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Tea in the queen of hills: Darjeeling tea from scratch


An intoxicating aroma and a subtle, muscatel flavour, the hubbub these days seems to be about chai from Darjeeling. That little conurbation sprawled across the Himalayas, which is becoming a contender in tea production. So, the time had come to take a closer look at the journey of this à la mode cup of tea.

Image by Zsolt Raba, Flickr

Darjeeling Teas is the result of its location climate, soil conditions, altitude and meticulous processing. About 10 million kilograms are grown every year, spread over 17,500 hectares of land

The amalgamation of the climate, elevation, rainfall, terrain, and soil that these teas are grown in could be an effortless elucidation for its eccentric flavor. As Chinese hybrid seeds are more susceptible to cold weather, the preponderance of the plants cultivated in the Darjeeling region are indeed Chinese hybrid. 

Sharing its routes with China, the odyssey of the leaves from twigs to the rustic cup remains orthodox. Avoiding the plain CTC; crushing, tearing, curling method, the process follows several delicate and intricate methods to aggrandize every flavor stuck to the periphery of the leaves.

Image by Thunderbolt Tea, Flickr 

Plucking is done entirely by women with their hands. It is believed that women nimble and dexterous hands will ensure that the leaves are not “injured” during plucking.

The process begins with Plucking, which demands great dexterity. No wonder, that womenfolk excel at this fine art. The best leaf pluckers pick the stalk that has two leaves and a bud- the buzzword in the industry. The freshest leaves are found in such stalks called shoots, and one need 22000 such shoots to prepare one kilogram of tea leaves. On an average, the pluckers need to fulfill a target of 4-5 kilograms a day which could be doubled as per the high plucking season, which decides their daily wages. Indeed, hard work in a cup. 

As the handmade basket carried on the backs of pluckers – doco, is filled with shoots, the leaves are then transferred to the factory for withering.

Image by Kaushik Colorbug, Flickr

Withering process in progress as workers spread the leaves over the troughs.

Tea leaves are withered by spreading them in a thin layer onto elevated troughs- a long wooden box covered with wire mesh with large axial fans attached to a side, to expel moisture. Under the troughs, hot and cold air is blown for up to 20 hours until most moisture is excluded from the leaves and hence become limp, perfect for rolling, the next stage.

Image by Darjeeling tourism

The process of rolling tea leaves into massive rolling machines.

The most mechanical element – rolling, which entails feeding the leaves into massive rolling machines to roll and bruise them. The bruising unveils the cell sap, crucial for the oxidation process. The process requires anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes, depending on the leaf’s peculiarities, which are extensively dominated by the harvest season.

Image by HOJO

Fermentation process of Darjeeling first flush black tea. 

When the rolled leaves are laid on open beds with a humidity level of 80% and a temperature of 70-80 F, fermentation, ensues. The most crucial component in the tea production process. It is a bit of science and skill where the tea maker has to be able to gauge the optimum level at which to incarcerate the oxidation. The process of three to four hours solely determines the aroma and the unique muscatel flavor of the tea.

Image by Dissolve 

Tea leaves drying in large container. 

As the oxidation process is terminated, any moisture left is eliminated by drying/firing. The fermented leaves are gradually shifted through a drying machine up to 20 minutes that sustains a temperature of 250 F.

Image by Chai Chun 

Packing of tea leaves into the paper sacks. 

The method of evaluating the distinct leaf grades- sorting.  Dried leaves are shuffled by vibrating wire mesh trays. This simple technique sorts the leaf into four grades: whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust grades.

The final step- packing, where the grades of tea are packed into plywood chests or paper sacks and then marked with the grade name, garden, invoice number, year of manufacture, etc. 

To experience the best, the tea plantations in Darjeeling would allow you to understand the process while sipping on their distinct finest tea. An experience on its own!