Friday, May 13, 2016

Revisiting Darjeeling

In a rare moment of weakness last Saturday morning, I was seduced by the potential thrill of swimming in Darjeeling.

Last month I spotted Jeff Koehler's monotome on Darjeeling during my weekly trip to the library. I chuffed exactly in a way any puerh drinker might in seeing the over-capitalized tagline "the WORLD'S GREATEST TEA".   I checked this book out solely to see how the author would go about staking such a grandiose claim but of course for an empiricist like me, only a thorough taste test will validate or invalidate such hyperbole.

Koehler's historical narrative behind the formation of the Indian tea industry is what I found most compelling out of his 230 pages.  Breathless reporting of record busting auction prices- not so much.  No puerh head is gonna get impressed by two thousand dollars for a kilo of tea- that's just a ho-hum $45 a pot.  If monetary price is any measure of value- clearly the WORLD'S GREATEST TEA is PUERH!!!

Darjeeling tea trees are not native to Darjeeling but descend from tea seeds and plants smuggled out of Bohea Hills or Fujian in 1848-1851 by Scottish botanist and adventurer Robert Fortune.  His was one of multiple attempts for the British to grow their own tea instead of draining their national gold reserves to the Chinese for this wildly popular beverage.  Building a tea industry from scratch to supply the nation was a slow going business and the British were savvy enough to recruit a few willing Chinese tea manufacturers to jumpstart the endeavor .  Unfortunately the Opium Wars raged on long before India eventually supplanted China as the England's top tea producer.

The specimens of Camellia sinensis var sinensis first smuggled out of China in 1830s by an earlier party did poorly in the sweltering heat of India low lands but the British had stumbled on the fact that India already had a native tea plant Camelia sinensis var assamica (yes the very same variety of our beloved puerh).  The massive tea trees grew wild in the jungle and the hill tribes that "brewed" this tea were not altogether happy to aid the British.  Despite all the struggles of clearing jungles and work force  dropping from malaria and other tropical diseases,  it's this coarser larger leaf variety that has come to dominate Indian tea production and culture.

One of the most intriguing passages  in the book comes from the very first FAQ published in the english language about tea growing in 1838.  I leave you the title to explain itself-  "An Account of the Manufacture of the Black Tea as Now Practised at Suddeya in Upper Assam, by the Chinamen Sent Thither for That Purpose. With Some Observations on the Culture of the Plant in China and Its Growth in Assam" by Charles A Bruce (available free on Google Books).

Koehler's book included the first question and answer and I was happy to track down the second statement about hongcha's shelf life.  Since I find hongchas and roasted yanchas more pleasurable after the second year with the brashness mellowed out,  I was happy to see this confirmed.

So back to Darjeeling tea- the Chinese transplants thrived in the niche ecosystem of the south eastern range of the Himalayas of about 70 square miles or 48 thousand acres. Because Darjeeling is so geographically limited with 87 tea estates, it is a tea genre you can readily access and wrap your head around.  From a puerh drinker perspective- it's refreshing to know you can sample a large part of the region's best offerings for even less than the price of a new Yiwu beeng.

Enter my large box of tea not from Kunming Post.  For a price cheaper than my lunch last Sunday,  I have 10 grams each of 31 first flushes with free express shipping from India(3 day turnaround). I had tried Golden Tips assam sent to me by Emmett and so bought from this same vendor with confidence. This collection includes from top tea estates you might recognize- 
  • Giddapahar 
  • Goomtee- I see this is a Hojo choice
  • obligatory Castleton- yes the moonlight first flush
  • obligatory Glenburn
  • Margaret's Hope- tea estate with the most tear jerker name and a good mother's day gift
  • Singbulli
  • Sungma- yes the Adagio supplying Sungma, I won't hold it against this sample
  • Thurbo
  • Arya (Mariage Frères)
  • organic Okayti- Mighty Leaf used to carry them
Noticeably absent are Ambootia and Maikaibari- the two I do remember treasuring around the new millennium but this first flush party pack does not appear to be lacking.  They threw in a clonal, Long Ding, and two Nepalese estates.

The first flush has delicacy and a certain shyness.  If you don't like the touch of silk, the second summer flush is stronger but autumn may be the strongest of the  Darjeeling flushes. I used to prefer the first flush because if I wanted stronger- I would go all the way with assam!  Of course a second flush party pack is planned forthwith- it's just that I felt sheepish about putting in a 3 figure order.  No act of tea restraint goes unpunished.  I ordered from the old Golden Tips site on the morning that they appeared to have rolled out a new website under with slightly higher prices.  The samplers I was going to purchase are no longer offered. It's situations like this that turns on my tea over-buying switch.  

I started with a gentle Phuguri autumn flush from a different Darjeeling sampler(ahem, ahem) this morning- undeniably lovely and enjoyable.  If Darjeeling is the champagne of teas, puerh surely must be scotch.  And those who drink scotch tend not to gush over champagne. I have to admit I don't know why I would have forgotten or resisted tea that is so disarmingly easy to drink, delicious and inexpensive (by puerh standards).  I stopped drinking Darjeeling soon after I took up with puerh but everything comes in cycles and thanks to a chance encounter with this book I'm enticed to give Darjeeling another go.

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