July 20, 2015

Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler

Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler
The colorful history and precarious fate of the world’s greatest tea.

Darjeeling is known for its single-estate teas, unblended and unflavored. If Darjeeling is the champagne of teas, Makaibari is the Krug or Henri Giraud - Time magazine proclaimed in 2008.
Makaibari Silver Tips Imperial is the most expensive tea in the world.

Today tea is grown in 45 countries around the world and is the second most commonly drunk beverages after water. It is a $90 billion global market. Until just a few years ago, India was the world’s largest producer of tea. Although overtaken by China, it still produces about a billion kilograms a year. Tea can generally be classified into six distinct types: Black, Oolong, green, yellow, white and Pu-erh. All come from the same plant. The difference lies in processing. Nearly all of India’s black tea, which means that the leaves have been withered and fermented and certain character is flavors allowed to develop. Green tea is neither withered nor fermented and Oolong is only semi fermented.

Darjeeling tea is orthodox black tea. The leaves are withered rolled, fermented and fired in the traditional method. Orthodox now implies premium teas that have been hand-plucked and hand-processed. More than 90 % of the world’s (majority of India’s) black teas are produced by a method called  CTC (cut, tear and curl).

According to ancient legend, tea was discovered by Bodhidharma (C.A.D 460-534), the wandering, devout Buddhist monk from near the modern southern city of Chennai who founded the Zen school of Buddhism. In the fifth year of a seven-year sleepless contemplation of Buddha, he began to feel drowsy. To keep from falling asleep, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. In the spot where they landed, tea bushes grew.

Tea’s actual history predates Bodhidharma. It goes back at least 2500 years to the mountains around Yunnan, in southwestern China, where it was initially blended with herbs, seeds and forest leaves (1046-256 BC).

Tea arrived in Europe in 1580 when a Portuguese trader brought a chest of it along with other Chinese luxury goods. According to Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word tea - or rather, its early variant chaa - dates back to 1598. The spelling quickly ran through various form - tay, tey, the, teee, thea - before finally landing on its more familiar form tea. Dutch(thee), German (thee), Swedish (te) Spanish (te), Italian (te), French (the), Hindi (chai), Bengali (cha), Japanese (cha), Arabic (shai or chai), Persian (chay), Russian (chai), Portugal (cha).

In August 1608 an East India Company ship landed on the north west coast of India Surat, the principal Mughal port.  

Book continues with history of British colonization and forcing Indian farmers to cultivate opium for Chinese market, which is used to buy Tea as it was only available in China. Without opium, British needed to pay in silver which was very critical foreign currency in those days and hence found cheaper option (opium) to buy tea from China].

At the end of 18th century, tea was more profitable than all other goods combined, accounting for 60% of the company’s total trade.

In order to find other places for Tea, British planted tea in Darjeeling which has similar climate as Chinese tea estate and the result was astonishing - the tea produced from Darjeeling was much much better than Chinese tea. The British Tea Committee declared: “We have no hesitation in declaring this discovery (Darjeeling Tea) to be far the most important and valuable that has ever been made on matters connected with the agricultural or commercial resources of this empire”.

Darjeeling estates vary greatly in elevation from top to bottom, where the tea in the higher section has more delicate flavor, but lower yields. The special climate makes all the difference in making Darjeeling tea premium one. Secondly, tea leaves are plucked by hand, and judging fermentation can only be done by nose. In short, human touch is in every step. Experienced workers can tell by touch when the correct wither has been reached.

Fermentation acts as a catalyst for the flavors and colors associated with Darjeeling tea. The tea develops the pungency, strength, and aroma that will be in the final cup.

