scotch is to whisky and Havana is to cigars, Darjeeling is to Tea!

 

Darjeeling Tea is the Champagne of Teas - the iconic and enigmatic gem among all teas, and  certainly, one of the most expensive and sought after teas in the world - from the Emperor of Japan to the Chancellor of Germany.

 

But how did tea come to Darjeeling? How did a sleepy hamlet nestled in valleys of the mighty Himalayas till less than 200 years ago transform into miles and miles of manicured rolling lush green carpets we see today?

  

The story of tea in Darjeeling is one of drama and danger as well as deception and determination. Read on as we unravel how one Scot’s relentless pursuit finally broke down the forbidden walls fiercely guarding China’s tea secret, and how another Scot’s pioneering efforts made Darjeeling the most famous black tea in the world!

Why Darjeeling Tea is so prized?

What is so different and unique about Darjeeling Tea?

In one simple word – flavor! Darjeeling tea’s  distinctive flavor - light and subtle, floral and fruity, sometimes smoky and sometimes peaty, with hints of honey and wafts of walnuts, with fragrance of figs and aroma of almonds - and much more! Rare Darjeeling teas also have the elusive Muscatel flavor that are highly prized by connoisseurs all over the world.

 

What makes Darjeeling Tea so expensive?

Again, in one word – exclusivity! Because it is produced in extremely small quantity. At just 10 million kgs out of India’s total annual production of over 1,300 million kgs, it accounts for less than 1% of all Indian teas! So rare is Darjeeling Tea that it takes about 22,000 young shoots to make 1 kg of pure Darjeeling Tea. One tea bush in Darjeeling will make tea only for about 16-18 cups in an entire year – this is how exclusive Darjeeling Tea is!

 

The Story of Tea in Darjeeling

From romance to randomness and from improbability to ingenuity, the history of Darjeeling tea is full of adventure and intrigue. We go back to the mid 18th century Britain : tea drinking has become such a rage in Britain, thanks to Princess Catherine of Braganza, that it has replaced ale and gin as people’s favorite beverage. Demand is exploding and the tea-clippers just cannot carry enough tea to meet the rising demand. By 1766, Britain’s annual import of tea has crossed 6 million pounds (over 2.7 million kgs). Another estimated 6-7 million pounds (3 million kgs) are smuggled. And yet, the demand for tea keeps rising.

 (Cutty Sark - the fastest tea-clipper of its day)

 

However, there is a big problem - the Chinese are not interested in any goods produced by Britain and are increasingly demanding more and more silver for their tea. The coffers of the Empire are fast emptying of the silver. While the British have created demand for tea, supply from China is getting increasingly expensive and unreliable.

 

The British are desperately looking at alternate sources for tea. As always, they turn to India.

 

By this time, The East India Company is firmly entrenched in India. From as early as 1778, efforts were made to cultivate tea in India mainly using seeds smuggled from China. However, the British attempts at growing tea in India were not successful for almost 50 years. A key reason for this was the climate : the delicate Chinese tea bushes could not survive the harsh conditions in India.

 

Tea is Discovered in Assam

The first big break for the East India Company came in 1823.

 

Due to pioneering efforts of Scottish brothers, Robert and Charles Bruce, an indigenous variety of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis Assamica) was discovered growing in the wild in the present Indian state of Assam in 1823. By 1834, the first commercial tea plantation using the Indian variety was started at Suddeya in Assam and in 1838, the first consignment of eight chests of Assam tea was sold in London Tea Auction. In the next few decades, Assam tea became a roaring success and regular quantities of Assam tea were being sent to Britain.

 

However, the British realized way back in 1840, that quantity does not mean quality. While the indigenous Assam tea produced a brisk, malty and strong cup, it could never produce teas that light, fruity and floral flavors of Chinese teas. The Assam teas had a lot of body, but little finesse.

 

Two Scots - and Tea Comes to Darjeeling

The determination of the British to successfully grow the Chinese tea plants in India was resolute. They kept sending their agents in China to bring back Chinese tea plants and seeds – and bring back the production secrets of green tea and black tea. Till now, the British botanists believed that different plants rather than different processing!!

 

 (Page from 'A Residence Among The Chinese' - Robert Fortune, 1857)

 

It was one such agent of the Company, Robert Fortune - a Scottish botanist, plant hunter and traveller who successfully smuggled 10,000 seeds, 13,000 tea plants and 8 Chinese tea makers to emigrate to India in 1851. They landed at Calcutta (now Kolkata) in March, 1851. The tea plants brought by Fortune survived well during the journey and were sent to different parts of the country to see where they would thrive.

 

Most efforts were made to cultivate the Chinese bushes in the regions around Assam, where the indigenous Assam variety was thriving. But this was unsuccessful.

