What is Darjeeling Tea and Why is it Called the Champagne of Teas?
Darjeeling tea is a type of black tea that is grown in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. It is known for its unique musky and floral aroma and described as having a "musky spiciness" or "musky sweetness" flavor. Darjeeling is considered by tea aficionados as one of the best teas varieties in the world because of the unique climate and soil conditions of the area, the traditional methods of cultivation and the processing methods used by Darjeeling tea growers. Darjeeling tea is so beloved for its unique taste and aroma and is referred to as the "Champagne of Teas" due to its flavor profile and prestigious reputation. Just as the Champagne region of France produces a specific type of sparkling wine with a protected geographical designation, Darjeeling tea is grown in a specific region in India and has a protected geographical status.
The importance for consumers to be aware of the risks of buying tea online and to only purchase from reputable vendors cannot be emphasized enough. At The Spice and Tea Shoppe we source our teas as part of the Ethical Tea Partnership, an organization that watches and regulates living and working conditions on tea estates around the world. To produce superior quality teas a healthy workforce with a vested economic and social interest in their product is needed. On better estates, this means free schooling and medical care for families, in addition to sustainable levels of income. Darjeeling tea is highly sought after due to its rarity and exclusivity, as it can only be grown in a small region in the foothills of the Himalayas. Due to the mountainous terrain and high altitude of the Darjeeling region, genuine Darjeeling teas must be hand-plucked.
The British East India Company
In 1841, a Scottish botanist named Dr. Campbell planted the first tea plants in Darjeeling, but it was not until 1856 that the first commercial tea gardens were set up in the region by the British East India Company. Darjeeling tea quickly gained a reputation as a high-quality tea, and it became a major export for them. The British East India Company was a large and complex organization that had diverse business interests beyond the tea trade. While the company played a significant role in the establishment of the tea industry in India, it is difficult to estimate the exact amount of money it made from tea in the Darjeeling region alone. However, it is well-documented that the company's overall revenue and profits from its Indian operations were substantial, and the tea trade was a significant contributor to its success.
The British East India Company's history in India is marked by episodes of violence, including military conflicts, wars, and atrocities committed against Indian people. The company's primary goal was to maximize its profits, and it pursued this goal through a combination of trade, diplomacy, and force. The company's expansion in India often involved the use of military force to conquer territories and subjugate people. Notable instances of violence associated with the British East India Company include the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Bengal Famine of 1770, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Dissolved through an Act of the British Parliament called the East India Company Act on June 1st, 1874, the act transferred the company's administrative powers and assets to the British Crown, and the British government took direct control of India. This came after a prolonged period of decline in the company's fortunes, marked by economic troubles, military setbacks, and growing criticism of its policies and practices in India.
The British Government Takes Over
When control of India came under the direct control of the British Crown, and the British government assumed responsibility for its administration the period became known as British India, and it lasted from 1858 until India's independence in 1947. Colonialism had a significant impact on the demographics of the region. Establishing a complex bureaucracy, the British brought large numbers of workers from other parts of India and Nepal to work in the tea gardens, which led to a significant increase in the population and a change in the ethnic makeup of the region. The colonial government also imposed policies that had a negative impact on the region, including high taxes and forced labor and introduced a system of social hierarchy based on race, which further marginalized the Indigenous population and appropriated enormous amounts of land from local farmers and to create large tea estates, which displaced many people from their homes and traditional way of life.
The Indian independence movement grew in strength over the years, and in 1947, India became independent, with Jawaharlal Nehru as its first Prime Minister. After India's independence in 1947, most plantations were nationalized or sold to Indian companies though there are still tea plantations in Darjeeling that are owned by British companies or individuals.
