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Darjeeling Tea History

Darjeeling Tea History: from 1859

The name Darjeeling (Dorje ling) is derived from the Tibetan name, \’Land of the Thunderbolt\’ due to its close proximity to the peaks of Kachenjunga. From around Darjeeling comes one of the most famous teas in the world, celebrated for its muscatel character which makes it highly sought-after as an afternoon tea. It has long received the accolade the ‘Champagne of teas’ and Darjeeling tea history is fascinating.

The fruits of espionage

Robert Fortune, an intrepid Victorian explorer and spy, smuggled tea seeds out of China and the know-how to produce tea. These were sent to Calcutta, then the capital of India. The Governor General of India then gave some of these seeds to Dr Campbell, the chief Government official in the newly established town of Darjeeling. Thus the first Darjeeling tea was grown in 1859. These Camellia sinensis tea plants thrived in the high altitude, high rainfall and cool conditions of these Himalayan foothills when compared to the bigger leafed Camellia assamica tea variety.

A hill station

Darjeeling town had been established in 1835 by the British Raj as a hill-station, to which Government could retire from the heat of the northern Indian plains, and as a military sanatorium. At that time its population was no more than one hundred. Its situation opposite mount Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, was considered a sacred place by Tibetan monks who called it Dorje-ling after the sacred object lamas carried symbolising strength and constancy. From nearby Tiger Hill it is possible to see mount Everest on a clear day.

By 1850 the population had increased to about 10,000 and by 1866 jungle on the steep mountainsides had been cleared sufficiently, roads built and settlements for labour imported from Nepal and Sikkim for thirty-nine tea gardens to become established. These included Badamtam, and Singell whose teas we stock today. There are now around seventy-five gardens accounting for about 45,000 acres under cultivation in the seven valleys around Darjeeling. This sounds large but today total output only accounts for approximately 1% of India’s overall tea production.

Tea is picked between March and April, when spring first flush teas are harvested. The smoother and fuller bodied second flush teas are picked May-June. Growth is plentiful during the monsoon period of June to September but the flavour is less distinct. October to November yields the fuller bodied autumn flush. From November but there is a long period of winter dormancy when the bushes do not grow due to the cold and thin air. Annual rainfall in Darjeeling is typically between nine and sixteen feet!

Growing conditions vary widely in the area depending upon altitude which extends from 1,800 to 6,300 feet. Resultant high rainfall, hanging mists, prevailing winds and generally thin, mineral-rich and well-drained soils create individual micro-climates and terroirs. Naturally, this creates a diversity of natural habitat including sub-tropical jungle, alpine, deciduous and semi-evergreen forest.

Appellation status

At higher altitude the more delicate Chinese tea variety is grown as it copes well with the cold. It is this variety which contributes to the delicacy of Darjeeling teas. This has smaller leaves therefore more must be picked for a given weight. The additional labour combined with the difficulty of working the steep terrain, means that Darjeeling is an expensive tea to produce. Great efforts are being made with government help to nurture the roots of aged plants originating from the first plants grown from Chinese seed and to restore patches which have become unproductive. Connoisseurs of Darjeeling have stressed that it is the unique terroir combined with this original tea variety that gives so much to the distinctive qualities of this tea. In 1983 the area was awarded international appellation status, so recognising and protecting the unique qualities of Darjeeling tea.

See the Darjeeling section of our Tea Store.