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The Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Darjeeling

There is no typical Darjeeling. The teas are marked by variety, range in price from single to triple digit dollar tags, and have increasingly different leaf characteristics and resulting subtleties in flavor and aroma. That makes it difficult for anyone unfamiliar with them to decide if, why and how to try them. Here’s a simple guide, based on experience and “coaching” family and friends.    

  1. Don’t use other black teas as a reference point. A Darjeeling’s lighter and more aromatic and is as much an oolong as a black tea. Start your exploration by getting a sense of its distinctive style and if it appeals to you. Get a sense of your preference for the two main styles: the first flush (Spring harvest) or second flush (Summer).
  2. Don’t think of Darjeeling as a single tea. There is no “best” Darjeeling nor does the label “Darjeeling” mean much. Sample a range of the 80+ estates, by buying sample packs of 10 grams so that you get a sense of the wide variety of what’s on offer. That gives you plenty of variety per dollar (4 cups at $2-3 per package).
  3. Get a sense of the main “flags” that broadly indicate quality and value without having to understand all the rich and complex Darjeeling tea lore. There are a few terms that indicate the pedigree of the specific tea.
  4. Learn the marketing traps of “Darjeeling tea” and where to buy and what to avoid. One simple and firm rule for shopping for Darjeelings in a supermarket is: Don’t. The addendum is Ever.
  5. Expand your exploration selectively to include oolongs, greens and whites but focus first on black teas. Similarly, try estate teas and then consider good value blends.
  6. Enjoy. Both more and different Darjeelings. They really do grow on you.

Darjeeling teas have a mystical reputation that doesn’t help much in shopping. Here’s a synthesis that aims at answering your concerns and puzzles but that also does justice to one who has a wider appreciation and knowledge of it.

Tea gardens in Darjeeling

It’s tea season in Darjeeling

Darjeeling is unique; that makes its teas “different”

There are nearly 90 Darjeeling garden estates growing tea in an area of 70 square miles, one quarter the size of New York City and a tenth that of Tokyo. The terrain is steep mountain slopes, with soil erosion and landslides a threat, mainly from decades of overproduction and neglect that nearly wrecked the entire heritage of Darjeeling.

Now, the quality of management has strikingly improved and the leading estates don’t need the (expensive and bureaucratic) certification of “organic.” Biomanagement is becoming the norm.

Darjeeling tea processing is the most labor-intensive in the world. The “Orthodox” tradition of hand-plucking in harvesting is as selective as is humanly possible and far more than is machine-practical. A single kilogram of leaf for processing takes 20,000 shoots plucked on slopes of 40-60 degree incline. Each bush provides a total of 40 cups per year. Labor is 60-70% of total incremental expenses.

Darjeeling sells all it can produce, with Germany and Japan its main markets. Historically, fake Darjeeling outsold the real product. The oft-quoted consensus is that production was 10,000 metric tons a year and sales 40,000, with much of the counterfeit and adulteration coming from Nepal. 2016 marks the first year in which strong certification rules and standards are in place, with a legal designation logo; this plus the estate source and a supplier with a strong reputation comprise the best warranty.

But, is this Darjeeling  worth paying for? Why the fuss? And why bother when there are so many excellent China Keemum black teas, Ceylons and Nepalese estate teas in the same range of quantity and lower in price?  

The answer is uniqueness. Darjeelings are unique in (1) their distinctive basic flavors, (2) the wide range of variations on them, and (3) the layers of subtle but distinctive aromas, and background nuances of taste.

If you don’t find the “unique for me” choice, spend your money elsewhere.

The basic flavor

For the new shopper, the obvious question is if this just a different or a better black tea? What makes Darjeelings stand out in taste?

Don’t use other black teas as a reference point here. Many tea drinkers have Assam, Ceylon, Keemum or an English Breakfast blend in their minds that they compare a Darjeeling to. That sets expectations that can subtly get them focused on the black and not the Darjeeling.

The main characteristics and contrasts are that Darjeelings are very rich in the nutrients that build aroma and add a floral, fruity and almost sweet nuance – more than a hint though much less than, say, the direct hit from the flavorings in Earl Grey or a Chinese Jasmine infused green or oolong.

Darjeeling is not really a black tea. It’s less oxidized; this term refers to how the leaf is lightly rolled so its cells are broken up and allowed to interact with oxygen. Green teas stop oxidation early, locking in many of the leaf’s compounds. Darjeeling teas are not anywhere near as light as greens, but they share some of the characteristics of partially-oxidized oolongs.

It’s an oversimplification but a helpful orientation to view the varieties of Darjeelings as balancing some of the slight sweetness and a zippy freshness of bigger greens, the complex aromas of oolongs, and the body and fullness of black teas. That’s why the experts use so many adjectives to capture the nuances of individual teas.

The top estates are increasingly expanding into green teas, which is where the sales growth is, plus oolongs and a few whites. Castleton Moonlight white is moving up the list of teas whose mention summons up a near-reverential head bowing.

