A Toast to Protecting Darjeeling Tea

Darjeeling Tea is grown in the Darjeeling regin of India

Darjeeling tea is grown in the Northeast of India surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh (Public Domain)

Darjeeling was the first tea in India to be protected under Geographic Identification (GI), which didn’t happen until 2011.  This protection allows India the right to force other governments to protect the Darjeeling name and product within their borders, which is quite difficult without the GI.  It is estimated that just before awarding the GI, there was almost 3 times more Darjeeling tea on the market than is actually produced in Darjeeling each year.  As a big fan of Darjeeling tea, this is both troubling and not surprising (it is a really good tea).  This tea fetches a price per pound almost fifty percent higher than Assam and Nilgiri and can rival the price per pound of some well-known Chinese teas.

What GI Means to Darjeeling Tea

By protecting Darjeeling tea, the Indian government not only ensures that the quality of the tea locally grown meets the definition of a Darjeeling but that it can stop tea being grown and manufactured outside of this area from being marketed as Darjeeling.   As an American, it is oddly ironic to learn that most of the counterfeit Darjeeling was being produced in China, which is often cited as the counterfeit capital for knock-offs of American movies, music, and high-end clothing lines.

In order to get the Geographic Identification, the India Tea Board had to develop a definition of what makes a Darjeeling tea.  It is defined as “Tea either currently being or having been cultivated, grown or produced in one of the 87 tea gardens in the defined geographic area of Darjeeling as determined by the India Tea Board, as well as processed and manufactured in a factory located in the defined geographic area.  When tested by expert tea tasters, it is determined to have the distinctive and naturally occurring organoleptic characteristics of taste, aroma, and mouth feel, typical of tea cultivated, grown and produced in the region of Darjeeling, India.”

The city of Darjeeling, India

Darjeeling, India, By SebaDella, CC BY 2.0 Generic

By creating the definition, the India Tea Board can license and monitor all stages of Darjeeling tea production to ensure quality and compliance with their certification.  As a consumer of the tea, it makes it simple to know if I am getting an authentic Darjeeling through the logo that is put on every pound of Darjeeling leaving the area for consumption.  The Tea Board is currently working with outside firms to automate as much of the oversight as possible, and through doing so, making it easier for the Tea Board to pursue counterfeiters and get their products off the market or labeled more clearly.  This ultimate helps to protect the growers and producers of Darjeeling by allowing the tea price to keep increasing as demand outstrips supply. If you have never had a second flush Darjeeling, you should.  It is a truly complex tea that has a medium to full-bodied feel with floral, fresh grass, muscatel flavors and a lingering finish.  The terroir of the West Bengal region India is credited for creating this complex tea given that it is a very high elevation area residing at the base of the Himalayas, home to the three highest mountain peaks on the planet.  It is the one place in India where Camellia Sinensis Sinensis is grown instead of Camellia Sinensis Assamica.

Mountainous Darjeeling tea plantation, India

Darjeeling Tea Plantation, By Shankar S., CC by 2.0 generic

Darjeeling Tea:  First Flush or Second?

If you are wondering why the second flush instead of the first?  The first flush is delicate, much more like a white tea and while still a wonderful tea, the second flush is where the flavor comes out in this tea.  The manufacturing process for Darjeeling is also unique because while it is marketed as a black tea its oxidation levels reside in the oolong range, which helps to draw out the flavors in this tea. So, I lift my tea cup to the India Tea Board and wish them luck in protecting this wonderful drink.  May all their hard work reap many rewards for the farmers and manufacturers of Darjeeling in the years to come.

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