The last stage in the factory is sorting and grading the tea. The four categories in descending order of size, are whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust. The last two are used to fill tea bags. Most Darjeeling garden aim for 60 or 70% leaf-grade tea. Whole-leaf teas are graded using a string of letters - essentially the more the better - that refers to the size of the processed leaf, rather than the quality or flavor of the tea. The highest level is FTGFOP, which stands for “Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”. Wits say, though, that the acronym means, “Far Too Good for Ordinary People”. On occasion the acronym gets a prefix and/or a suffix. A S is added at the beginning for “superfine” and a 1 at the end to show the highest possible grade: “SFTGFOP -1”. These are exalted tea.

The British tradition of afternoon tea originated with Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford (a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria), in the early 19th century as she began having a little pick-me-up between the then-standard two meals a day, breakfast and dinner.
Some Brits enjoyed the tea Mughal style with spices and the ‘Raj at the table’ offers a rather baroque recipe that includes palm starch (sago) almonds, cardamom, rosewater, or dried rosebuds, milk sugar and ‘just sufficient tea leaf”.

Every British house lady supposed to have ‘The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook’ book which contained 43 chapters that instructed on every element of housekeeping and colonial life on the subcontinent, from getting a piano to the Himalayas for the summer to throwing a perfect garden party. The British in India likes gin and Charles Henry Baker Jr offered for pink gin in his indispensable book: The Gentleman’s Companion.

In the early days, only those Englishmen who failed to make it as soldiers, sailors, clerks, and by default with nothing else to lose and nowhere else to go, took up life as a ‘tea planter’. They knew nothing whatsoever about tea and it is doubtful if they had even set eyes on a tea bush. Scoundrels, rascals and scallywags enlisted to become lord and master of a little fiefdom called a tea garden in the exotic misty hills of Darjeeling.

When India gained independence on August 1947, many European owners sold their estates to wealthy Indians, perhaps believing they would never enjoy the same authority they had before.

UK now gets 60% of its tea from Africa. Today, Kenya is the continent’s tea giant and the world’s 4th largest producer.  When India lost the UK market, the USSR and Europe stepped in to replace it. Majority of Darjeeling tea is exported and majority goes to Europe.

German and other European blenders have already begun marketing a ‘Himalayan tea’ made with Nepalese leaves that cost a third of what Darjeeling does. WTO awarded ‘geographical indication (GI) status and Darjeeling tea was then awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European commission, one of the first non-European products to receive such designation. Darjeeling tea is now geographically protected product like Scotch Whiskey, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and saffron from L Mancha, Spain.

According to the tea Board of India, ‘Darjeeling tea’ means - only and specially - tea that has been cultivated, grown, produced, manufactured and processed in the orthodox manner on Darjeeling’s 18 estates.

Green tea, being un-fermented is a very rich source of antioxidants.

“The best black tea in the world is from Darjeeling. No one is near here. But while there are.  Top-drawer teas in Darjeeling, they can’t compare with the best Chinese greens’ says Girish Sarda.

Silver Needle tea is the finest, and most delicate white tea, which is made solely with buds plucked when they are about to unfold.  Silver Needle is a traditional, but rate style from China’s Fujian province, where it is known as Bai Hao Yin Zhen. The plucked buds get a gentle wither to reduce the moisture content gradually and avoid sudden shrinkage of the leaf cells, and then are dried. No rolling, no fermentation.

Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling is the oldest tea estate and they are still selling their brand of tea with the same old Makaibari symbol (http://www.makaibari.com/).

How to prepare Darjeeling tea:
Bring a kettle of freshly drawn (or bottled) water to a boil. Rinse out a teapot and quickly discard the water. Add 1 level  teaspoon - about 1/12 ounce or 2.5 grams - of pure long -leaf Darjeeling tea per cup to the teapot. Pour the water over the leaves, cover the pot and steep for 3 to 3.5 minutes, letting the leaves breathe and stretch. Strain into warmed teacups.

Darjeeling’s nuanced flavor is best appreciated without milk, sugar, because of its light natural astringency, lemon. But if it is impossible to drink it straight, increase steeping time to 4 minutes for adding sugar and to 5 minutes for milk.

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