Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea

Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea
Jeff Koehler
Bloomsbury, 2016

Twice as much tea is sold as “Darjeeling” each year than is grown on the 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling region of India in the Himalaya mountains between Nepal and Bhutan.

This “champagne of teas” is much coveted, and factors such as weather, politics and working conditions mean that tea sellers are more than willing to blend the lesser batches of Darjeeling with other black teas such as Assam, both to make a buck and to meet customer demand.

Most Darjeeling tea is sold as a single estate product, and is one of four “flushes” that occur each growing season. The tea bushes must be picked (or rather carefully hand plucked) weekly, and starting in the spring, will be categorized as one of four flushes: first, second, monsoon or autumn, each with their own unique flavours and characteristics.

The best of these teas will fetch top dollar at auction, with the poorer quality teas (which are still quite splendid) being sold as blends.

There was a time when top tea estates created huge amounts of money, but things are changing in the Darjeeling region and author Jeff Koehler documents the history of the region dating back to British colonial times when efforts were made to find somewhere in India where tea could be grown that matched the quality of the product coming out of China.

Koehler traces the whole Darjeeling process, from plucking and drying and rolling of the leaves to the auction houses where the tea is sampled and sold. He visits tea estates and talks to both owners and workers about the challenges facing the tea industry in that region.

For while Darjeeling teas still command top dollar, tea estates are faced with problems both new and old. The tea pluckers, despite having jobs for life and decent benefit packages, get paid very poorly and absenteeism is as high as 30% (for a crop that needs skilled hands to pick it weekly, this is potentially devastating); many are leaving the backbreaking work for less physically demanding jobs. Years of conventional farming and climate change has also caused significant soil erosion on the terraced estates; organic and even bio-dynamic practices are bring tried by some farms but the output is considerably less, which also affects the bottom line. Not to mention, Indian tea drinkers are quickly being wooed by big coffee chains, creating further competition for a bespoke product.

The future of Darjeeling is now tied to an appellation certification (similar to the appellation d’origine contrôlée in France) for Darjeeling tea (so those blended teas won’t be able to call themselves “Darjeeling” anymore without specifying it is a mix of Darjeeling and other leaves), and food tourism, in which the tea estates host guests in a hotel-style set up that includes tours, activities and tea-themed dinners. Politics will also play a role – Sikkim, where Darjeeling is located, has rallied for independent statehood for some time and such a change would no doubt effect the entire Darjeeling tea industry, now based in Kolkata for trade purposes.

Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea is an interesting read, but dry at times. Facts and figures, while important for the overall scope of the story, tend to bog down many chapters, and conversion in prices from rupees to US dollars slows things down further. Recommended for true tea lovers, or anyone interested in terroir or bespoke food and drink products.

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