Muscatel Teas : Mercurial, Magical, Mystical!
“Tastes like sweet-sour peaches grilled on charcoal, with an undertone of tobacco.”
“No, no – I get a distinct lychee, grapes and hint of spice…and cedar!”
“Come on, how can you not taste honey, cantaloupe, and plums?!”
These are typical reactions of experienced tea tasters when they sip the elusive Muscatel tea from Darjeeling. And perhaps there is no other topic that is as much debated as Muscatel teas. And if you were to sneak in and take a sip, you would perhaps differ with all of them…and join the heated debate!
Welcome to the mercurial, magical and mystical world of Muscatel tea. Produced only for a short span of ten days to two weeks in May/June during the famed period of Second Flush Darjeeling teas in a few select estates, Muscatel teas evoke sweetest memories - just like shortest love evokes sweetest memories.
In the wide world of teas, Darjeeling is always mentioned reverentially. So rare is Darjeeling tea that only 87 tea estates produce just around 10 million kgs. every year, out of a total global tea production of nearly 6,400 million kgs.
If Darjeeling teas are rare, consider this - out of these 87 tea estates, only a handful produce the mercurial and magical teas with the elusive Muscatel flavour - and that too, for only two weeks in a year. Out of 10 million kgs., merely a few thousand kgs. are considered pure Muscatel teas.
The Magic, the Mystery…and the Myth!
Much like Cinderella’s magical hour, Mother Nature’s magic at select Darjeeling tea estates also happens for a brief ten-day to two-week period in late summer - end May to mid-June. What makes Muscatel teas so elusive, almost ephemeral, is their uncertainty and the unpredictability. An estate can produce finest Muscatel teas this year, and next year, the magic can completely bypass it.
Here is now nature’s magic combines with human genius to produce this mercurial, magical and mythical tea :
The hot, humid and rainy climate in late summer in Darjeeling causes a rapid rise in infestation. Small insects and flies thrive on the rich flora and fauna during this period, which is also the peak Second Flush period in Darjeeling tea estates. Green insects called Jassids and Thrips appear abundantly around the tea plants. While they are definitely pests, they are vital catalysts for producing the Muscatel flavor.
(Image courtesy : Gopaldhara Tea Estate)
Greenish in color, they are like leaf-hoppers, just about a tenth of an inch in size. They feed upon the tender buds and leaves of the tea-bush, feasting on the rich sap. As they suck out this sap, the moisture content in leaves reduces, causing them to get stunted, shrivel and curl. Also, due to the many tiny needle-points created by these insects on the tea leaves, natural fermentation occurs even though the leaves are not yet plucked. With lesser moisture content, the flavors get concentrated, and the green leaf starts turning yellow. A chemical compound called Terpene is also produced within the tea leaves and buds. During the oxidations (fermentation) process, it is this compound Terpene that creates the unique Muscatel flavor.
And yet, there are some planters who will dismiss this explanation outright! They regard this explanation as a myth. While they concede that the a second flush tea that is affected by Jassids, do make exceptional teas with distinct fruity notes, they still do not and should not qualify as true Muscatel teas. They believe that pure Muscatel teas are produced only from authentic Chinary bushes without intervention or infestation of insects. For them, it is the combination of nature’s quirk and human skill that creates this most enigmatic of teas.
Pure Muscatel flavor ranges intense, sweet and fruity. From the whiff of woody cedar to perfumed peaches to spiced honey, a Muscatel tea can contain all these notes. When brewed properly, it has amber liquor (yellowish orange or orangish yellow) with a very positive and sweet ‘nose’ and a mellow to mild astringency. When stored properly, Muscatel teas are like wine, and get better as they mature, tasting more intense and adding layers of flavors.
The First Muscatel Tea
The first Muscatel tea was produced at the world-famous Castleton Tea Estate in 1985. The credit goes to the then factory manager of the estate, Mr. Gomden. He noticed in June of 1985 that the teas produced had a very peculiar and intense flavor, which was quite unlike and different from the normal flavory teas produced during the time. Upon tasting these, he found that they had a distinct fruity flavor, rich and intense that lingered on the palate. It reminded him of the rich, intense flavor of the Muscat grapes, used for making fine wines. He named this batch of teas, Muscatel - like Muscat grapes. Since then, Castleton Muscatel teas have won top awards and honours internationally, not to mention world-record prices. In 1992, a lot of Castleton FTGFOP1 Muscatel tea was sold for Rs. 13,0001 per kg. at the Calcutta tea auction.
Today, select estates that make fine Muscatel teas include Jungpana, GIddapahar, Gopaldhara, Seeyok and Okayti. From the top tea boutiques in the world to the most exclusive and prestigious tea-rooms in the UK and Europe, Muscatel teas are amongst the most prized and sought after by connoisseurs.
And the moments of sipping and savoring this exquisite Muscatel tea becomes life’s sweetest memories – like the shortest love.
About the Author :
Ketan Desai | Chief Educator | firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com