A Crash Course in Tea Snobbery

I consider myself a tea snob, but I must admit that I had never actually seen a tea bush until I moved to Darjeeling. Over the past few months, however, I’ve been able to learn a great deal about the Darjeeling tea industry and its effects on local communities. Here are a few pointers for the would-be tea snobs out there.

Know your Darjeeling tea

For many tea snobs, Darjeeling is synonymous with the best tea in India, if not the world. Its unique taste is attributed to the steep terrain and high altitude (between 750-2000 meters) at which it is grown. Darjeeling tea is sometimes called the “Champagne of Teas,” in reference both to its high quality and also the fact that both products possess Geographic Indicators — a protection mechanism which legally links products to specifically defined geographic areas. In 2003, Darjeeling tea became the first Indian product to receive a GI tag.

Tea cultivation in the Darjeeling hills

According to the Tea Board of India, Darjeeling tea:

“(a)       is cultivated, grown or produced in the 87 tea gardens in the defined geographic areas and which have been registered with the Tea Board;
(b)       has been cultivated, grown or produced in one of the said 87 tea gardens;
(c)        has been processed and manufactured in a factory located in the defined geographic area; and
(d)       when tested by expert tea tasters, is determined to have the distinctive and naturally occurring organoleptic characteristics of taste, aroma and mouth feel typical of tea cultivated, grown and produced in the region of Darjeeling, India.” 

Know your tea bush

Black tea. Green tea. Oolong tea. White tea. What’s the difference? Not too much, actually. You can make all types of tea from the same tea bush. Tea planting in Darjeeling began as a British colonial investment in the mid 1800s using Camellia Sinensis seeds, otherwise know as the China tea bush variety. The majority of tea bushes in Darjeeling today are clones of the China variety.

It is during tea processing that distinctions are created. Darjeeling tea is processed in the “Orthodox” method, meaning that the leaves are first withered, then rolled, fermented (oxidized), and dried. The longer the tea leaves undergo each step of the process, the darker and stronger the result (black tea). Lesser processed teas (green and white teas) are lighter with more subtle flavors.

One of the many rooms in a tea factory


Colonial era tea processing machine still in use today


Know your cup

Darjeeling tea bushes bear new leaves–or “flush”– four times per year. Each flush is characterized by a different taste and color of the liquid.

Spring flush (1st flush) – The most delicate of all the flushes, filled with the flavor that the tea leaves have accumulated during their winter dormancy. Supposedly the “best” of all the flushes, although many people favor 2nd flush over 1st flush. Certainly the most expensive of all the flushes due to its limited supply. Most of it gets exported.

Tea for export

Summer flush (2nd flush) – A full, potent tasting flush famous for its “muscatel” character (think astringent muscatel grapes in the U.S.).

Monsoon flush – Don’t even bother.

Autumn flush – Not bad, but also not the best. Still a good cup when the 1st and 2nd flushes have all run out.

Combining the type of the tea with the specific flush produces a dizzying matrix of teas to choose from: 2nd flush muscatel, 1st flush white peony, 2nd flush rohini pearl, etc. Good thing a good tea snob loves a good tea tasting session.

Know your tea estate worker

Hectares of slopes covered in still thriving 100+ year old tea bushes make for quite a dramatic and picturesque sight. Yet the existence of these tea gardens is probably as damaging to the local ecology as it is charming to tourist’s eye. As is true with any  large-scale monoculture, the establishment of the tea gardens via the destruction of natural forests has reduced biodiversity and natural watersheds, while increasing the risk for floods and landslides.

I’ve had interesting conversations with people as to whether it is better to live in a “tea garden community” or a busty (rural, agricultural community). Some have argued that is it better to live in a tea garden because tea workers are guaranteed a minimum wage (90 INR) and certain amenities (such as housing, healthcare, and education) under the Plantation Labour Act, whereas those who live in the busty usually have variable income and fewer amenities. It is my personal observation that the quality of the amenities in tea garden communities is at times suspect, and that access to them altogether can sometimes be denied due to a technicality.

CHHIP partner school in the Marybong Tea Estate community

Through my work with CHHIP (Comprehensive Health and Hygiene Improvement Program) I have been welcomed into both tea gardens and bustys, and I don’t think it fair or productive to judge whether one or the other is better. Life in a more remote tea garden can be just as harsh as a busty in relative proximity to Darjeeling town. The fact remains that the Darjeeling tea industry garners crores upon crores of revenues a year. There is no question that the little bit that percolates down to the individual tea workers (whose earnings still put them below the poverty line) can be increased, and that the quality of the social securities provided can be raised.

Now you may drink

In case (amidst this world of Indian milk chai) you’ve forgotten how to properly prepare a cup of unadulterated tea, I refer you to the Darjeeling Tea Association’s colorfully worded recipe:

 How does one prepare a cup of Darjeeling Tea?

Take 1 level teaspoon of pure Darjeeling Tea in each cup. Nothing for the pot. Pour water, immediately after bringing it to a furious boil. Brew it for 3 – 4 minutes. A perfect cup of Darjeeling is ready.

If Broken / Fanning Grades of tea is used, ½ teaspoon of tea would suffice. 

The quantity of Tea and the brewing time can be altered according to personal preferences.

Iced tea is also popular, with a slice of lemon.

JC spent four years working with children from disadvantaged communities in Chicago while pursing her undergraduate degree. During this time she also studied in Pune, India, and participated in Habitat for Humanity International's efforts to build affordable housing in Guayaquil, Ecuador. From 2007-2009, JC served as an Agroforestry Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Senegal where she engaged in food security, rural livelihoods, environmental protection, health education, and gender equity projects. JC's graduate studies focused on the management of social welfare programs, with an emphasis on services to immigrants and refugees. In 2011, JC helped strengthen monitoring/evaluation systems and non-profit work with Self-Help Groups as part of an internship with Srinivasan Services Trust in Tamil Nadu, India. Most recently, JC worked as an NGO representative to the United Nations, lobbying for the adoption of inclusive policies towards poverty eradication. JC is particularly interested in community-based approaches to rural development, livelihoods creation, and psychosocial protection.

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