Tuesday March 24, 2009 | 2 comments
Fourth in a series on the teas of India.
The main problem with Darjeeling tea is quantity: there will never be enough to satisfy demand. The region is small and produces much less per acre than Assam, for instance. It is colder and higher, growth is slow, and the crop devilishly difficult to harvest. Even in a good year production amounts to only twenty two million pounds or so, less than one percent of all the tea India produces. Yet this is unquestionably India’s best-known tea and the passionate aficionados of the Cult of Darjeeling are among the world’s most discriminating tea lovers. Like the great Burgundy wines of France, Darjeeling teas often disappoint. In exceptional years, however, when a flavor unique to Darjeeling which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world is pronounced, these teas are simply spectacular. In these favored years it takes no connoisseur to explain why the name Darjeeling deserves its fame. In the 1990s some estates began producing small quantities of white, green and oolong teas, less well-made than China’s but promising.
Kanchenjunga, one of the world’s tallest peaks, rises east of Darjeeling and is among its chief attractions. Mountain slopes of less than forty-five degrees are considered almost level by Darjeeling standards; planting on slopes up to sixty or seventy degrees is the rule, not the exception. These steep slopes provide natural drainage for the generous rainfall the mountainsides receive from seasonal monsoon winds. Tea will not grow at elevations much above six thousand feet. In these Himalayan foothills it is planted from approximately eighteen hundred to sixty-three hundred feet, which makes much Darjeeling pretty nearly mile-high grown tea. Each garden varies considerably in altitude and many a property could follow the example of Namring, which sells a Namring Upper to distinguish its higher-grown tea from the lower-grown Namring, tout court.
The higher it is grown, the thinner a tea’s body and the more concentrated its flavor as a rule. Yet altitude is only one factor determining the quality of Darjeeling. The intermittent cloud and sunshine playing over the slopes make their contribution, as do exposure, that is, the direction a slope faces, and a host of other variables like the soil chemistry, temperature and rainfall unique to the area. Another – and more surprising – factor affecting tea taste is the wind.
An additional explanation for Darjeeling’s uniqueness is the type of tea plants grown. Most are of the China or China-hybrid type, which are found almost nowhere outside China (and Japan) except in Darjeeling and the Caucasus. These plants are more resistant to cold than India’s native bush, the Assam jat or type, but their yield is much lower and the leaf smaller. On China bush this small leathery leaf is a dark glossy green, often covered with silvery down.
Since the tender young shoots must be harvested as soon as they are ready, each bush on an estate must be hand-plucked every four to eight days throughout the growing season. A typical plant yields only about one hundred grams per year, that is, maybe four ounces, of made tea. This is less than a third the yield of Assam plants growing in the plains. Each kilogram of Darjeeling consists of over twenty thousand individual shoots; about half as many are required for the same weight of tea produced from the large-leaf Assam jat. Such figures serve to illustrate the extent of human effort that Darjeeling tea requires.
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