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Reading the Tea Leaves 🍃 Darjeeling - Chapter 4-6

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

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First Flush - An Indian Tea Industry

This chapter tells the story of how the tea industry began in India. It begins with Robert Bruce discovering indigenous tea in 1823 - at the time the “Singbo tribes pickled the leaves and ate them with oil and garlic and sometimes dried fish.” They also made tea with the leaves.

The indigenous tea samples were sent to the Calcutta botanic garden by C.A. Bruce (Robert died , but his brother picked up where Robert left off) and arrived in 1825. Dr. Nathaniel Wallich, the superintendent of the gardens, concluded that they were from the camellia family, but were not Camellia sinensis (i.e. tea). Interestingly it appears that “the botanical authorities in Calcutta were deeply reluctant to acknowledge that tea existed in India.”

In 1833 the Company lost their monopoly on tea from China and by 1834 had formed the Tea Committee which included Wallich. In 1834 Wallich confirmed that tea did exist in India and the Tea Committee proudly proclaimed “the tea shrub is beyond all doubt indigenous in Upper Assam” and also that it was identical to the tea from China.

There are two tea varieties: Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica. What they discovered in India was the second variety Camellia sinensis assamica. “The leaves of the Assam variety are larger and coarser than China ones but also glossier.” They also have a reduced lifespan (less than half that of the China variety) and are more tree than bush.

Meanwhile, the tea committee was also attempting to obtain tea samples from China to plant in India. By 1839, Bruce had discovered 120 areas with colonies of indigenous tea. In this same year about 350 pounds of Assam tea went up for auction. “That wild tea grew in Assam, could be cultivated and processed, and would sell on the market had been proven.” As a result of this, by 1888 “Britain was importing more tea from India than China.”

Although there were great quantities of tea being produced in Assam - it did not have the quality of tea from China. “The teas of Assam had plenty of body but little finesse.”

In terms of information on processing the tea - all the information Bruce had fit into a neat 19 pages and Lu Yu’s “Classic of Tea” remained the main source of information. For context, the “Classic of Tea” is largely poetic with minimal information on how to actually process high quality tea. Up to this point attempts to obtain and produce Camellia sinensis sinensis in India had been unsuccessful.

First Flush - China Leaf

This next chapter describes how Robert Fortune successfully brought the Chinese variety Camellia sinensis sinensis to India. Robert Fortune was a Scottish botanist who in 1848 arrived in Hong Kong with the mission to “gather tea plants, as well as production secrets, for both green and black tea”.

At the time the British thought these two types of tea came from different plants - this continues to be a common misconception up to the present moment. Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese person from “beyond the great wall” and traveled through China under the alias of Sing Wa. Using Wardian cases (sealed glass boxes that acted like mini-greenhouses) Fortune successfully collected and sent tea plants to the Calcutta botanic garden. After several attempts he was also able to send tea seeds successfully using the Wardian cases.

After he mastered sending plants and seeds his final task was to bring experienced Chinese tea manufacturers with him back to India. This was easily accomplished by using a well-connected agent who offered generous well-paid contracts to eight different tea makers. The tea makers brought their families and were also given freedom in their tea planting and power over Indian and British workers. Fortune was also able to obtain tea-making equipment.

By 1851 Fortune successfully brought the Chinese tea makers, tools, and another batch of seed and plants to Calcutta. These were then brought to the Company's gardens in the Himalayas. “Fortune added, by his own estimation, nearly twenty thousand new tea plants from China to India.” Some of the tea plants Fortune brought were brought to Darjeeling “where it would eventually produce the world’s finest and most expensive teas.” Although that statement is certainly an opinion!

It’s also interesting to note that Fortune must not have been a very good father or husband because upon his death in 1880 his family burned his diaries, letters, and personal effects.

Second Flush (May through June)

This is another short vignette that describes the quality and season of second flush Darjeeling tea. The second flush season runs from mid-May to June which is the summer period in Darjeeling. The leaves from this season are larger and have “a slightly purplish bloom and high number of silvery tips.” The processed tea tends to be the color of copper and mahogany with the liquor of the tea being “the color of a newly minted copper penny.”

This season is also known as the “muscated flush” because there is a prominent musky spice with sweet hints in the flavor of the tea.

During this season there are also green flies called tea jassids that feed on the leaves which “doesn’t kill the leaf completely but stunts its growth, which further concentrates flavors.” This flush can be more desirable than the first flush and is certainly “the topmost quality of leaf.” The first and second flush are both highly prized and sought after.

Second Flush - Darjeeling

This chapter is the history of how Darjeeling came to be the tea producing region it is now. The story begins in 1817 when the East India Company became involved in the area by signing a treaty with Sikkim that reclaimed 4,000 square miles for the rajah and gave him sovereignty over the area. Sikkim had many disputes with neighboring groups and the Company used this as an opportunity to gain power over the region.

This began with dispatching Captain George Lloyd who in 1834 used a border dispute as an opportunity to take 138-square-mile tract as an “unconditional gift” from the rajah for the purposes of using the land as a sanitarium (a place for the British to recover from the tropical climate in other areas). Although the rajah was initially granted an allowance as compensation for this gift, this allowance stopped in 1849 when the British took the opportunity to grab the land once and for all. In addition to taking Darjeeling they also took Terai.

The production of tea in both regions is directly attributed to Dr. Archibald Campbell who became the superintendent over the sanitarium in Darjeeling after Lloyd. Campbell used Fortune’s tea stock in his personal garden and after discovering that Camellia sinensis sinensis could be grown successfully there he quickly took action to turn Darjeeling into a tea producing region. In 1866 thirty-nine gardens produced 433,000 and by 1885 the area produced 9 million pounds of tea.

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