 

Meanwhile, one Dr. Archibald Campbell, another Scottish surgeon, had been planting tea seeds in his home garden in Darjeeling since 1841. By 1853, he reported that almost 2,000 tea plants were thriving between 2,000 ft. to 7,000 ft. Delighted with this surprising success of Dr. Campbell, the government supported him with funds to establish 2 nurseries - in Darjeeling and Kurseong, where both the Assam and the Chinese bushes were planted.

 

And…it was in Darjeeling that the Chinese tea bushes were found to be unexpectedly flourishing!

 

Such was the success of growing these Chinese tea bushes in Darjeeling that soon, individuals and small companies were clearing the Himalayan foothills and planting the Chinese tea bushes!

 

By 1852, the first commercial tea garden was planted at Tukvar followed by Steinthal and Aloobari. More gardens quickly followed at Makaibari, Pandam, Ging, Ambootia, Tukdah and Phoobsering. The first factory was opened at Makaibari in 1859. By 1874, there were 113 tea gardens in Darjeeling! And since then, there has been no looking back!

 

All these Darjeeling tea estates today still exist and teas from these estates are among the most premium ones!

 

More About Darjeeling Tea

 (Copyright VAHDAM Teas, 2020)

 

Much like Champagne and Scotch, only tea produced in 87 fabled estates in the defined Darjeeling region on the foothill of the Himalayas can be called Darjeeling. Darjeeling Black Orthodox Tea is the first Indian product to have the Protected GI (PGI) way back in 2004-05. In October 2019, Darjeeling Green Tea and Darjeeling White Tea also received the GI tag.   

 

The combined area under cultivation at these 87 estates is roughly 48,000 acres - about the same size as the Queen’s Balmoral Estate.  It is in these chosen and select slopes between 700 and 7,000 ft. above the sea level that light sun, cool air, plentiful rainfall and rich soil are brought together by Mother Nature to create the magic of Darjeeling Teas. No other region in the world can produce this magic, and that is why Darjeeling Tea is so unique.


Altitude and Elevation

Darjeeling tea estates are located within 700 ft. to above 7,000 ft. Altitude is the single-most important factor that determines the flavor and quality of Darjeeling Tea. Based on their elevation, Darjeeling Tea estates can be classified as Low Elevation (up to 2500 ft.), Medium Elevation (2500 - 4000 ft.), High Elevation (4000 - 5500 ft.) and the Very High Elevation (5500 - 7000 ft.).

 

Quality and Yield

Darjeeling Tea is all about quality, finesse and exclusivity. And quality is always limited. A bush of Darjeeling Tea will produce only about 32-36 grams of  finished tea every year. That makes just 16-18 cups per year!

 

The reasons why a tea bush in Darjeeling produces such limited quantity of tea is :

 

  • The bush itself – since most of bushes in Darjeeling are Chinese, they are smaller leaves and grow slowly compared to the indigenous Assam Jat/bushes

  • Season – due to high altitude, the season in Darjeeling is much shorter than in tropical and warmer Assam. For 3 to 4 months during the winter months in Darjeeling (typically, November to February) the bushes go into hibernation

Darjeeling Teas regularly sell at record breaking prices. In 2014, Makaibari tea estate sold a particular batch of tea at US$ 1850/ kg. – even though it was a small batch of only 5kgs.  The world record price for the most expensive Darjeeling tea ever to be sold in a public auction belongs to Castleton tea estate, which was sold for Rs. 13,000/kg in 1983 (around US$ 180/kg today).

  

Types of Darjeeling Tea 

Darjeeling Black Orthodox Tea

Almost all of tea produced in Darjeeling Black Orthodox Tea. Recently, some estates have also started producing small quantities of Green and White Teas.

 

Black Tea refers to the manufacturing process where the withered and rolled tea leaves are spread in thin layers in cool, humid rooms to allow them get oxidized / fermented. Depending on the season and climatic conditions, fermentation can take anywhere between 1-4 hours. It is during oxidation that the green tea leaves change their color and become black. The chemical reaction that happens during oxidation is the secret to Darjeeling Tea’s unique flavor and character.

 

Orthodox Tea is the traditional (hence the name ‘orthodox’ or older) manufacturing process where the withered leaves are rolled between cast-iron rollers for between 20 minutes to an hour, depending on season and climatic conditions. The rolling process ruptures the tea leaves and their juices are released. These juices then react with the oxygen in air during next stage in manufacture (oxidation).

 

The newer manufacturing process is the CTC method (Crush, Tear, Curl). Compared to Rolling, the tea leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with sharp teeth. This cuts, tears and curls the tea leaves into small granules or pellets. This process usually produces quicker brewing teas that is coloury and strong, and usually consumed with lots of milk. Teas manufactured by CTC manufacture is called CTC Black Teas. Most teas produced in Africa and Assam are made by CTC manufacture.

