In 1778 Sir Joseph Banks suggested that Northern India may be a suitable place for the British to grow tea plants, Camellia sinensis. It took many years and various attempts to convince the Botanical Gardens of Calcutta (today known as Kolkata) that tea could and was already growing in North Eastern India. In fact, Christmas Eve 1834 was when it was officially announced that the tea plant had been discovered growing in the fertile valley of Assam, close to the Chinese border. The British were reluctant to get involved in this area of India with its jungles, conflicts, tribal disputes and disease, but the lure of opium, gold and eventually tea saw them expand into the area.
Around the same time, the British army was engaged in a conflict not far from Assam, in a region known as Sikkim. As the British fought with the ruling Gurkhas, they would put claim to land. One such area became known as British Darjeeling, and would eventually become part of West Bengal and known as Darjeeling.
This spectacular spot high in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains at 2,000m was to become one of several hill stations adopted by the British to escape the heat of the Indian summers. In its early days, Darjeeling was to become a hospital base for officers of the British army and was supervised by one Dr. Campbell. Roads, housing and general infrastructure were to be created under Dr. Campbell’s guidance, but he also had a passion and belief that the tea plant would also grow in the area. After some experimentation it was found that the local variant of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis assamica, preferred the lower growing areas and the Chinese variant, Camellia sinensis sinensis, grew happily at the higher altitudes. By 1852 it was obvious that the experiments had been a success, as several gardens had now commenced production. Darjeeling tea was on its way to fame and fortune.
The plant at these high altitudes were found to grow differently from low level grown plants, producing plumper, slow growing leaves, which created a different taste in the brew. Gradually, a system of plucking the leaves at certain times became the standard, producing various ‘Flushes’. Today we pluck at four main flushes, ‘Spring’ or ‘1st Flush’, ‘2nd Flush’, the ‘Monsoonal Flush’ and the ‘3rd’ or ‘Autumnal Flush’.
1st flush teas are eagerly awaited all over the world by tea connoisseurs. It is the first tea created after the winter hibernation, and creates a delicate brew with some slight fruit background flavours. A simply gorgeous brew which certainly justifies the nickname, ‘Champagne of Teas’.
The 2nd flush teas come with a fuller flavour and a rich muscatel background taste. These stronger bodied teas are certainly preferred by the local growers and tea aristocracy for their depth of taste and fruit like qualities. Monsoonal teas are the most powerful of the Darjeeling teas and generally are used in blends or by local people as their preferred brew. The final pick of the year is around late October into November and produces a smooth light but flavoursome tea, which is great as a breakfast tea for those who don’t want the fullness of an Assam tea.
Today Darjeeling tea growers sometimes suffer from the perception created by the name, ’Darjeeling Tea’. As in many cases of famous products, others want to ride on the success of a brand, and Darjeeling tea is no exception to this. Darjeeling tea estates are following the example set by French wineries and Scottish whiskey distillers by moving to protect their Darjeeling label. This has created laws to prevent other growers selling their teas as ‘Darjeeling’ and will use specific geographic locations for the brand. At present, many teas sold under the Darjeeling label may not be specific to the Darjeeling region, creating quality and taste discrepancies. Recently, the EU agreed to phase out the use of the word Darjeeling when referring to blended teas. Just as Cognac and Champagne can only come from the regions around the French town of Cognac and region of Champagne, also Scotch whiskey can only come from Scotland. Hopefully, with some persuasion, the rest of the world will soon follow the EU’s example and only call a Darjeeling tea, a Darjeeling tea.
Many of you may not have had the opportunity to taste a true Darjeeling, but here at The Tea Centre we have a number of them for you to choose from.