At around the same time the Bruces were cultivating the Assam tea bush, the British were also focussing on getting their much-prized tea plants out of China, which controlled the trade strictly.
It was thought the Indian buses would never be able to compete with their Chinese competition, Camellia sinensis sinensis. When they did finally manage to get Chinese tea out, they took it to Darjeeling, where the cool, high-altitude and rainy environment was similar to the conditions in which the tea grew in China.
Despite the support of the British government, Darjeeling would never become as successful as Assam, and even now only grows one percent of the Indian total. What it lacks in volume, however, it makes up in refinement, which is why it is sometimes called the “Champagne” of teas.
Crops vary year to year depending on soil conditions and weather, and can only be called a Darjeeling tea if it meets certain criteria.
Darjeeling is in west Bengal, in east India and not far from Bangladesh. It is mountainous, and tea gardens flourish up to altitudes of 7,000 feet, spread over hills and valleys.
This fluctuating topography creates microclimates, with conditions varying from misty breezes to monsoon rains, hot sun to jungly humidity. These conditions make Darjeeling exclusive and give it its unique flavour, but can also make it difficult to harvest. There will never be enough Darjeeling to meet the demand.
Although the bushes initially came from China, the tea in Darjeeling has adapted to the local conditions over nearly 200 years, and is now distinct in its own right as well as being different from the Assam tea in the rest of India.
Compared to the assamica plant, camellia sinensis sinensis produces small, delicate leaves, and it takes twice as many plants to produce the same output, another reason it has a small overall yield compared to its cousin.
The picking season runs from February to November and can include four separate pickings:
“First flush”, in February or March, the lightest and most delicate flavour.
“Second flush” in May, where the leaves have fruity notes and silver teaps.
“Monsoon flush” from June to October, which makes stronger, bolder-flavoured teas than the early two.
“Autumnal flush”, in October and November, with rich copper-coloured leaves, with a full, smooth flavour.
Each batch will be differetn from the last, so no two batches will be the same, as with wine.
To continue the wine comparison, Darjeeling tea ought to be sipped carefully. Each variety will have its own brewing instructions designed to eke out the nuanced and delicate flavour. The later harvests, especially the monsoon flush, can be used as a base for masala chai.