 

Darjeeling Green Orthodox Tea

Green Tea is manufactured in the same orthodox process skipping the oxidation stage. This process prevents fermentation of the rolled teas and hence, the tea leaves retain their greenish tinge and hue. When brewed, the liquor of Darjeeling Green Orthodox teas has a light green with a sweet, vegetal flavor and a grassy undertone. It has a very mild taste.

 

 Darjeeling White Tea 

Darjeeling White Tea is produced by simply withering and drying the leaves and buds. Only the newest and freshly sprung young buds and unopened leaves are handpicked. It is the fine, white hairs of the buds that gives it its name. White tea is the least processed of all teas and is as close to natural tea as possible.

 

Darjeeling White Tea is among the most delicate and expensive Teas in the world.

 

Seasons and Flushes

The top three seasons for Darjeeling Teas are Spring, Summer and Autumn. In tea parlance, these are called First Flush, Second Flush and Autumn Flush. Such is the popularity and romance associated with each ‘Flush’, that all premium tea brands now have Darjeeling First Flush, Darjeeling Second Flush and Darjeeling Autumn Flush as their top-of-the-shelf collections.

 

What is a Flush? 

A Flush refers to plucking cycle. Typically, the tea bushes are plucked very 10-12 days, depending on climatic conditions. It is important to understand that when we say Second Flush, it does not mean that the leaves are plucked for only second time! Second Flush simply means the second distinct season or phase of plucking. In other words, tea bushes may be plucked 6-8 times during May-June and all teas plucked during this time is collectively referred to as Second/Summer Flush.

  

The First Flush or The Spring Flush

Also fondly called the Lover’s Blush, this refers to the fresh, young leaves and buds that awaken after their winter hibernation with the arrival of the first showers of spring. Typically, the first flush season is from March to April.

 

Teas leaves from the Spring/First flush have a silver/green tinge appearance. When brewed, they make a light golden liquor that has a very slight astringent taste. It has a distinct floral flavour and freshness.

 

The first flush teas are usually highest in demand and attract top highest price tags.  

 

The Second Flush or The Summer Flush

Plucked in June, the Summer/Second Flush Teas are distinctly blacker than the Spring/First Flush teas. When brewed, the liquor is more colory and full-bodied resulting in a mellow and mature cup. It is during the Summer/Second Flush that some Darjeeling teas develop the highly sought after Muscatel Flavor.

 

The Monsoon or the Rain Flush 

The Monsoon / Rain Flush Darjeeling Teas are plucked when during July to September, when the monsoon is at its peak. The leaves have highest moisture content and hence, the teas are denser, darker and stronger. Due to high moisture content, the flavor is at its lowest. Monsoon teas, due to their strong and full-bodied liquors, are usually had with milk.

 

The Autumn Flush or the Cold Flush

After the heavy rainfall has subsided, the weather quickly changes in the months of October This heralds the onset of autumn, and the quality of tea changes dramatically from the monsoon flush. The tea leaves become wiry and stylish with a light coppery hue. Some light-fired teas can also have greenish tinge. When brewed, the liquor is mellow and light, golden. The flavor is delicate and distinct and can sometimes be reminiscent to the First Flush, but connoisseurs can easily discriminate these due to their ‘winter touch’ and almost taste the ‘cold weather’.

 

Today, Darjeeling Tea is facing multiple challenges. The biggest challenge it is facing is the erratic weather pattern due to climate change. Unseasonal rains, delayed monsoons and unexpected showers are playing a havoc of cultivation patters. The other key issues is unavailability of skilled labour.

And yet, the planters in Darjeeling have done a commendable job to ensure this most prized and valued Indian tea continues to enthral tea connoisseurs all over the world.

 

About the Author :

Ketan Desai | Chief Educator |  ketan@vahdamteas.com

  

Ketan Desai is the Chief Educator at VAHDAM Teas. After a brief stint with the family tea business, Ketan went on to work with some of the top tea planters, tasters, blenders and marketers across India, Sri Lanka, Russia and the CIS countries, the UK, Bangladesh, Indonesia  and Africa. 

A seasoned tea-taster and a passionate raconteur, Ketan conducts tea workshops and events, regaling participants with amusing stories while explaining the finer nuances of tea during live tasting sessions.

At VAHDAM Teas, Ketan spearheads content and community initiatives. He leads TEAch Me, VAHDAM’s social initiative focused on education of children at tea estates.

Ketan's favourite tea is Darjeeling First Flush, which he prefers to have without milk or sugar. He can be contacted at @ketdes on twitter or at ketan@vahdamteas.com