For a Beginner in exploring Darjeelings, there’s no compelling reason to make these newer styles a first priority. Stay with the “black” teas initially and sample the others selectively.

These tea leaves can produce a variety of teas.

These tea leaves can produce a variety of teas.

Where the varieties of flavor come from

Don’t think of Darjeeling as a single tea. There are just under ninety estates, with three main seasonal harvests, called “flushes” plus an “in-between” and “monsoon” period. Each garden will typically sell 3-8 teas and there are many good blends offered by higher end sellers. You can expect to find more than a hundred individual items in the catalog of a specialist fine tea provider.

As with wines, each year’s harvest is different in quality and characteristics. Often, this year’s first flush will come on the market and be sold along with last year’s. The freshness of the tea itself is a critical determinant of quality here: vacuum packaging has become a must. Darjeeling is at its best for maybe 6 months, but well-stored it retains its flavors for a year.

The variety of flavors shows up most clearly in the variety of seasonal harvests. In many regions teas are harvested year round, as much as every few weeks, with rest periods. In some, the first Spring harvest is by far the best; pre-Chingming (the Spring festival) China greens are premium and prized.

With Darjeelings there are two bests, the Spring first flush and the Summer second flush. Each is “best” in the sense that you decide. The starting point for exploring Darjeelings is to determine which style you prefer. This provides a base for you to expand your choices.

Here’s a snapshot summary of the flushes:

First flush: Spring, after the dormant winter, late February to mid-April. Light, bright and just a little astringent, with fragrant floral aromas.

Second flush: Summer. May-June. Fuller-bodied, with the legendary “muscatel” mellowness and complex richness of flavor.

Monsoon: July to September. Water-logged from the rainy season. Stronger. Not worth paying much for and generally just a mediocre base for a breakfast blend.

Autumn flush: October-November. Lighter and delicate, not as complex in flavors as 1st and 2nd flushes.

Focusing on the two main flushes seems a better option than trying out a Darjeeling blend, even though there are some very good ones on the market. They will generally be a mix of leaf from several estates or from grades that are not quite in the top category (SFTGFOP), a little broken up and not as well-formed. For the beginner, blends may seem an obvious choice but they tend to be a little disappointing in that they average out the distinctive characteristics of each individual ingredient.

Try them once you have a good sense of suppliers and what to look for to meet your pocketbook and teacup priorities. If you come to really love Darjeelings, you’re likely to rely on a good blend for everyday drinking and a few estate teas for more occasional consumption.  

Sampling the garden estates

The first/second flush choice is the first step to fusing the two perspectives of knowledge plus caution. Now comes the more arbitrary step: choose an estate. Think of that not as picking a tea but like selecting a restaurant. There are so many outstanding estates, with so many individual strengths and so much special expertise that it is impossible to recommend any one of the best above the other bests. Every Darjeeling lover has their personal list. Once you build your own, you move from Beginner to Habitué and Expert Enough.

With deep hesitation, here are a few suggestions. They are just that. A search online of estates and offers from suppliers will give you a sense of the reputation and record of individual ones. You can’t go wrong with Castleton, Goomtee, Puttabong, Margaret’s Hope, Thurbo, Makaibari, Giddapahar, Ambootia, or Tindharia. Then there’s Singtom, Rohini…

Just pick a few to try. The best way to do so is to buy sample packs online. All the elite providers offer vacuum-packed 10 gram packaged envelopes for $2-3, with many special deals. You can get, for instance, a sampler of a dozen Darjeeling greens, ten first flush teas or five Darjeeling oolongs at very attractive prices. 10 grams makes four cups of tea.

On a per unit basis, the samples cost about double what you’d pay per ounce from the same provider. But for $25 or less you can get a good sense of estates and their teas instead of risking the same amount on a hit or miss single purchase of a good mid-range 100 grams (3.5 ounces). Make sure any sampler package mainly includes estate names listed above.

From tea leaves to tea

From tea leaves to tea

Quality and pedigree flags

When you read an expert description of a Darjeeling, it can leave you more bewildered than enlightened. It is hard to describe a taste and aroma. Try finding the right words for comparing two tuna sandwiches: bread, fish, garnish and mayonnaise. Now try two Ben and Jerry ice creams. You end up in adjective overload.

You may or may not find the adjectives for Darjeelings helpful. Here are some broader flags – broad indicators not so much of the specific taste off a tea but the likelihood of it being worth tasting.

The first is the flush. “2017 first flush” or “Autumn flush” tell you plenty. If the year is not stated, check in the fine detail that this is the latest. If the flush is not mentioned, you will be getting a mix of harvests and a blend; that may be high quality but you need to read the fuller description. For black teas, only first (“spring”), second (“summer”) and autumn flushes are pedigree: monsoon, winter, in-between, loose leaf and select mean “you can do better.”  Autumn flush teas are what one expert terms “muted” versions of second flush ones. They can be very good buys.

