One of the world’s most acclaimed teas faces an uncertain future. Darjeeling tea is grown in seven valleys of the Darjeeling district in West Bengal, India. Situated within the steep Himalayan foothills beneath the Indian state of Sikkim, the area is among the highest elevation tea-growing regions on earth. Teas grown here are prized for their breadth of flavor, but producing them has become increasingly unsustainable.
Tea cultivation in Darjeeling began under the British occupation of India. During sweltering summers, the British re-located to the region, where they built small hill towns. Beginning in the late 1840s, slope-side tea gardens were established, using seeds of the small-leafed Camellia sinensis var. sinensis brought from China and sourced from nearby Assam. The plants flourished in the high altitude and favorable climate, and the industry exploded. “Initially it was all for export, and the Indians had no tea tradition,” says Sebastian Beckwith, founder of In Pursuit of Tea, who notes the popularity of the tea was aided by a strong marketing campaign. Frequently referred to as the “Champagne of teas” and associated with a muscatel character, “Darjeeling teas are far more nuanced and spectacular in their range of flavors and aromas,” he says.
Though Darjeeling tea began as a lighter-style black tea, the region now produces a series of distinguished flushes. The first flush—the first picking of the year—is harvested around March, when the dormant tea bushes bloom with delicate leaves full of stored nutrients. Processed as neither a black nor green tea, “It doesn’t really fit into any of the Western standardized categories we have,” Beckwith says. The second flush follows roughly three weeks later, then comes the monsoon flush in June, and lastly the occasional autumnal flush in October and November.
However, climate change is increasingly challenging these dependable flushes, while political strife and a growing labor shortage in the region add unpredictability. “It’s on such a knife’s edge that this area is able to produce this tea,” Beckwith says. Today, there are approximately 87 gardens in Darjeeling which, for now, continue to produce the tea that has enamored the world’s tea drinkers for more than a century.
It’s believed the name Darjeeling comes from the Tibetan words dorje, “thunderbolt,” and ling, “place,” or “land.”
In 1999, India enacted its Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act to safeguard products tied to geographical origins: Darjeeling tea was the first product registered in 2004, after the tea’s immense popularity spawned a number of counterfeit knockoffs.
Darjeeling teas are often flavored by an interaction between the tea bush and a small, leaf-hopping bug. The insect attacks the tea plant after first flush and alters the plant’s chemistry, resulting in a honey-like sweetness in finished teas.
5 to Try
1st Flush, Thurbo Estate
Enveloped in floral and vegetal aromas, this 2020 first-flush tea from the Thurbo Tea Estate is plucked from the clonal AV2 cultivar. Located in the Mirik Valley, Thurbo was first planted in 1872, and teas from the garden are delicate and considered rare. camellia-sinensis.com
1st Flush, Lingia EX1A
Harvested at the peak of last year’s first-flush season, this organic tea is cultivated at heights of more than 4,000 feet. From the Lingia Tea Estate, originally planted in 1867, the delicate tea embodies the taste of spring. $30/100 g., rishi-tea.com
2nd Flush, Namring Upper Estate
Operational since 1855, Namring Upper Estate in the Teesta Valley is considered among the oldest of Darjeeling’s tea estates. Picked in spring 2019, this fully oxidized tea results in a medium-bodied and softly nutty brew. $27.25/4 oz., inpursuitoftea.com
2nd Flush, Selimbong Estate
The prized second flush from the Mirik Valley’s Selimbong Estate on the border with Nepal is plucked from bushes that are grown at heights reaching 6,000 feet. The resulting brewed tea is brisk and full and floral. $14/4 oz., serendipitea.com
Autumn Flush, Gopaldhara Estate
The final harvest of the year, the autumn flush is the last breath from the tea plants before they return to winter hibernation. This clonal tea from the Gopaldhara Estate was picked in November 2019, and gives off a tart fruit aroma, with a woody, candy-like taste. $11.99/3.5 oz., teabox.com
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