The Darjeeling Region of the Early Twentieth Century
In the early 20th century, the tea industry in Darjeeling faced significant challenges, including a devastating pest infestation and the impacts of both World Wars. The main pest responsible for the infestation was the tea mosquito bug, which feeds on the tender shoots of tea plants. The bug's feeding causes a condition called "Silver Tip" where the young tea leaves turn pale and develop silvery patches, making them unsuitable for tea production. The infestation first reported in 1910, quickly spread throughout the region, causing grave damage to the tea gardens. The situation worsened during World War I and again during World War 2 when the shortage of labor led to the abandonment of many tea gardens, supplying ideal breeding grounds for the pests. The tea industry in Darjeeling responded by implementing various control measures, including cultural practices such as pruning, plucking, and shading. However, these measures were often ineffective, and the infestation continued to cause substantial losses.
In the 1930s, a new control method involving a type of wasp that attacks and kills the tea mosquito bug was introduced to the Darjeeling region. This biological control method proved to be highly effective, and the infestation was brought under control. The pest infestation of the 20th century remains a significant chapter in the history of Darjeeling tea and the challenges faced by the tea industry. Thankfully, the industry recovered in the post-war period, and Darjeeling tea once again became a highly sought-after commodity.
In recent years, the Darjeeling tea industry has faced new challenges, including labor shortages and the impact of climate change. The industry has also faced challenges from counterfeiters who have been known to sell inferior tea under the Darjeeling name. Despite these challenges, Darjeeling tea continues to be appreciated as one of the finest teas in the world and is protected by the "Darjeeling" geographical designation. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of protecting the authenticity of Darjeeling tea. As such, establishment of the "Darjeeling" geographical region aims to ensure that only teas grown in the Darjeeling district can be called "Darjeeling tea".
Counterfeit Darjeeling Teas Have Become a Problem
The anonymity of the internet can make it difficult for consumers to verify the authenticity of the products they are buying. It is important for consumers to be aware of the risks of buying tea online and to only purchase from reputable vendors.
Unfortunately, there are counterfeit Darjeeling teas on the market. These teas, produced outside of the traditional Darjeeling region using different tea cultivars or processed using different methods, but labeled and marketed as genuine Darjeeling tea, using the Darjeeling name and branding. This can be a problem for consumers looking to buy authentic Darjeeling tea, and for legitimate Darjeeling tea growers and producers who may lose business to these counterfeit products. Since the Darjeeling name and branding is not legally protected in some countries, it is difficult to take legal action against these counterfeit teas.
It is difficult to estimate the exact amount of counterfeit Darjeeling tea that is sold each year. However, counterfeit Darjeeling tea is a significant problem for the Darjeeling tea industry, as it can dilute the reputation of authentic Darjeeling tea and lead to financial losses for legitimate growers and producers. The Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) has reported that around 50-70% of the tea sold as Darjeeling is not from Darjeeling. It is safe to say that counterfeit tea is a significant problem in the online market. These counterfeit teas are sold through online marketplaces and social media platforms, making it easy for counterfeiters to reach a large audience and sell their products at a lower price than legitimate teas.
How to Avoid Counterfeit Teas
- Buy from reputable sources: It is essential to buy tea from reliable and trustworthy sources like The Spice and Tea Shoppe.
- Check the packaging: Counterfeit tea is often sold in poorly labeled or unbranded packaging. Look for packaging that displays the name of the tea, country of origin, and other relevant information.
- Examine the tea leaves: Authentic tea leaves should be uniform in size, shape, and color. If the leaves look irregular, it may be a sign of low-quality, old, or counterfeit tea.
- Know the price range: Research the market price of the tea you intend to buy. If the price seems too good to be true, it may be that the tea is counterfeit.
- Trust your taste buds: Authentic tea should have a distinctive flavor and aroma. If the tea tastes bland, stale, or different from what you expect, it may be a sign of counterfeit tea.
By following these steps, consumers can avoid buying counterfeit tea and ensure that they get high-quality and authentic tea. At The Spice and Tea Shoppe, we guarantee that we only sell genuine, quality Darjeeling tea.