August 08, 2017

Violent protests in India wouldn’t normally pique our interest, but when those political protests start affecting our afternoon tea habit, it’s enough to make us, a nation of tea lovers, sit up and take note. But it isn’t all tea production in India that is affected, just teas produced in Darjeeling.

The UK Tea Council named Darjeeling tea the ‘Champagne of Teas’, not least because of its unique, exquisite taste, but the hefty price tag that can accompany it. Here we look at what makes Darjeeling tea so different, refined and in high demand worldwide.

Darjeeling tea history

Whilst tea growing is synonymous with India, tea is but a relative newcomer to that part of East Asia. Darjeeling tea, available in black, green, white and oolong has been feeding the Great British tea habit since 1856. The wet hills of the Darjeeling region in West Bengal were first earmarked for their suitability to host a sanatorium for Europeans, keen to take the fresh mountain air away from the bustling larger and more polluted cities in India.

It was whilst under the supervision of Dr Arthur Campbell, the leading physician at the time, was it noted what a fine spot Darjeeling would be to grow tea in. Having sourced a variety of Chinese tea seeds and planted them on the estate, the tea quickly grew in popularity in Europe.

Darjeeling tea production

Today there are 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling region, covering 17.5 hectares of land from which 9 million kg of tea is harvested each year. Employing more than 52,000 permanent and 15,000 temporary tea pickers, Darjeeling tea is produced in the same orthodox manner that it once was, meaning the leaves aren’t torn by a machine. Instead they are hand picked, air-withered and gently rolled on mechanical rollers to get the oolong effect, before being oxidized and fired.

Interesting fact: it is estimated that more than 200,000 local families are directly impacted and dependent on the wages of the estate workers in Darjeeling. Your cup of Darjeeling tea helps to support their livelihood directly! That's why we at Chateau Rouge, have as core values to always pay above the market prices to all our suppliers - focusing on the best possible quality and ethical trade practices above all else!

Tea harvesting seasons

Like all tea, Darjeeling has a growing season:

  • First flush tea - harvested in mid-March following spring rains. Produces a tea that is gentle, light in colour, aromatic, with a mild astringency.
  • Second flush - harvested in June and produces an amber, full bodied, muscatel-flavoured tea.
  • Monsoon - harvested in the monsoon between second flush and autumnal. Is less withered, more oxidized and sold at lower prices.
  • Autumnal flush - harvested in the autumn after the rainy season. Has a less delicate flavour and spicy tones, but is fuller bodied and darker in colour.

Health benefits of drinking black tea

Tea, like chocolate, contains health-boosting antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols - which can help to reduce cellular damage caused by cancer. Although most research has been carried out around the health benefits of green tea, black tea has been shown to have just the same compounds, at similar levels, and is therefore presumed to have similar beneficial properties.

But that isn’t the only reason why Darjeeling tea stands head and shoulders above its other tea compatriots. A 2001 review in The Journal of Medical Microbiology showed that tea drinkers had fewer dental cavities than coffee drinkers. And a 2010 review in The Journal of Nutrition concluded drinking green and black teas showed an anti-obesity effect in humans.

How to drink Darjeeling tea - the quintessential 'English afternoon tea'

  1. Bring your water to the boil, or just before boiling (95-98 deg.C.)
  2. Add one tsp of tea, per person, to a pre-warmed teapot.
  3. Pour over the hot water and leave to infuse for 3-5 mins.
  4. Strain the tea into a cup. Preferably use a fine bone China tea set.
  5. Drink without milk or sugar, however you can add a little lemon or lime juice for a citrusy twist.
  6. Enjoy with friends - tea is for sharing!

2017 and 2018 Darjeeling first flush teas - update (summer 2017)

As reported on the BBC: "For the moment, Darjeeling looks like becoming a limited edition tea all right," says Ashok Lohia, who owns 13 gardens in the region. "But I'd just request the connoisseurs to bear with us, and we promise to be back with the our very best quality soon". 

Luckily Chateau Rouge has sufficient tea for this year and hoping that the situation will improve for the 2018 first flush teas and we will be unaffected, but expect the price of Darjeeling teas to increase substantially over the next year. If you're a tea connoisseur or regular Darjeeling drinker, we suggest to stock up on your favourite teas as soon as possible while you can still get some or may you will need to wait till the 2018 season.

Luckily though there are some fantastic teas from neighbouring Nepal, which has always struggled to compete with Darjeeling but are in many ways much better - these estates may now finally get their lucky break! Expect these also to sell out quickly!


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