It is possible that muscatel tea means more to the rest of the world than it does to someone in Darjeeling. Much of the tea’s charm lies in the way it is ‘believed’ to taste – some going as far as to peg against red wine. To some, it’s a turning point, a perversion to the obvious and predictable nature (and taste) of tea. But very few encounters of muscatel speak about the technique, the people who make it and the place it originates.
Last December, I accompanied tea planter and estate manager Vikas Gajmer for a short tour of his tea gardens on the uneven mountainside of Kurseong – a smallish town in southern Darjeeling. We were joined by assistant garden manager Vivek Pande, a youngish chap who looked a little too young for his job.
It was a bright, sunny afternoon and the mountain sides looked heavy with hues of green. This is not a normal sight for someone visiting Darjeeling during peak winter. You half expect everything around you to be obscured by mist with no sign of sun or green. “It’s not common to see flowering buds this time of the year. Even we were surprised to see the gardens still blooming,” remarked the pleasantly amazed estate manager. We stopped along a curb, still about 4000 feet above sea level, and got out of the car to peer at the green marvel that was now covering the entire length of his estate. Vikas pointed out a planted section right in front of me, still plump and green-looking. “This is where our muscatel valley begins. And this is where you get the best muscatel tea in Darjeeling”.
Vikas manages the 130-years old Castleton tea estate, a renowned property in Darjeeling’s tea growing region. He has been with Castleton for the better part of the last decade. Tall, square faced, light-eyed and broad-shouldered, he has a seemingly ‘big’ personality that stands out almost immediately. He has been with Goodricke for as long as he can remember, having worked in Dooars (Assam) tea gardens as well as a few years in Nepal. The rigors of his job have left him with a hardened face that offers him a formidable exterior. But when he speaks, it’s with an excited tone (his Nepalese ancestry coming through clearly in his accent); fluid and easy-going.
In a world where mass-produced and unabashedly blended, generic tasting tea is a norm, Castleton is one those few tea gardens committed to preserving legacies and singular virtues of their tea leaves. And, fortunately so, seeing it is the garden that produces what the world has come to regard as the ‘champagne of teas’, the muscatel tea.
Funnily enough, this estate has never been really been advertised. Not even for its muscatels. The company has never felt the need to because Castleton enjoys a devoted following among tea lovers across the world. These are people who wait, religiously and patiently, for the season’s produce, some even travelling for days to sample the teas fresh each flush. “I remember a few years ago, a Japanese lady showed up at the factory on a late Sunday evening. We had only just finished with the season, so we would complete our day’s work by lunch time and close down the facility until next morning. She was so upset to find the place shut that day. She called up the facility early next day, telling us how she needed to see Castleton once before she leaves town. She was a big fan of our teas apparently. The next morning when she came down to the factory, she started crying right at the door,” Vikas tells me.
Neither Vikas nor his factory manager, D B Gurung, “got” it. I attempted an explanation about the happy tears. I spoke about the attraction of legacies like Castleton’s and how our [Teabox] customers even seek a deeper connection to their cups of tea, in order to appreciate the tea better. Bewildered looks were exchanged across the room. Theirs is a focused mission, I am told, to guarantee the best quality tea that preserves the estate’s long-standing heritage and reputation. Everything else, sentiments included, is secondary.
Castleton was planted in the year 1885. It is north and south-west facing, spread over elevations ranging from 2500 feet to 5000 feet above sea level. It is not a vast and imposing-looking estate, not at the first glance, it’s not. The ridgelines aren’t imposing, they stoop low, and the whole estate has a recklessly uneven quality about it. But even with the [geographic] imperfections, the view is picture perfect.
Winter had only just started when I had visited the estate and I expected an off-season lethargy. But, surprisingly, the place was brimming with activity. Pluckers were busy pruning tea plants or replanting cleared sections. A couple of sprinklers had been watering the west-facing section of the muscatel valley, which was now drenched in water as well as light from the bright evening sun. There was no grey and cold in sight and with all the green and bright around me it could very well have been the start of spring.
The estate is divided into two main divisions: Castleton and Springside. Each of these divisions is further divided into sections, all of which have been named after very peculiar things, as I found out. Bhalu Khop (bear cave), Dhobitar (washer man’s clothes line), Baseri (graveyard)…all unconnected and just plain odd. Even the estate itself is called by many names. “Some call this place Kumseri, some call it Gaurishankar. The people here have given this place and these sections their names and we’ve chosen to keep it that way,” said Vikas, as explanation.
