Today I was drinking a cup of Darjeeling tea, from a bag as must be done at some point or other in one’s life, and thinking about the emphatic monogram, “The Champagne of Tea” that is printed on the package. I realized that much of the Western world is probably just as confused by that label as I once was.
I remember as a younger tea drinker, sipping a recently steeped mug of Darjeeling tea and reading the eponomous phrase, and thinking, “this tastes just like a regular black tea. Why do they make it sound like something special? Maybe my taste buds just aren’t up to the task. I better pretend it’s mind blowing.” And so I would smile and thank my host, exclaiming how much better this cup was than the “regular” tea I usually had, wondering secretly if I was just never cut out to drink tea.
It turns out that my instinct was right. In most big company tea bags, there really isn’t a lot of difference in flavor between an Assam, an English Breakfast, or a Darjeeling. Oh sure, the base leaves are from different locations (maybe, although it’s likely they are all from Africa) but nearly all bagged tea is the dregs of the harvest anyway, and all of it ends up being bold, tannic, and blunt. It’s no wonder the Western world loves their sugar and cream.
I’ve since learned a few things about Darjeeling tea. There is a reason why it once earned the “Champagne” moniker, and why its most valuable harvests can sometimes fetch a thousand dollars a kilogram.
First it’s worth mentioning what kind of tea leaves we’re talking about. Darjeeling gardens grow hybrids that are mostly Camellia Sinensis Sinensis, that is, Chinese tea. When the British first managed to steal the secret of tea growing from the Chinese (a feat of espionage rarely seen since), they planted their tea seeds in the Darjeeling region and began growing tea in a manner similar to the techniques learned from the Middle Country. The results were sweet flavors, golden tips, and a heady aroma that’s often compared to wine. It wasn’t until many years later that the British (and the Indian population after them) gained an appreciation for the stronger, more bold flavors of Camellia Sinensis Assamica, the tea native to the Indian subcontinent.
The other big factor that goes into the most sought-after Darjeeling tea is the harvest. You may have heard of a “First Flush”. Seek it out! The first flush, or first harvest of the year holds the nutrients and energy that the tea plant has been storing all winter long and has finally released to create this cup of tea for you. The second flush (a summer harvest) can be quite tasty as well, but a really classy First Flush Darjeeling is a life experience. To be fair, all the qualities that make a delicious Darjeeling are the same that go into any good tea, but Darjeeling has the unique position, historically speaking, of being grown and produced by a culture more familiar to the West. This made it much more accessible to the Western aristocracy and the original harvests probably blew the minds of the lucky people who drank it.
A first flush should be a flaxen gold in the cup, have the aroma of sweet white grapes (this is often called “muscatel”), and the taste should be mellow and rich, energizing the mind and body. The strength is such that a few cups will have you flying, but without any acidic bite. If you were to add milk or sugar to such a tea, you would taste nothing but the milk and sugar, but it has a potency that rivals a bitter black tea.
“But wait,” you say, “how can a black tea be light yellow? It sounds like you’re describing some sort of green tea!” Well, you’re not entirely wrong. When harvesting First and Second flush Darjeeling, in order to keep the leaves from oxidizing too quickly, they are quickly dried during their processing. This dryness deactivates many of the enzymes that cause oxidation, but not all of them, making First Flush maybe something of an oolong (partially oxidized) tea. That’s not quite right, though, since it has none of the rolling steps common to oolongs. So if not a black tea, and not an oolong, and not a green tea, what is it? Let’s just say that the six categories of tea are not all-encompassing and call it a Darjeeling.
Of course, due to its unique nature, care must be used when brewing a quality Darjeeling tea. Only twenty seconds too much steeping time, and bitterness can overwhelm even the best harvest. Twenty seconds too short can serve you a cup of flavored water. Getting the right taste requires experimentation and attention, and above all, fresh leaves!
So the next time you try a “special” bagged tea and think, “what’s so special about this?”, remember that legends are always based on reality, and the real thing exists out there somewhere, if you’re willing to look.