How time flies! Sometimes we get so busy taking care of store business that I have trouble finding time to keep up my promised blog entries before they're overdue! Though they could have been more evenly-spaced throughout the month, today I'll present Darjeeling and Nilgiri Indian Black Teas to finish (just under the wire) our celebration of Indian black teas.
Many people have at least heard the word "Darjeeling," even if they haven't tried Darjeeling's world-famous teas. Darjeelings have been the subject of many mildly specious metaphors, such as "the champagne of teas," or the "connoisseur's black tea." The fact is: tea is not wine, but Darjeeling black tea is an utterly unique tea genre that is certainly worthy of observant appreciation and the international renown it has generated. Like Assam teas, Darjeelings were first cultivated in the mid-1800's by British expatriates. However, the similarities end there: Unlike Assams, Darjeelings are grown in the mountains of West Bengal province, and the tea plants used originated in China. Because of this combination, Darjeelings tend to be much lighter in body and complex in flavor than the lowland-grown Assam teas.
Darjeelings are also unique because of their leaf appearance--rather than a more or less uniformly black coloration, Darjeelings often contain a number of silver and green leaves, due to the "not-quite-full" oxidation that the leaves receive during processing, which surely contributes to their lightness and complexity when brewed. Darjeeling teas are produced by tea gardens known as "estates," and the name of a particular Darjeeling is almost always the name of the estate. Following the estate name is usually an indicator of which "flush" the tea is--that is, when the tea was harvested. Generally, there are three primary harvests--First flush (produced in March at the end of the rains), Second Flush (produced during June), and Autumn Flush (produced--you guessed it--in autumn, after the second rain season). Flavor-wise, the flushes go from lightest, subtlest and most delicate to darker, fuller-bodied, and less delicate as time progresses, and earlier-harvested teas are usually less expensive. Really, though, it's all a matter of taste--I tend to prefer Second Flush Darjeelings, even though they may not get the most attention.
The tea I chose for tasting is our new Makaibari Estate First Flush. The above picture demonstrates well the beautiful, varied appearance of the leaves. I steeped this one for 2.5 minutes using 190º water--I find a lower temperature of water produces a more subtle cup when it comes to Darjeeling, and too long of a steeping time will bring out a biting bitterness. The first sensation I experienced when drinking this tea was warming--I felt heat rush to my mouth and throat as soon as the tea touched my lips. After swallowing, I noticed a slight, pleasant bitterness in the back of my mouth, as well as an astringency that I often find in First Flush Darjeelings. The wet leaves (you can see in the picture that they've retained their varied coloration, unlike the Satrupa Marangi's fully-oxidized golden buds) put off an inviting aroma of sweet leather and blackberries, and the tea's liquor translates these aromas into a gentle, sweet-and-dry berry flavor and a much more subdued showing of that leathery characteristic. It's also important to note that most true Darjeelings (Darjeelings, like most famous tea types are often faked!) share a similar flavor profile, dubbed "muscatel" by Darjeeling fans. The word is borrowed from wine tasting. Although I'm slightly unconvinced that there's a strong connection between wine's flavor profile and Darjeeling teas', I'm absolutely sure that the so-called "muscatel" flavor is a primary draw for Darjeelings inasmuch as it's unique and inviting in its complexity. The final characteristic that strikes me about this tea is its lingering aftertaste, which really didn't occur with the other two Indian blacks I tried.
We carry two First Flush Darjeelings and one each of Second and Autumn Flushes, so if you're in the neighborhood, please stop by and see for yourself what makes these teas so special!