About 70% of the estate is covered in heritage chinary bushes, some over 130 years old. The rest of the estate is planted with high quality clones, including the AV2 and Seeyok 1240, along with Assam hybrids. Most of the high quality clonals are planted higher up in the estate, some all the way up at 5000 feet, which is about as high as tea can flourish. In this elevation, thanks to lower oxygen levels and cold weather, the plants grow slowly, developing highly concentrated flavors that taste bright and are intensely fragrant – two qualities indispensable to a great cup of tea. Between the elevations of 4500 and 3000 feet, the estate is dominated by chinary tea bushes. Thanks to ample sun and temperate climate, tea plants bloom far more easily here. Additionally, this also the elevation at which you can expect to find the perfect teas for producing a muscatel.
[bctt tweet=”There is a very small window of 10 days, sometimes two weeks, to capture the muscatel, which grows only in the late summers, around June.”]
“This used to be one of the wettest regions in the country, second only to Cherapunji at one point. But lately, the distribution of rainfall has become highly irregular. It’s pours heavily, but you don’t know when it’s going to pour,” notes Vikas. Lately, the estate receives about 200mm-500mm of rain between July and September. This makes ‘catching’ the muscatel rather difficult. “There is a very small window of 10 days, sometimes two weeks, to capture the muscatel, which grows only in the late summers, around June. At Castleton, you cannot afford to miss this plucking window,” remarks Arun Kumar Gomden – a retired planter who managed the Castleton factory between 1984 and 2000.
The mystery musk
In the world of tea, there is no topic more debated than the muscatel. Experts stand divided on what exactly qualifies as muscatel tea. Some say that it refers to the juicy quality of a summer flush black tea, resembling cantaloupes and grapes, while some call it a spicy, fruity taste. To some it’s a matter of fragrance while to others it’s a particular kind of taste, and no two muscatel lovers will budge from their chosen slant.
“It’s a special quality, actually. And it’s very hard to describe,” is Mr. Gurung mysterious description of it. He has been with Castleton for a few years now, but has spent over 30 years managing the Seeyok factory, another one of the many famous Darjeeling tea gardens, lately known for its own brand of muscatels. I had hoped he would shed some clarity on this whole muscatel myth and lore, but all I got was a big wad of nada.
“I am just a cook, you see. That’s my job – to make the best tasting teas. With a muscatel, you just …know… when you have made a muscatel. The leaves look different, they smell more fragrant, even when they are in the trough,” he continues.
[bctt tweet=”In the world of tea, there is no topic more debated than the muscatel.”]
Arun Kumar Gomden is the man who first produced a muscatel black tea, right here in Castleton back in 1985. He was a factory manager back then, and in the summer of that year, the estate produced the most peculiarly fragrant teas, something unconventionally different from the usual. “It was intense, more fragrant than a regular summer tea and fragrant in a very atypical way. It was rich, filled the mouth with the softest fruit flavor, something like grapes, growing in intensity as it flowed. It wasn’t your typical chinary summer black tea. And calling it so was not going to do justice to this tea. And so, we came up with the term ‘muscatel’. It has nothing to do with musk, let me make it clear. But because of its grape-like taste that year, we named this tea after the Muscat grape, widely used in winemaking,” tells Mr Gomden.
That was the year muscatel (of FTGFOP1 grade) debuted in the world tea market, sold for the highest price in Calcutta Auction Sale. And six times since, Castleton’s muscatel tea has fetched the highest price at tea auctions everywhere. Prestigious honors, including a gold medal award from North American Tea Conference of 2014, have become a norm; all proudly displayed at their factory’s tasting room on the ground floor. The estate even set the world record in 1992, when the DJ-42 FTGFOP1 (muscatel) batch sold for whopping Rs. 13,001 per kg at the Calcutta auction.
Most Darjeeling estates today produce the muscatel. But none has been able to match up to Castleton’s standards. Some have even gone as far as to dub Castleton’s as the true muscatel, against which every other muscatel is benchmarked. Jungpana tea estate, one of Darjeeling’s top estates located further east of Kurseong, is the closest to a competitor as far the muscatel teas are concerned, but Vikas isn’t worried. “Every time we visit some garden around here, they will offer us every tea but a muscatel. They will never serve us a muscatel,” he says, not without pride.
A muscatel tea starts in the garden. Only the leaves from a seasoned chinary plant are plucked (usually two leaves and bud) to make this tea. These plants grow in temperate conditions, typically in an area of a garden which is open and enjoys a lot of sun. Because chinary plants tend to be quite temperamental, easily affected by rigors of nature and planter’s intent, you can never quite predict how its flavors will develop. But over the years, planters have learnt to gauge the behavior these plants from section to section. They can now make a fair assessment about whether a section has the potential for muscatel or not, and the chosen section is then tended to with special care.
