Monday, September 14, 2015

Drunk On Darjeeling - Tasting Six First Flush Darjeelings From 2015

Here in the café, I work hard to have thirty or more fresh teas available to our customers at any time. These teas naturally vary by season depending on when the freshest teas arrive, but trying to keep a representative selection available can be a challenge. One tea that is essential to have on hand is a fine First Flush Darjeeling. Although many tea drinkers in the United States are not familiar with Darjeelings, except perhaps those who have a passion for tea and have explored the genre for a while, it is important to always have a good First Flush on hand for those who do appreciate a fine tea.

To help educate our clientele, I host tea tastings every couple weeks, and today I hosted “Drunk on Darjeeling” – a tasting of six First Flush Darjeelings from this springs harvest. The idea was to not only share some amazing tea with those who may be interested, but to also allow people to directly taste the various subtleties associated with terroir, cultivars, and harvests. The six First Flushes were from the following Estates: Castleton, Margaret’s Hope, Rohini, Singbulli, Jungpana, and Risheehat.

Map of the Darjeeling District in West Bengal, India with Estates tried in the tasting.
However, one cannot simply just put teas out and let people drink them. Well, you can, but perhaps that is not the best way to run a tasting. For me, I like to provide some background to the experience, giving a bit of history of the region and the tea itself. It is not a full blown lecture, but giving people a bit of the background of the tea they are drinking helps place the tea, and allows the individual to have a more intimate experience with the beverage.

Darjeeling is a complex tea and region, with a long history (although not as long as China’s!) involving imperialism, colonialism, ethnic conflicts, and political intrigue. All of it is important, but it is also possible to skip over many of the subtleties and provide a nice, general overview of the region and tea to ground the tea drinker and to allow them to appreciate the history of the leaves that have produced the amazing drink they are imbibing in.

The tale for Darjeeling tea can start at the beginning of the 1800s with the British. The British Empire was on the search for appropriate areas and regions to grow tea, as they were afraid that the tea trade from China would soon be cut off as there were indications that “China would follow the lead of Japan and break off all trading connections with the West.” (Dozey, 1922; p. 193). Up until this point, China had dominated the tea trade to Europe, and the East India Company had the monopoly of the tea trade to Britain.

The tea tasting set up - six First Flush Darjeeling's from 2015 harvest.
However, at the turn of the 19th century the East India Company lost its monopoly in the tea trade from China, and so it began to search for new areas to secure and control. "From its original introduction into use in Europe the supply of tea had been a Chinese monopoly, and the trade in it to England had been a monopoly of the East India Company. In the early part of the nineteenth century, on the renewal of its charter, the East India Company lost its trading monopoly, and as the trade in tea was one of the most valuable parts of its activities, it became anxious to obtain a rival supply entirely within its own control. As a result, great anxiety arose for the production of tea in India, if such production were by any means possible" (Mann, 1931; p. 470).

As such, the East India Company cast out for rival sources of the plant, including exploring Brazil, the island of St. Helena, Java, Sumatra, and other places. One such place was the Assam area of India, specifically the Brahmaputra River and surrounding lands, where in 1834 samples of the indigenous plant from the region were sent to Major Bruce – a commander of gunboats in Assam. The samples proved to be promising, and as a result, the British Government worked to further the tea culture in Assam, and Major Bruce was appointed Superintendent of this industry. The East India Company was excited, for although tea plants flourished in other areas of the Empire, no tolerable tea could be produced from them.

“The first tolerable samples of tea which were manufactured by primitive methods (i.e., dried over charcoal fires and according to the process used for black tea) and forwarded to Calcutta early in 1836, and amongst others were pronounced by Lord Auckland, who had also tasted the brew, to be of good quality” (Doey, 1922; p. 195). This variety of Camellia – Camellia sinensis var. assamica, was indigenous to the area and proved to be a hardy producer of tea.

And thus the tea industry in Assam was born. As Britain looked to India to fulfill its demand for tea, it turned away from China and the offerings coming from that region. Now, there is a whole long story to tea in Assam, but here we are concerned about Darjeeling and its tea.

The calm before the storm...
Darjeeling is a small district in the northern most corner of West Bengal in the eastern foothills of India near the Himalaya Mountains, right next to Assam. At the time, the area was just on the outskirts of the British Empire, and after the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814, much of the area was restored to the Chogyal of Sikkim. As a note of thanks, the Chogyal (monarch) of Sikkim (today an Indian State bordering Nepal) gave 138 square miles, including the hill of Darjeeling to the British East India Company. This was in 1835, and four years later an event would transpire that would change Darjeeling forever.

On January 10th, 1839, 8 chests containing 350lbs of Assam tea were sold at auction by the East India Company at the Commercial sales rooms, Mincing Lane, consisting primarily of “Souchong” and “Pekoe”. As a result of the smashing success of this auction, Dr. Chapman obtained sanction to give the Chinese variety (Camillea sinensis var. sinensis) of tea plant a chance, and accordingly the first lot of seeds and plants were imported into Darjeeling in 1841. After some initial trial and error, it was found that the Chinese variety of Camillea did quite well in Darjeeling, and the tea produced from the leaves proved to be exceptionally good. The rest, as they say, is history, and Darjeeling now produces the Champaign of Tea across 78 Estates stretching 18 miles north to south and 16 miles east to west.

