Quick: close your eyes, and picture the first thing you think of when I say "Indian tea."
Two guesses on what you see: sultry spiced chai or dark amber black tea, taken with milk and English biscuits.
These are both great things, and we make our fair share of them, but I don't think they're the most interesting tea to come out of India. For a brew that's at once delicate, assertive, and totally unique, you have to go with Darjeeling.
What's the deal with Darjeeling, and why is it so highly prized? It's a Chinese tea that grows in India with flavors of French grapes and Himalayan mountain air. It can taste more like wine than other tea. Even if you're not a tea drinker, good Darjeeling is so interesting that it's really worth a try. If your only Darjeeling experiences have been with blended teas, added flavors, or the dark bitterness of over-brewing, there's a lot more to it that's worth sipping.
What Does it Taste Like?
Darjeeling is frequently called the "Champagne of teas," with musky-sweet tasting notes similar to muscat wine. But it can also have delicate vegetal, mossy, fruity, and citrus flavors. Though Darjeeling is an Indian-grown tea (from, you got it, Darjeeling), the leaves are actually Chinese. "Most tea plants in Darjeeling are of the smaller leaf Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, rather than the larger leaf var. assamica, more commonly grown throughout the rest of India," explains Jim Schreiber, a tea and beverage operations manager.
"While classified as a black tea, Darjeeling teas are almost always less oxidized than a typical black tea," says Schreiber. The unique flavor of Darjeeling comes from Chinese tea genetics mixing with Indian terroir—plus the intricacies of harvesting and processing. It's lighter and less astringent than most black tea, but more layered and complex than most greens.
The same Darjeeling tea from the same plantation will taste different depending on when it's harvested. These periodic harvests, called flushes, span the tea growing season, punctuated by the regular high mountain rains. From the first to the last harvest, the general flavor trend is light and delicate to robust and full-bodied. The second flush from the more mature plant is where the big wine-like flavors come out, but the highly prized first flush, which uses the very youngest leaves, is where you can find some really interesting, delicate, and smooth arboreal-minty-fresh mountain air flavors.
Why It's Awesome
Okay, that last sentence may sound a little ridiculous to non-tea nerds, but think of it this way: discovering delicate, verdant first flush and sultry-sweet second flush Darjeelings is like learning about gin if you only knew about vodka and whiskey. It's a tea game-changer, a taste that the Western mass tea market just doesn't pay enough attention to.
First flush Darjeelings also have that satisfying balance of sweetness and astringency that's often hard to find in good tea. Jim describes the ideal Darjeeling as "pleasantly astringent and optimistically bright in both taste and color"; it'll be sweet, fragrant, and astringent in equal turns, easygoing so you can just drink and enjoy, but complicated enough to keep your interest piqued. Once you get a taste of the good stuff, blended, sweetened teas with added ingredients will just taste like overkill.
I'd recommend starting out your Darjeeling journey with a couple high quality first flushes, then moving on to second and autumn flushes. And definitely try some Darjeeling-like teas grown in other Himalayan regions like Nepal—they can be just as good, and often cheaper. Those first sips of first flush will reveal all the flavorful delicate potential that Darjeeling has to offer, including a genuine taste of that moist, clean mountaintop air (yeah, you really do taste it).
They'll also give you some context for the wine-like flavors of second flushes and the caramel notes of fall flushes. Rather than just tasting those [admittedly fascinating] flavors in isolation, you'll get a sense of how they bloomed from the region's growing conditions.
Some Interesting First Flush Tea
Rare Tea Republic has an interesting selection of Darjeelings and Darjeeling-like (similar flavors and growing conditions, but not grown in Darjeeling itself) teas. Their Phoobsering Black Darjeeling ($3.50 for a 6 gram sample, $19 for 50 grams) is full of delicate lemon oil and sweet spring vegetable flavor, as well as a very mild, controlled astringency for a black tea.
I also liked their more affordable Nepalese Jun Chiyabari ($2 for 6 grams, $12 for 50) and Kangran Wah ($1.50 for 6 grams, $8.25 for 50) teas, the former for its gentle misty air sweetness and subtle caramel notes, and the latter for its surprisingly peppery, mossy flavor.
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Note: Rare Tea Republic samples were provided for review.