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Darjeeling tea is also known as the champagne of teas and was first commercially grown in Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal during the 19th century. Prior to that, Eastern Indians had consumed tea mostly grown in Nepal. This coarse black tea did not appeal to the British palate, well used to the varieties and qualities of tea grown in China. Efforts were made to disburse tea seeds, a type of oolong from China, to the natives of West Bengal, while India was still under British Control. The result was pleasing to both native Indians and the British, and Darjeeling tea is now a highly prized tea, especially in the UK and Europe, where much of it is exported.
Like numerous forms of tea, Darjeeling tea is black tea, and the name refers principally to the region where it is grown. Therefore, it’s now possible to find Darjeeling white tea and green tea, though these are certainly found in lesser amounts. Concern also exists regarding the purity of Darjeeling tea. Only about 25% of the tea sold as Darjeeling is actually 100% pure and grown in the specified locations. Companies that sell the tea inexpensively may mix it with other types of tea.
When you can get 100% pure Darjeeling tea, there are three varieties to choose from, generally named after the time at which it is harvested. First flush is a light, fruity tea, picked in March. Many like this as an afternoon tea, since it is a sweeter tea. Second flush refers to the second harvesting of the tea in early summer or late spring. Since the tea leaves have had time to mature, they produce a darker tea when brewed, and have a much stronger taste. Some note a fruity muscatel flavor in second flush Darjeeling tea.
Autumn flush is less common, and refers to tea leaves picked in the fall. As the tea ages, and particularly as it is exposed to rains, some of the flavor of the tea is stripped from the leaves. Autumn flush is less acidic, lighter in color and some find it comparable to first flush.
Though only about 3% of tea exported from India is Darjeeling, production and growth of the tea employs a number of people in West Bengal, over 50,000. It can also take patience to farm the tea, since it may require up to ten years for a new tea bush to be ready for harvesting. Indian growers must compete with those growers who market their tea as Darjeeling when it is no such thing. For instance, similar teas, though not quite the same to the tea expert, have been grown in Kenya and Sri Lanka. To pass certification from Indian standards, only tea grown and processed in Darjeeling can be considered a true version of the tea.