Darjeeling black teas are known as the Champagne of teas. They hail from the hillsides of northern India in the state of West Bengal, where high altitudes and dense fog create a fitful environment ideal for growing high quality teas. The steep hillsides and dramatic shifts in weather compel the tea bushes to thrust deep for nutrients from sun and soil alike. This struggle produces some of the finest teas in the world. There are four seasons of Darjeeling production: 1st flush, 2nd flush, Monsoon flush, and Autumn flush. All create memorable experiences, but the first two flushes of the year are the highest prized and most sought after by tea buyers. Darjeeling accounts for a mere 1% of global tea production yet carries with it the reputation for quality that rivals the best teas produced anywhere in the world.

Darjeeling Meadow

1st flush teas represent the first few weeks of new growth after the dormant winter season. The dormant period, followed by vibrant spring rains, allow for the development of complex flavors and a light liquor that only comes from the first plucking’s of the season. Special care is taken in production with these delicate leaves to ensure that the they maintain their freshness in dry leaf form. Floral and muscatel aromas tickle the senses while the deceptively light liquor packs an astringent punch. Because of their limited production and vivid array of flavors, these teas often fetch the highest prices at auction during any given year. 2018 was no exception, as a late onset of the flush lessened the overall availability of these teas on the market. First flush teas are prized in Japanese and German markets, so Smith stands outside of the American market curve by purchasing a selection of these teas each year. Most notably, they bring brightness and florality to our Bungalow blend, which was Steve’s favorite tea.

 Darjeeling close up

The 2018 season on the whole could be summed up in one word: sporadic. Sun and rain appeared at their leisure and have created tough and inconsistent working conditions. This struggle of a season comes after a 105-day strike that effectively annihilated 70% of the crop potential for 2017. Tea bushes left unattended to had to get an overhaul of a makeover at the start of the 2018 season. Couple that with the delayed rains that marked the beginning of the 2018 season and Darjeeling estate owners had a great deal to solve for. But as with anything of value, through tremendous hardship emerges resilient and beautifully complex teas.

We visited Darjeeling this year during an uncharacteristically dry monsoon period, which was admittedly quite a treat for us. We were regaled with stories of Steve and his adventures in this beautiful mountaintop oasis. I fell in love with the tea, the people, the food, and the community of Darjeeling. There is an overwhelming sense of positivity present in those hills—through the hardship of a difficult season, you’d be none the wiser gauging by the quality of the teas and the effortless hospitality of the friends who drink them with us.

The drive itself to Darjeeling is stunning. Sheer cliffs are distracted by harrowing skies and rich, sporadic hilltop living. Each shop along the route – easily 200 on the stretch from the Bagdogra Airport to our first tea estate—sells identical stock of goods with penetrating, expectant faces peering out from the doorways. Each shop claims the top floor real estate of four-to-five story living spaces, packed precariously along the mountainside. At each turn there are unfinished foundations, mounted with rebar installations for the next housing expansion—a daunting task as the ominous sky begins to pelt rain in our direction. Thunderstorms, cars, and sheer drops do nothing to detour cows and stray dogs from setting up camp along the roadways. Once we come through Darjeeling Town, our stomachs begin to settle slightly from the three-hour drive as we see the sign for the estate. Our relief was quickly shattered upon the realization that we’ve only just left the “maintained” roads for their tea estate counterparts.

 Darjeeling Tea Leaves

Despite all reasonable doubts, however, an instant calm and acceptance takes over us as we wind down the estate to our awaiting bungalow. Incredible food, instant friendship, and endless cups of tea greet us and carry us through a week of plucking, withering, rolling, oxidizing, drying, packing, and drinking. Much of our time was spent tasting teas we purchased earlier in the season in comparison to teas we’ve passed up and those offered and accepted by other customers—an excellent exercise for anyone in the business of understanding and appreciating the vast differences of flavor.

Our first tasting was the most pivotal – a cupping representing each week of the 1st, 2nd, and monsoon flushes with definable characteristics of each plucking. Tony and I favored a same section of teas, falling in the range of the first few weeks of the 2nd flush season—plus a stunningly beautiful 1st flush that kicked off the cupping with grace and style. The Darjeeling water, I would come to fully appreciate later, is much cleaner and closer to Portland’s than the water in Kolkata which is often avoided in favor of bottled water.

 Darjeeling Tea Sampling

Throughout our time in Darjeeling, we visited six of our favorite estates doing much of the same: exploring the gardens, walking their production facilities, and tasting endless cups of Darjeeling. While we don’t purchase monsoon flush teas, we had the pleasure of tasting the white, green, and oolong teas that the gardens experiment with during the late summer months. Each of these small estates have cultivated a flavor profile unique to themselves, crafting exceptional experiences that set them apart from their neighboring gardens. The passion for their craft is evident at every step in the process. The culmination of which—the feeling of complete happiness and grounding—that accompanies a cup of Darjeeling tea on the porch of one of our friends’ Bungalow will stay with me for my lifetime.

One of my favorite estates of the trip touted accolades a-plenty, but my favorite poster adorning their tasting room walls was a quote from the Darjeeling Tea Association stating, “Darjeeling Tea: you either love it or you grow to love it. If the fine flavor of Darjeeling Tea passes you by at first, don’t lose heart. It took us over a century to perfect the delicate art of Darjeeling Tea. You might have to allow it to grow on you.” Well my friends, I grew a lot this trip.