Surrounded by the majesty of the Himalaya's famous mountains, where earth meets heaven, in the lush valleys at altitudes up to 2159 metres, dotted with temples where prayers are written, amidst breathtaking beauty and mystery, lies the land of Darjeeling. In the native language of Lepcha this is known as the 'Land of the Thunderbolt' and the prestigious teas grown here are rightly considered among the world's best.
Some would say they are a tea without equal. At their best it would be hard to disagree. They are grown in a small area made up of eighty gardens in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are seven valleys where tea is grown, named East Darjeeling or Golden Valley, West Darjeeling, Mirik, Teesta, Rungbong and North and South Kurseong which means Land of White Orchids. Often referred to as the 'Champagne of Tea', there are a number of factors contributing to its quality. The altitude of up to 8000ft, the perfect balance of sun and rain, rich, well drained soil, fragrant air and in the best types the use of the original slow growing chinese tea bushes.
This hardy, evergreen shrub takes four to six years to mature and will yield fine, flavoursome tea for well over 100 years with good care. This is natures contribution, unique to Darjeeling's Seven Valleys but without the considerable nurture and manufacturing skills used at the best plantations the tea would not become complete. Plucking begins in March and closes by late November. Each tea bush in the estate is plucked every 4 to 7 days depending on the season. A hectare of garden yields around 500kgs of dry tea with each bush yielding only 100 grams of made tea in a year. It takes over 20,000 individually hand picked shoots to make a kilogram of tea. It is little wonder that Darjeeling is held in such high esteem, having gifted the world with the finest teas, flavoured by nature and for over 100 years nurtured with uncommon skill and excellence.
The three most important crops of Darjeeling are known as First Flush or 'Spring' teas, picked in March and April, Second Flush or 'Summer' teas, picked mid June to mid July and Autumnal, picked in November. The period between these peak times are considered main crop but of little interest in terms of quality. Darjeeling tea leaves are processed in the traditional "Orthodox" way. The inherent sensitive nature of the finely plucked, green leaf responds best to gentle treatment. Although differing leaf varieties require intricate variations in processing, the stages undergone are uniform. Once the leaf reaches the factory, it is withered. The object is to evaporate moisture from the leaf slowly over a period of 14 to 16 hours. The leaf becomes limp so as to withstand twisting and rolling under pressure without crumbling. Liquor characteristics also begin to develop following physical and chemical changes within the leaf structure.
The green leaves are segregated according to type and spread evenly on wire mesh screens fitted over specially designed troughs which resemble very long wooden boxes. Each trough is an air chamber which enables fresh dry air to be passed in a regulated manner through the green leaves till the desired "wither" is achieved. 65% of the water content is removed from the leaf at this stage. The withered leaf is then removed from the trough and rolled under pressure, resulting in release of natural juices that promote oxidation and pigmentation.The leaf is thinly spread in a cool, well ventilated room to slowly ferment. This is the stage in which the unique flavour of Darjeeling Tea develops over two to four hours. The experienced tea maker judges the extent of quality development from the fragrance progressively expressed by the leaf at regular intervals. Once the fermentation is done, the rolled leaf is taken for drying (firing) to arrest further fermentation and to remove almost all the remaining water content from the leaf. The dried tea is crisp and finally graded and packed according to size and quality. For further information see the next categories for each of these types.