[bctt tweet=”Some have even gone as far as to dub Castleton’s as the true muscatel, against which every other muscatel is benchmarked.”]
Come summer and the entire estate erupts with colors and fragrance of every kind. Summers in Darjeeling starts around April and peaks around May. The initial few ghani (lots) of summer flush tea lie on the lighter side of the flavor spectrum. But by late summers, around June, when it’s humid and rainy the more dense-tasting teas are produced. And it’s from this lot that muscatels are made. There is no way to physically see a muscatel tea, no visible markers, per se. It’s only when freshly plucked chinary leaves from late summers make it to the troughs in the factory that the planter knows whether or not a muscatel can be made from them. “It takes a seasoned planter to make it. A novice can ruin a perfectly capable chinary by treating it like an ordinary tea. From the moment you sense it, you just take really special care of the leaves that eventually get turned into muscatels,” says Mr. Gurung.
These ‘capable’ leaves are typically subjected to short wither and long oxidation. They have to be fired just right, cooked to perfection, one can say, to extract the muscatel quality. “When you are making a muscatel, the whole factory floor turns fragrant, I can almost smell mangoes, sometimes peaches all over the floor,” exclaims Vikas. Everybody else nods in agreement.
The myth and the truth
Google “what is a muscatel tea?” and you are likely to come across a story about a fruit fly which supposedly infects a tea plant to a point where its chemical compounds ferment and turn fruitier. This story couldn’t be further from the truth. “How can infestation create great agricultural product? If anything, infestation, if not controlled on time, will destroy the entire cultivable section,” asks Vikas. Logically, this couldn’t be truer. The fact is that chinary tea plants are highly susceptible to infestation because they are the naturally occurring tea cultivars, unaffected by any kind of lab treatment, unlike a clonal plant which, through vegetative propagation of certain desirable qualities, is produced in a lab. Chinary plants tend to get affected by thrips and jassids very frequently but, under controlled conditions, it isn’t harmful and you can still make good tea from this leaf. But a muscatel is a result of intensive care extended to the leaf from the moment a plant is pruned, plucked, processed, and packed
Today, the commodity market price for a muscatel is anywhere between Rs. 1600 and Rs. 7000 per kg, climbing steadily upward year after year. The demand is high and buyers are willing to pay a ridiculous premium for an exceptional muscatel. Which has only complicated the lives of muscatel producers like Vikas. “This is not an easy garden to work with, let me tell you. Everything here comes with its own set of challenges. Be it availability of permanent [and skilled] labor to erratic rainfalls in the middle of the year, there is no way to tell what challenges the season will throw at you,” he says. Absenteeism rate in the estate has increased significantly in the last few years, with pluckers opting out of a life in the tea industry. Because of this, Castleton has to rely heavily on seasonal labor, many of whom aren’t skilled and need to be trained in the right plucking techniques each time. There is also the factor of a difficult terrain. Because the estate is widely dispersed, spread on two sides of a national highway that literally cuts through the garden at one point, it is difficult for a plucker to pick a large quantity of leaves in a single round. “If we were to pick only the buds for making our Moonlight white teas from plants at 5000 feet elevation, a plucker couldn’t possibly collect more than a few kgs of buds in the entire day because that’s the kind of attention you need to give it.”
For the sake of quality, Vikas has to let go of a lot of productivity. “I have a reputation to keep. Great planters have made this estate what it is. Can you believe that Castleton was discounted as a sick property back in the 1980s? Only after we adopted stringent quality practices, with respect to pruning of the plants, soil treatments and novel irrigation techniques, have we been able to grow healthy plants and produce teas like our muscatel. So, if my plants will only let to make an x quantity of tea, I will not force more out of them. You have to respect the plant at the end of the day.”
It is this excruciating attention to the leaf, this incessant need to coddle the crop, which makes Castleton great at what it does, what makes it one of the most desirable luxury products from India*. Truth be told, a tea like the muscatel, with all its elusive qualities and enigmatic charm is nothing but a good chinary leaf, nurtured and processed with a great amount of love and attention. What makes it a muscatel is the ability to spot the potential for muscatel. In my opinion, making muscatel is a matter of talent, not skill. And Castleton is where you come to appreciate the talent.
All tea gardens are inherently hopeful. But Castleton offers aspiration. It pays tribute to the genius of old planters who have made the garden what it is and continually builds on their legacies. Chasing authenticity is not an easy feat, but Castleton sees it as a responsibility. They refuse to let outside expectations govern them. Taste trends elude them. Here, their tea, with all its idiosyncrasies and temperament, is all that really matters.
*as declared by Fortune India Magazine – The Luxury Issue (March, 2011)