Darjeeling – Unique and Complex Teas From a Unique and Complex Region

Not long after the discovery of wild tea growing in Assam, the English estab-
lished a hill town health resort and sanitorium for military families in 1835.  This
remote region of western Bengal with its cool, clean mountain air and high ele-
vation had been named Dorje-ling (Darjeeling), in honor of the Dorje, a sacred
ritual object of holy lamas symbolizing eternal strength, constancy, and a fixed
axis point around which all else turns.
Lying across the valley from the soaring,
majestic Himalayan peaks, Darjeeling was
considered a transcendent place by the
Tibetans.  Today monasteries and nature
reserves provide visitors with a window to
the history surrounding the region, and a
place where they can view a breathtaking
sunrise over Kanchenjunga, the third highest
peak of the Himalayas.
Kanchenjunga translates to “Five Treasures
of the Snow,” so named for its five massive
peaks. It was believed to be the highest
mountain in the world, until the title was
claimed by Mount Everest in 1849 (which
visitors can also glimpse on a clear day).
In 1835 fewer than 100 people lived in Darjeeling.  One of them was Dr. A. Campbell, a chief
government official who had been posted to the small mountain town.
With tea seeds given him by India’s governor general, Campbell
and other civil servants living there planted small experimental
government tea gardens.  Some of the seeds used by Campbell
had been smuggled out of

China, while others were from the new-
ly discovered Assam tea plants.
These small test gardens were to ascertain whether the Chinese

Assam variety of tea plant would grow in Darjeeling, with its high altitude and cool thin air,
coupled together with ample rainfall and plenty of sunshine.
Both types of tea thrived, although the Assamica variety preferred a little lower altitude (about
2,000 to 3,000 feet), and warmer climate, whereas the Chinese variety heartily thrived on the
higher slopes (3,000-7,000 feet and above), better tolerating the intense cold winters, and cool
summer breezes than the assamica variety which grew better in the lower elevations that
weren’t quite as harsh.

With the success of the experimental tea
gardens, workers were brought to Darjeel-
ing from

Nepal and the northern region of
Sikkim in 1856 to clear the area for plant-
ing.  Later the English sent more men and
their families to Darjeeling to operate the
vast new tea gardens.
By 1881 the population had swelled
to 95,000, with over 100 large tea
estates. Many of the famous tea gar-
dens today, such as Ambootia and
Singell were established during that

Today the number of Darjeeling tea gardens has dropped to around 75.  Many have
been renamed, combined, or consolidated under new owners, and some have simply

Despite Darjeeling’s demand and popularity worldwide, its

yearly production is only about 1% of India’s total, or around
ten metric tons of tea annually.
Darjeeling is one of the highest altitude tea growing regions
in the world, ranging from 2,000 feet in the foothills, to over
8,000 feet.  With the cool, clear mountain air and hard, thin
soil of the Himalayan foothills, the tea grows more slowly,
allowing it to develop a wonderful range of complex, brisk,
and fruity flavors.

In the higher elevations the tea is planted on steep
slopes, some angling at 60 to 70 degrees.  This makes
planting and plucking much more difficult.  The cool air of
the higher elevations also slows the growth and matur-
ing of the leaf, with some harvests yielding half that of
the tea leaf grown in lower, warmer elevations.

The smaller yield of leaf means higher labor costs per
pound of tea.  Even though this applies to all Chinese bush (Camellia sinensis var.
sinensis) variety, in the case of Darjeeling the steep terrain and altitude add to the
cost of producing tea, which is why Darjeeling teas are more expensive.

For the most part they are unable to increase output, but Darjeeling growers are con-
centrating  instead on improving quality and flavor.

More tea estates are producing certified organic teas and
practicing environmentally friendly growing techniques,
while others are utilizing ecological farming methods based on Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principals, where the entire farm is self sustaining using its
own resources such as local plants for pest control, and natural fertilizers derived from its
own farm animals.

It doesn’t increase the leaf output, but provides a better tasting tea overall.  Enjoy.