Perched on a mountain side overlooking Khangchendzonga (8598m), Darjeeling is neatly tucked between Nepal and Bhutan. Darjeeling is world famous for it’s tea and plantations cover every mountain slope. The Happy Valley Tea Estate is India’s highest tea plantation at an altitude of 2100m . The tea from this plantation produces black, green and white tea and is sold to Harrods, UK.
A recent tour of the tea factory gave me a new appreciation for the hard work that goes into producing my morning cuppa
The first consideration is the time of year the leaves are picked. White tea is picked in the early spring whereas green and black tea are picked from March to November. For black tea, the time of year the leaves are harvested determines the taste of the tea. Leaves picked in the spring have a light taste whereas leaves picked in the summer and autumn tend to be stronger. Darjeeling tea uses the Camellia sinensis tea bush so tastes very different from Assam tea which uses the Camellia assamica tea bush. The altitude of these two areas also plays a key role.
All of the tea plants at Happy Valley are organically grown and the leaves are picked by hand. Due to the terrain workers have to climb steep embankments with woven baskets full of leaves on their backs.
The leaves are picked in clusters of three; two leaves and a bud.
The leaves are then but onto a machine to wither.
This involves blowing hot air (30-35 degrees C) produced from burning coal and cool air from outside (18 degrees C). During this process 65% of the moisture is removed leaving the leaves soft and tender. The leaves are then put through a sifter that separates the young tender leaves. These are used to make the best quality tea.
The leaves are then put through a rolling machine. Originally this would have been done by hand.
The rolling and twisting of the leaves causes the cells within the plant to be broken down. The leaves begin to produce aromas after 15-45 minutes
Black tea only: The leaves are spread across the floor for oxidisation. This process lasts between 45 minutes and three hours. This is where Darjeeling’s altitude plays a key role. Due to it’s high altitude there is less oxygen in the air so oxidization takes longer. The longer the oxidisation the browner the leaf and the stronger the taste – much like a cut piece of apple.
Catechins within the leaf is broken down when the tea is rolled and twisted. When catechin mixes with oxygen it produces theaflavins and thearubigins. This step is crucial for producing the perfect taste and a lock point between these elements must be found. Thearubigin and theaflavin produced by the breakdown of the catechin give the tea it’s strong aroma and good flavour. As a consequence of the broken down catechin black tea does not have the health benefits found in green and white tea. On the other hand, green and white tea don’t have the aromas and flavours found in black tea!
To prevent further oxidisation of the leaves they are put though a drying oven at 115-120 degrees C for 22 minutes. After this time the leaves are 97% dry – any dryer and they become burnt. The 3% of moisture retained in the leaf means it has a shelf life of two years.
Black and Green Tea only: (white tea is always whole leaf) The leaves are cut and graded into uniform sizes. Whole leaf is 8-15mm in size. This is first grade tea and if it is not loose it must be in a pyramid shaped tea bag to allow the leaves to uncurl when hot water is added. The same applies for ‘broken leaves’. ‘Fannings’ and ‘tea dust’ – are the lowest grade of tea and are used to fill bog standard tea bags.
How to drink your tea: Black tea – water temperature 95 degrees C and Darjeeling tea should be brewed for 5 minutes. Darjeeling tea is not meant to be consumed with milk or sugar. Green tea – water temperature 80-85 degrees C and brewed for 3 minutes. Any longer and more tannins are released making the taste bitter. White tea – This tea does not taste strong. Many people who try it for the first time say it just tastes like hot water.
You should slurp your tea as it adds more oxidization and produces more flavour!
All in all a lot of hard work goes into making your perfect cup of tea. Next time you put on the kettle remind yourself that it’s not just hot water and a tea bag. Take a moment to think of the pristine emerald slopes of Darjeeling overlooked by the snow-capped Himalayas.