Serious Eats: Drinks

Tea Time: All About Darjeeling Tea

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

Though the tea-growing lands of India are (for better or worse) synonymous with household teabag brands nowadays, tea is still a relative newcomer to that fertile part of East Asia. Darjeeling tea, which has found a foothold in both the highest- and lowest-brows of the tea-drinking market, only began to spring from the Himalayan soils of West Bengal, India, in the later half of the 1800s, at the hand—yup—of a seed-smuggler just back from a trip to China.

The hilly, often rainy Darjeeling of the 1800s was tapped by its British rulers as an excellent place to establish a sanitorium, and indeed under the superintendentship of a Dr. Campbell (first name in dispute—a sad destiny for such an influential man), was established as a fine spot to grow tea, as well as grow healthy. Dr. Campbell, upon a break from overseeing the spa-like qualities of Darjeeling's "ozonated" air and tending to the Europeans arriving on steam train, scavenged a variety of Chinese tea seeds and planted them on his own estate. Flourishing in the more-than-a-mile-high growing regions of the area, the tea plants—var. camellia sinensis, not the varietal of camellia Assamica popular in proximal Assam, India—caught on quickly. The government began to allocate land to the planting of tea, and plantation after plantation was established.

As tea production in Darjeeling evolved, so did the processing methods along with it. Population (in both human and tea bush numbers) soared in the latter decades of the 1800s, and as demand grew for the beautiful and unique taste of Darjeeling's teas, new roads were built to support the tea trade, and the techniques in producing tea were refined. Darjeeling teas are produced in the "orthodox" fashion, i.e. without machine tearing processes. The most delicate leaves are hand-picked, air-withered for many hours, and rolled into twist-shape on gentle mechanical rollers, then further oxidized and fired. Darjeeling teas—not always fully oxidized—have traditionally been classified as black teas, but more recently there has been a movement towards intentionally producing some Darjeelings in true oolong method.

Like Champagne grapes, Darjeeling tea leaves have been cited to have a flavor so distinctly specific to their terroir that they have achieved "Geographical Indication" status, protecting the name of "Darjeeling Tea" to be used only on teas produced in that region. Not only is the flavor of Darjeeling so distinct—it's commonly referred to as having the characteristics of muscat grapes—its relatively small production quantities makes it, specifically the early harvests, or flushes, particularly prized.

The growing season of Darjeeling teas are, like many, categorized into "flushes", from the first early spring buds and leaves all through the monsoon season and into the fall. First flush Darjeelings, picked just after winter's passing, are thought to be oolong-like in their delicate flavor, are lighter colored in the leaf and in the cup, and considered fresh and brisk. Second flush Darjeeling is where the muscat flavors begin to develop, with a more forthright presence in the cup and notes that are likely to evoke currant and stone fruit with a more darker golden liquor upon brewing. The rainy soils of the monsoon flush literally muddy the flavor of Darjeeling teas—this season is less desirable. The final harvest is the fall flush, which steeps a deeper-colored copper and has a larger body. Though first and second flush Darjeelings are well sought-after, it's more likely to find rainy or late-season flushes used as blending teas to achieve specific flavor profiles desirable in Darjeelings.

How to Brew Darjeeling Black Tea

You can get out your Nana's favorite porcelain pot for this one (knitted cozy: check!), or steep in your favorite vessel that allows room for leaf expansion.

Heat your water to a boil or just below a boil—you may wish to closely inspect how oxidized your tea is first, and attenuate the heat higher for darker teas and lower, around 185°F, for less-oxidized or earlier-season teas.

Preheat your vessel and rinse with a little hot water, and add one tablespoon of Darjeeling leaves per 8 ounces of water.

Steep for 3 to 5 minutes depending on your taste, and definitely try this tea without milk the first several times to capture the full spectrum of its delicate, fruity but brisk tones.


About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at twitchy.org

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