Darjeeling: A Guide to the Champagne of Tea

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Darjeeling tea is a special type of tea grown in Darjeeling, in West Bengal, in India. Darjeeling is a tea made from the Camellia sinensis plant (aka the tea plant) and can be processed as black, green, oolong or white tea. Darjeeling also has three main flushes. Each flush correlates to each harvest. It’s quite a complex type of tea.

Let’s go on to discuss lots of commonly asked questions about this complex tea, including what is Darjeeling, where is it grown and why is it so special, plus why it’s called the Champagne of tea!

Darjeeling Tea: The Complete Guide

Learn all about this special tea, including the origin, different tea types, processing stages, the taste, health benefits, caffeine levels and how to brew the best cuppa!

Single Estate Tea

Darjeeling is classified as a single origin or single estate tea because it has been grown in one region. Tasting tea from single estates is a great way to learn more about tea, including the complexities of the taste, textures, aromas and liquor/colour of each of them. There are many factors that will have an impact on these such as climate, region and season. Just like wine, tea can have different flavour profiles.

Harvesting and Processing

Darjeeling tea is harvested and processed using the Orthodox method. This method has been around since the early 1800s and involves the following processing steps:

  • Hand plucking: Carefully hand selecting and hand plucking two leaves and a bud from each shoot. The workers, usually women, carry a handmade basket called a ‘doko’ strapped to their backs to store the tea leaves.

  • Withering: The leaves are sent to the withering stage (drying stage) where most of the moisture is removed.

  • Rolling: After withering is the rolling stage where each leaf is rolled and twisted.

  • Fermentation: After the rolling stage comes the fermentation stage for oolong or black teas. Green teas will skip this step and will be steamed to halt any oxidisation, sometimes referred to as ‘killing the green’.

  • Drying: The last stage is the drying stage where the tea is fully dried and ready for sorting by leaf size and then packing and finally off to auction for sale.

What Type of Tea is Darjeeling?

Darjeeling tea is produced from the Chinese variety of the tea plant, the Camellia sinesis var. sinesis. Although the particular type of tea plant is from China, it’s grown in India. Darjeeling is often classed as a light black tea, however, it can be green, oolong or black depending on the level of oxidisation. The more the tea is oxidised, the darker it will be. Black teas are fully oxidised, oolongs are partially oxidised, white teas and green teas are not oxidised. On top of the types of tea, there are three main flushes:

  • First flush: This is the first harvest after the winter months. Harvested in early spring time during march to may depending on the weather. The first flush is usually lighter, more delicate and floral with a pleasant astringency similar to that of green tea. The first flush is often the finest and will be more expensive. First flush Darjeeling is a highly sort after type of tea.

  • Second flush: This is the second harvest after the spring harvest in june to august, again depending on the weather. The hotter air temperature will result in darker, bolder and ‘muscatel’ notes of the leaves. This type of tea is often described as having a rich fruity taste rather than lighter and delicate like the first flush.

  • Third flush: This is the third harvest before the winter months and takes place september to november. This type of Darjeeling is the boldest and deepest in colour and generally lower in quality than the first and second flushes. It is usually sold at auction for using in tea blends or for locally produced masala chai blends.

  • Minor flushes: In between the first and second, and the second and third flushes are mid-harvests. These teas are also mainly used for blending in lesser quality teas. The flush between the second and third is known as the monsoon flush or rains tea.

Why is it Called the Champagne of Tea?

Champagne is a sparkling wine that is made only from the grapes grown in a particular region in France, in Champagne. Darjeeling is a type of tea made only from the tea leaves grown in a particular region in India, in Darjeeling. Also like Champagne, Darjeeling is grown to high standards to create the highest quality of tea. Champagne has different flavour complexities due to seasonal variants, just like Darjeeling. Plus Darjeeling is one of the world’s most expensive teas. The Makaibari tea estate in particular has become one of the most expensive tea estates and even made the news in 2014 as prices made a record high at USD 1,850 per kg! For comparison, many other types of tea sell at auction for under USD 10 per kg. It’s all of these similarities that give this special type of tea the name ‘Champagne of teas’.

The Health Benefits

All types of tea contains wonderful health boosting antioxidants. The antioxidants in tea can help fight free radicals in the body which can help keep us younger and healthier. Tea contains a powerful antioxidant known as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). Tea also contains something known as l-theanine. L-theanine can help make us calm and also keep us focused at the same time.

Read more: Tea for Stress and Anxiety

The Taste of Darjeeling

As discussed above, Darjeeling can have different flavour profiles depending on many variants including environmental factors, the flushes and whether it has been processed as a green, black or oolong tea. Some Darjeelings will be light, delicate and floral and others will be much richer and bolder. Every season will produce a different tasting tea and that’s one of the reasons that Darjeeling is so popular.

How Much Caffeine is in Darjeeling?

The level of caffeine present in tea will mostly depend on the level of oxidisation. Black teas are generally higher in caffeine at around 40mg of per cup. Green teas will contain around 25mg of caffeine per cup. Oolongs will fall somewhere between the two.

How to Brew a Lovely Cuppa

Take 1 heaped teaspoon of loose leaf to one cup (8fl oz) of freshly boiled water and allow to steep for 3-5 minutes before straining out the leaves and enjoying your tea. Here is a guide to the temperatures for the different types of Darjeeling:

  • Black tea: Black tea is fully oxidised so the ideal brewing temperature is 100*C/212*F.

  • Oolong tea: Oolong falls between a black and a green tea and the ideal temperature is around 90*C/195*F. If you haven’t a temperature controlled kettle, allow the water to settle for 2 minutes to cool slightly.

  • Green tea: If your Darjeeling is light and green in colour, the ideal brewing temperature will be lower at around 80*C/175*F. Allow the kettle to settle for 2-3 minutes to cool slightly before pouring over your loose leaf.

  • Alternatively: Follow the package instructions for a great cup of tea!

Tip: Take a look at the leaf to see how dark it is, the lighter the tea, the lower the brewing temperature. Start by steeping your tea for 3 minutes and see how it tastes. Steep for no longer than 5 minutes. For a stronger tasting tea add more tea leaves and not more time. Greater steeping time may result in a bitter and unpleasant tasting tea.

For tea recipe ideas, you may be interested in reading these articles:

Is it ok to add Milk to Darjeeling?

The overall conscientious to this question is a big no as the milk will spoil the delicate nature of the tea. Darjeeling is such a special type of tea and when brewed in the correct way, it really doesn’t need milk or sugar to balance out the flavour. If you are a black tea person and favour blends such as English breakfast with a splash of milk, go for a darker, bolder second or third flush Darjeeling.

How to Store Darjeeling

As with any type of tea, it’s always best to store in a cool dry place. Clear plastic and glass jars, whilst look pretty, are not ideal as the light through the jar will degrade the tea. Other things to avoid are sunlight and heat, these will also negatively affect your tea. It’s important to keep your tea away from moisture and odors, tea absorbs smells and dampness very quickly. The best place to store tea is in an airtight food safe container, in a dark place away from any smells and humidity. It’s also not advisable to store your tea in the fridge. So overall remember: keep your tea airtight, cool, dry, dark and away from anything smelly!

Do you enjoy the taste of Darjeeling? Comment below to let me know!

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This blog is for information purposes only. It is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any medical conditions. Always seek advice from your healthcare provider.