The Darjeeling tea plant has an interesting history and background. India, as a tea producing country, is a relative new-comer. Though native Indian tea bushes had existed in Assam since ancient times, and despite reports from various early explorers of tea being drunk by Indians , it was not until the 1800's that true tea cultivation and production began.
With an established history of importing Chinese tea and yet ongoing trading problems with the Chinese, in the 1830's the British decided to start growing their own tea in one of their colonies, India. Two Scottish brothers, Robert and Charles Bruce, were the first ones to investigate and grow tea plants from seeds of the Assam tea plant. Despite their success and efforts, the British government gave their approval to those who argued that the Chinese tea plant should be the variety that would be cultivated in India. Tea In The East
It was not until between 1856 and 1859 that Darjeeling entered into the world of tea cultivation and production, All About Tea
. A Dr. A. Campbell, a civil surgeon, was the first to plant tea plant seeds in his botanical garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level, as an experiment. At this time, Darjeeling was only a sparsely populated small town that was being used as a resort by the army and a few affluent individuals.
The belief was that even though an indigenous plant existed, it was of little value because of its 'wild' nature. With the work of the Bruce brothers and others, it became apparent that there were two major varieties of tea plants Camellia sinensis, the smaller-leafed Chinese variety, and Camellia assamica, the larger-leafed Indian variety. Over time, trial and error lead to the understanding that both the Chinese jat (jat is Hindi for type), and the Indian (Assam) jat had their respective places in India's tea industry.
The Chinese jat is better able to tolerate the cooler, mountainous climate found in northern India. Whereas, the Assam jat readily accepts southern India's warmer, wetter environs and is better suited for most of India. In Darjeeling the Chinese jat is grown, though immediately to the east of Darjeeling is Assam with its native Indian tea plant. The two different varieties of tea plants in these two neighboring areas, helps highlight the difference between Darjeeling and Assam tea. In the mountainous north, is found the Chinese jat, Chinese hybrid and hybrid Assam jat tea plants. Teas of The World
, The Tea Companion
. The China jat has finer and smaller leaves, as do the China and Assam hybrids, than the Assam jat. It takes about twice as many 'two leaves and a bud' of the China jat leaves to equal the weight of the larger-leafed Assam jat tea leaves, The Tea Lover's Companion
In Teas of the World
, it is also stated in regards to the Darjeeling tea leaf crop that it is in, "... limited quantities. Crop yield is small per acre, the leaf is small in size and it is expensive to harvest.", and that "Certainly climate, soil, elevation, slow growth and type of bushes contribute to the "muscatel". Muscatel referring to the distinctive muscatel grape flavor attributed to Darjeeling tea. "Most of the tea bushes belong to the China jat, China hybrid and Hybrid Assam. The leaves are also covered with tip on the underside."
Any tea that is harvested and processed by hand is referred to as being done so by the 'orthodox method' or 'orthodox form'. This method is labor intensive but is followed where one places quality above all else and has respect for the full tea leaf.
"Very careful and gentle treatment must be given to the finely plucked leaves so that the inherent quality is not lost." ..."Proper plucking of Darjeeling Tea leaves is as unique as its flavour. Great emphasis is given to plucking as true quality is inherent in a good raw material (Tea Leaf) and the special Darjeeling flavours is generated from the very fine plucking standard. The smallest shoots, comprising of two leaves and a bud are plucked. It requires 22,000 such shoots, all plucked by hand to produce 1 kilogram of Tea. In attaining this high plucking standard, the hilly terrain, makes the task even more difficult.
Darjeeling Tea Pluckers have striven hard for years, battling against difficult terrain, cold, mist, rainfall etc. to maintain exacting standards. They begin early in the morning, when the overnight dew is still present. Only the tenderest leaves are finely plucked by gentle hands. Pluckers are so quick and skilful that it is often impossible to follow the motion of their hands and fingers as they pluck."
This information has been kindly provided by the Poobong Tea Company, Ltd., Calcutta, India.
In the traditional fashion, after this tea is plucked and processed, it is then sorted, graded, and packed in wooden chests that have been lined with aluminum foil to prevent the intrusion of unwelcomed flavors and aromas. Tea is notorious for its ability to absorb unwanted flavors and scents directly from the air, which is why tea must be stored in air-tight containers. This same factor is also very advantageous when is comes to scenting tea with desirable aromatics such as Jasmine and other flowers.
Darjeeling has a growing season from March through September - October. From this are gathered three 'flushes'. The flushes refer to when the tea plants are actively growing and are covered with new growth, i.e. new tea leaves. The classic tea leaf plucking consists of only ' two leaves and the bud'. A very special tea consists of only buds. The first flush is plucked from March through April, the second flush in May and June and the third or autumnal flush from September through November. The Tea Companion
also notes an "In-Between" Darjeeling that is plucked in April and May "... and produce a flavor that marries the greenness and astringency of the young first flush leaves with the more rounded maturity of the second flush teas that are picked in early summer." Between June and September is the Monsoon season. The heavy rain stimulates a lot of growth but this exuberant growth lacks any real distinction or quality. It produces an average quality of tea.