It all started in the beginning of nineteenth century. Two of the most lucrative commodities that the East India Company traded in were opium and tea. They procured opium from India and exported it to China. In return, they bought tea from China to be sold at a huge price in Great Britain. However, the wary Chinese rulers imposed a ban on opium import. This led to First Anglo-Chinese War and as an outcome of this war the opium market was legally opened for the British merchants. However, the authorities of the East India Company began to look for alternative source of tea. What followed was the greatest espionage saga of that era.
At that time, the whole process of producing tea was a closely guarded secret in China. It was not possible for foreigners to penetrate that. Undaunted, East India Company sent Robert Fortune, a native of Scotland, to procure seedlings and to gather the necessary knowledge regarding the production of tea to China.
Robert Fortune learnt Mandarin, shaved of his head and grew a pigtail. Then dressed in local attire, he sneaked into the remote areas of China where tea bushes were cultivated. Once he managed to gather sufficient number of seedlings he had them shipped to Kolkata (Calcutta at that time) in Wardin Cases. Those were greenhouse type vessels, which allowed self-condensation. This kept the majority of plants healthy though a good quantity of them perished on the way. The know-how brought back by Robert Fortune was equally effective in bringing about a revolution in the tea industry in India.
By then, the British had already annexed the hilly area of Darjeeling and a health resort was about to be set up. Dr. A. Campbell was in charge of establishing the township. Along with his official work, he began to experiment with tea plantation at Beechwood near his home. He was so successful in his endeavor that government came forward to setup a nursery at Lebong. That was 1847.
Soon commercial plantations began in Tukvar, Steinthal and Aloobari. By 1866, Darjeeling district had thirty-nine gardens whose total production amounted to 21,000 kilograms of tea. By 1870, the number of gardens shot up to fifty-six and total produce amounted to 71,000 kilogram.
It is said that some of the seedlings brought back by Robert Fortune can still be found at Makaibari Tea Estate near Kurseong town. Yet, there is a marked difference between Darjeeling tea and its Chinese counterpart. In general, China produces green tea, while bulk of the tea produced in Darjeeling is black. The main difference lies in the manufacturing techniques. After the tea leaves are plucked, the Chinese first have them steamed and then dried. This produces greenish liquor and is known as the ‘green tea’. On the other hand, to produce black tea, Darjeeling tea gardens first have the tea leaves fermented then dried. This produces brown colored liquid and a beautiful aroma.
At the same time it is necessary to realize that, other than black tea, Darjeeling gardens also produce white, olong and green tea. Let us look into the manufacturing process of each:
- Black Tea: Black tea is said to be most pronounced in taste. First the tea leaves (actually two leaves and one bud) undergo withering and rolling. Once that is done, the leaves are fermented for forty-five to sixty minutes. Finally they are left to react with air and oxidize naturally. This process is known as orthodox and the tea so produced is also known as orthodox tea.
- Green Tea: As has already been mentioned, green tea is produced not by fermentation, but by steaming. Consequently, this type of tea is said to contain greater amount of anti-oxidant. According to some school of thought green tea has more health benefits than the other varieties.
- White Tea: The manufacturing procedure of white tea is similar to green tea. However, the plants earmarked for white tea are grown under shade so that not a single ray of sun can reach it. Consequently, it is said to contain the maximum amount of anti-oxidants. The tea has a delicate aroma, a pale golden color and a rich taste.
- Olong Tea: Olong is only partially fermented and consequently less oxidized. In taste, it is similar to black tea, but has all the benefits of green tea. To manufacture olong tea, the gardens need to maintain certain conditions such an elevation higher than 3000 ft, temperature level constant between 5 and 20 degree centigrade etc.
However, one should never take black tea produced by Darjeeling gardens to be only taste and flavor without any health benefit. Black, green or white – all these varieties of tea are actually manufactured from Camellia sinensis. The leaves of this plant are known to fight cancer, ulcer, cavities etc. Let us examine them one by one.
Although researchers have focused more on green tea, it is a fact that Darjeeling black tea contains equal amount of polyphenois, which is known to reduce cellular damages and thereby reduce the chance of developing cancer. Researchers have also demonstrated that diseases such as plague, leukemia, thrombosis etc can be effectively controlled by regular intake of Darjeeling black tea. Moreover, black and white tea is known to act on Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium responsible for development of stomach ulcers and gastric cancer.
Moreover, Darjeeling tea is said to be rich in Vitamin A, B1, B2, potassium, manganese and folic acid. Regular intake of Darjeeling tea is said to prevent obesity and reduce cholesterol. It also reduces fatigue and increase alertness and improves concentration. In addition, both black and green tea is known to inhibit the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria responsible for tooth decay. It also prevents the bacteria from sticking to the surface of the teeth and thus minimizing dental problems to a great extent.Therefore, regular intake of Darjeeling tea not only indulges the senses, but also keeps one healthy.
Now, let us look into another aspect of Darjeeling tea. Before the tea is sold, it is classified into four distinct grades – whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust. While the whole leaves are most expensive, based on the quality of the leaves, it is classified into three sub-grades – Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or SFGFOP, Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or FTGFOP and Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or TGFOP
The broken leaf variety on the other hand, consists of smaller leaves as well as parts of larger leaves. This too can be classified into four sub-grades – Fine Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe or FTGBOP, Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe or TGBOP, Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe or FBOP and finally, Broken Orange Pekoe or BOP.
Next is fannings. Leaves that are even smaller make this variety. It is generally classified into two grades – Golden Flowery Orange Fannings or GFOF and Golden Orange Fannings or GOF. The Dust (represented simply by D) is the fourth grade of Darjeeling tea; it is the lowest grade and it is also the cheapest. It consists of tea dust and very small leaves.
Flush is another important factor to take note of. Darjeeling tea is mostly harvested between March and November. The first crop, which is harvested between first week of March and first week of May, forms the First Flush. The liquor produced from this flush is very mild and has a flowery aroma. The Second Flush is harvested between end May and end June. Since the crop is more mature, the liquor produced from this Flush has a fuller body as well as the world famous muscatel flavor. The final flush, known as the Autumn Flush, is harvested after the rains. It gives strongest liquor and a unique aroma.
However, between the Second and Autumn Flush, most gardens also harvest a third flush known as Monsoon Flush. Because of the incessant rains, such tea cannot be withered properly and hence it needs to be oxidized more. As a result, this tea is sold at a lower rate.
Lastly, we should mention that to get the best out of Darjeeling tea, one has to take certain steps. To start with, one should boil fresh water in a clean kettle. It is very important to see that the water is neither under boiled nor over boiled. While the water is being boiled, the tea pot should be made ready. Wash it with a little warm water and then add tea leaves (one teaspoonful per cup plus one teaspoonful for the pot) to it. As soon as the water starts boiling, pour it over the tea leaves in the pot. Allow it to soak for three to five minutes. As soon as the liquor is formed, the tea has to be filtered. One can have it black. Others may add sugar, milk or lemon to taste.