As mentioned above, the tea tasting I hosted had this year’s First Flush harvest from six Estates: Margaret’s Hope, Castleton, Rohini, Jungpana, Singbulli, and Risheehat. All of these Estates produce First Flush and Second Flush teas, as well as special Darjeelings (such as Moonshine, Crescendo, Monsoon, etc.). All Estates grow some version of the Chinese Camillea – Camillea sinensis var. sinensis (there are many sub-varieties known as clonals, with names such as TK71, Khunz, etc.) while Assam tea comes from the indigenous Camillea sinensis var. assamica (which also has clonal varieties). Below is a quick summary of each Estate:

Margaret's Hope First Flush SFTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
Margaret’s Hope gardens were first planted in 1862, although in my research I found other dates including 1870. The “official” date can be hard to pin down, as ownership has changed and non-productive bushes and areas of land have been pulled and cleared. Today, Margaret’s Hope Estate covers 1,448 acres of beautiful hills in the Kurseong North Valley. We tasted the Margaret’s Hope First Flush SFTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-6.

Castleton First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Castleton area was laid out in 1871, but research indicates that today’s bushes were planted in 1885. The Estate covers 788 acres in the Kurseong South Valley. Both of these Estates are owned by the Goodricke Group, who also own Barneseg and Thurbo, as well as Estates in Assam and Dooars. Both Estates continue to produce excellent teas, and are well regarded by Darjeeling connoisseurs.  We tasted the Castleton First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-4.

Rohini Euphoria First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
“In 1962, the year of the Sino-India conflict when China abruptly launched a two-pronged attack along the high Himalayan border it shares with India and occupied part of Assam for a month, India’s military took over Rohini’s land, closed the garden, and converted it into an army base. Nearly 80 percent of the tea bushes were torn out” (Koehler, 2015, p. 179). For the Rohini Estate, covering 341 acres in the Kurseong South Valley, it was not until 1995 that the land was returned, but only 81 acres still had tea plants on it. Thus, many of the plants on the Rohini Estate are considered to be “young.” My bet is that other Estates suffered the same during the Sino-India conflict, although not as badly since they were not converted to army bases. We tasted the Rohini Euphoria First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-3.

Jungpana First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Jungpana Estate, covering just under 500 acres, was owned by the Nepalese royal Rana family until being sold to the Kejriwals in 1956. When the first plants were planted on the Estate is hard to know, although research indicates it was in 1899, but with south-facing gardens located in the Mahananda West Valley, Jungpana has produced some of the most sought after Darjeelings. It is interesting to note that the Jungpana Estate is on extremely steep land, and still today all harvests must be carried down the mountains, across a river, and up a steep path by porters to reach a dirt road – there is are no roads that access the Estate bushes. We tasted Jungpana First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-14.

Singbulli Organic First Flush FTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Singbulli Estate is a “newer” estate, planted in 1924 and covering 1,171 acres in the Mirik Area across 9 rolling hills. Although the area is known for its summer lake resort in recent years, the Singbulli Estate has worked to create delicious organic, sustainable tea. The Estate is owned by Jayshree Tea and Industries, along with the Tukvar (Puttabong), Sungma, North Tukvar, Balasm, and Risheehat Estates. We tasted Singbulli Organic First Flush FTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-10.

Risheehat First Flush SFTGFOP-1 Darjeeling
The Risheehat Estate, located in the Darjeeling East Valley not far from the city of Darjeeling itself, covers a small area of only 256 acres. Planted in the mid-1800s, the Risheehat Estate – which means “Home of Holy Saints” – is known for its organic First and Second Flush Darjeelings. We tasted Risheehat First Flush SFTGFOP-1, Lot #DJ-1.

The Tasting

For the tasting, I prefer to use gaiwans. Although perhaps not the “correct” method for brewing an Indian tea, I love gaiwans and believe they provide the easiest way for people to smell, see, brew, and enjoy tea. The tea was poured through a filter and then served in small tasting cups. Water was originally heated to 198 degrees, coming from glaciers high in the mountains before being filtered in our café. By the time it was used to brew the tea, it was right around 190 degrees. I brewed the first round for each tea, steeping the leaves for only 20-30 seconds. After all teas had been tasted, I opened up the brewing to everyone so that they could experiment with different brewing times (I prefer a quick steep with lots of leaves, others like less leaves but a longer steep time – to each their own). Discussions ensued, tea was tasted, and we all became “Drunk on Darjeeling.”

References Cited

Dozey, E.C.; 1922, A Concise History of the Darjeeling District Since 1835. Calcutta, N. Mukherjee.

Koehler, Jeff; 2015, Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate o the World’s Greatest Tea. New York, Bloomsbury.

Mann, Harold H.; 1931, The Indian Tea Industry in its Scientific Aspects, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 79 (4089): 469-483.

Lots of websites were also consulted, including those of the Estates themselves when available. Sorry, I didn’t list them all – plus it gives you something to investigate on your own!

* If I got anything wrong, please leave a comment and let me know so that I can correct it. Thanks! 

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