The next flag is not as important as it once was and can be misleading. This is the grade of the leaf. It is not a measure of the quality of the tea itself. It is where the term “orange pekoe” comes from. It was designed to classify teas for sale at the auctions that have dominated the Indian tea system. “Orange” refers to the Dutch ruling house of Nassau Orange – the Dutch created and dominated the global tea trade and the term implied a Royal certification.

There are over thirty grades. SFTGFOP is the very highest. It is the equivalent of Prime grade for beef. Almost every elite garden will be SFTx or FTx.  If you start seeing a B in the grade, the quality is lower. It stands for Broken leaf. The shorter the grade, the more ordinary it is: FOP, BOP, OP, etc. Once the OP is absent, you’ve left tea for what is basically swept up bits, and are now in teabag territory.

There are some odds and ends of ancillary information that can be useful or of interest. “Clonal” or its abbreviation “Cl.” is both. It amounts to “new, improved” and refers to the very skilled use of cuttings to select characteristics of water use, yield, flavor and hardiness instead of sticking with the haphazard nature of tea bush seeding, which ensure genetic variety by in essence randomly passing on of traits. Clonal teas are among the best of the new generation of DJs. They are entirely different from GMO and select rather than change the biochemical composition of the bush.

How to buy

It doesn’t make sense to shop for Darjeelings anywhere except online or, if you already know your preferences and are willing to pay a premium price, in one of the rare top end specialty stores.

Don’t even bother to check the supermarket shelves. Dirt cheap Darjeelings can never be good; the economics of production don’t work out. Bottom price tea bagged ones are the lowest grade of tea: dust and fannings, stuff too small and fragmented to even qualify as “whole” leaf. Much of the blended Darjeeling is a mix of machine-harvested Assam with Darjeeling broken grade leaf.

Alas, specialty stores are a poor option, too. Most of them get their teas from custom blenders and packagers; this reflects the immense economies of scale in shipping. They will carry at most a few Darjeelings, almost surely a blend. The brand name boutique chain shops typically mark up Darjeeling prices egregiously and the small production batches limit their ability to stock all their stores. The elite London store names sell their Darjeeling blends as if they are the best hand-plucked leaf from the best gardens. All too typical is the blend of six first flush teas selling for $160 a pound – 80 cents a cup – from a Well-Known tea store.

In itself, that is a high but not unusual price. Darjeelings can be very expensive, especially the Moonlight whites of Castleton or the best first flushes. Expect to pay up to 45 cents a cup ($90 a pound and $20 for the standard 100 gram unit of sale) for around three quarters of the teas on the market. There are plenty of lower priced offers in the $10-15 range for really good teas and there are frequent special deals.

Buy online. There are a small number of excellent Indian providers, several very fine US ones and the largest is German. The UK has some high end, but also high price, providers. Some of the gardens are beginning to market their teas direct to the customer. You can easily find every single Darjeeling tea on the market for sale online. Packaging has improved and shipping is very fast and efficient.

Step 6: Enjoy

The future of Darjeeling is uncertain. Soil management and environmental damage, climate change and the high labor costs may not be sustainable. Many tea experts are not wild about the teas even today: overpriced, unreliable and often disappointing. The average tea drinker ignores them except for tea bags and blends in tins with fancy pictures and names of Royal Somethings, Whatsit and Whichit retail palaces and the like.

Others love them. They are surely worth trying if you really enjoy your tea and are on the lookout for something special. This simple guide is just an orientation. It is written by someone who loves them – along with Japanese greens, Taiwan oolongs, white teas from everywhere, and puehrs. If you don’t take to them, there are plenty of other great options. Try them, though. OK… a more honest opinion: you are missing out on a lifetime everyday pleasure if you don’t.

Featured banner by Neha Bindal. Inset photographs by Gautam Virprashad

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

4 Comments

  1. Chris Slater says

    Great coverage, but I’d like to add a couple of points.

    “Darjeeling is not really a black tea. It’s less oxidized”
    It used to be fully oxidised, from the 70s to the 90s, but it changed round about the turn of the century. This explains why the leaf colour is so much greener than it used to be, and the exquisite, transcendent, flavour is now lost. I’ve spent thousands on many estates and dealers trying to find tea to match the ESTGFOP of last century’s Badamtan and Margaret’s Hope, to no avail. Fortnum’s tea expert gave good and sad reasons for the change.

    I also think you should have mentioned how extremely important it is to keep tea protected from light, as one of the commonest mistakes made which destroys tea.

  2. My wife and I have recently become diligent tea drinkers, and we’ve read a lot about Darjeeling Himalayan tea. I think that if we could find some quality Darjeeling tea, we’d love to give it a try. You talked about the grade of the different tea leaves, and how its not necessarily a measure of the quality of the final product. I’ve still got a lot to learn about the whole process, but I think that if we could buy some Darjeeling Himalayan tea to give it a try, we’d be happy with our experience! Thank you!

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