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Reading the Tea Leaves 🍃 Darjeeling - Chapter 7-9

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Terroir to Teacup

This chapter highlights the important factors that influence the process for making Darjeeling tea. Terroir (soil, topography, and climate of a region) is the “first part of the flavor equation.”

The second factor is the human labor (hand picking, rolling, etc.) that goes into processing the tea. Machines alone cannot make Darjeeling's specialty tea.

Tea processing begins the moment the leaf is plucked. Tea pluckers are typically women and are very selective in the tea they pluck from the bushes. Often they use two leaves and a bud for the picking standard.

In Darjeeling, the cultivation and production of tea all occur on the same estate. Once the leaves are plucked it begins a “chain reaction” of steps that must take place within 24 hours to process the tea to completion.

Depending on the type of tea that is being made these steps can include “withering, rolling, fermenting, and drying before the tea gets sorted, graded and packed.”

My favorite quote from this chapter: “Fermentation is simply a process of death and decay. We are afraid of death—but love the flavor of it”

A Decision for the Mouth to Make

This next chapter focuses on the role tea tasting plays in making teas. In order to create high quality tea professional tea cupping occurs 6 days a week. In Darjeeling, tea is not picked on Sundays so there is no tea to process or taste on Mondays.

Professional cupping is very scientific in nature. White porcelain cups are used to best show the color of the tea. The standard is to steep the tea for 5 minutes. Tea is also weighed to make sure that all of the variables are the same. This is crucial when comparing teas. “Weight, time and amounts must be precise. Consistency is everything.”

Examining the infusion - the wet tea leaves - is a critical step in determining a teas quality. Experienced tea tasters can smell the brewed leaves and gauge if the tea has been processed correctly as well as identify what stages imperfections occurred.

In general, tasters can “pick out all the faults from rolling, withering, fermenting and firing.”

My favorite quote from this chapter: “‘You can learn the science,’ he said after slurping tea spooned from another cup, “but the art must be cultivated.”

Knocking Down

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

The price and worth of Darjeeling tea is greatly influenced by the Kolkata weekly auction run by J. Thomas & Co. The author claims that the auctioneer, Anindyo Choudhury, is “the most influential man in Darjeeling tea.” This particular tea auction is the only remaining auction to still use the open outcry system as opposed to silent auction.

In Choudhury’s role he wants to maintain not only the quality of Darjeeling tea, but also the price and market value. He plays a vital role in bridging the gap between production and demand. He understands what buyers want and can convey this information to the producers.

Not every tea estate uses the auction system. Some opt for selling directly to the buyer. The advantage of direct purchasing is potentially selling the tea for more and avoiding the time lag. The auction adds a month to the buying/selling process.

However, of the existing estates 60-65% still send their teas to auction. The auction is a useful tool for evaluating and establishing the value of Darjeeling’s. Choudhury is a powerful ally to have in the industry and known for his integrity, impartiality, and good judgement.

Due to the high value placed on teas produced in Darjeeling there is rampant mislabeling and blending. Much like with champagne, many sellers falsely claim to be selling Darjeeling tea. For example, there are estimates that 40 million kilograms is advertised as Darjeeling tea. That is 4 times more than the region produces.

My favorite quote from this chapter: “Darjeeling tea is traded based on its quality [...] it’s about the taste in the cup sampled from each invoice”

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