Origin: Selimbong Garden, Darjeeling, India
Harvest Year: 2013
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 3 minutes, sipped plain
Has this ever happened to you: You learn, you practice, you learn and practice some more, you start to master, you work very hard and devote a ton of energy, maybe you even teach a little (or, perhaps, you really just pontificate to however many of your friends will listen), you build a reputation, you exhaust countless nooks and crannies of whatever the subject is, and then, when you think you are finally approaching the pinnacle, you stumble almost mistakenly into a big pile of knowledge or understanding that you never even thought to consider might be an existent phenomenon. It happened to me recently. Not that I ever thought I knew everything about tea, I promise. But the “insights” into which I tripped and fell head first were so simple that it is absurd I should never have thought to consider them. Some people emerge from the scenario above knowing that they have discovered new, uncharted depths and forever altered their fields of inquiry; in my case, on the other hand, the word “duh” is quite apt.
There were two new items of information revealed as I read up on Darjeeling tea. The first is that Darjeeling tea has a protected designation of origin, or “GI tag” (“geographical indication tag”), as the Tea Board of India calls it. Tea certified to have been legitimately grown in the Darjeeling region and processed properly receives a seal (seen below) from the Board to certify its authenticity, and no other tea may call itself “Darjeeling” or receive the seal. Wine and spirits of course have such things, and I learned last year that coffee does, too. I never even asked if tea might, and shame on me for that.
India has a few GI tags for tea, actually, including Assam and Nilgiri (as well as a handful of tea-growing regions without such commercial protection). But Darjeeling tea was the first to get a GI tag, and for good reason: people who drink tea have long thought it the best. As with most protected designations of origin, Darjeeling tea’s came about because there was a major problem with fraudulent labeling; that is, a significant amount of tea being sold around the world was labeled as Darjeeling but, in fact, contained little to no legitimate Darjeeling-grown tea. Naturally, this was because the “Champagne of teas,” as Darjeeling tea is known, was simply the most preferred among paying customers. Consequently, it became the first ever Indian product of any kind to receive a GI tag. To this day, Darjeeling remains the darling of the Tea Board of India, as any perusal of its website will show, and it is one of the very few single-region teas that mega tea brands (Bigelow, Twinings) market to the masses. Darjeeling tea’s fame and popularity endure, and for good reason.
The world’s producers of tea would do well, I think, to invest more time and energy into getting their products protected designations of origin, much as Darjeeling has. It is expensive and time-consuming, yes. But consumers generally are more informed about their products than they have ever been, and the legions of tea aficionados specifically are growing rapidly. The drink’s importance, once upon a time, used to be the fact that tea – any tea – was in the cup on such social occasions as tea time in Buckingham palace, a knitting club meeting in the American Midwest, or anything in between. The details of the tea were rarely a matter of comment, and if they were, it had to do with outside flavoring, such as with Earl Grey. Such things are still of great import, of course. But they are not the future. In the face of plateaued interest in tea as a centerpiece of formal gathering, tea is experiencing increased technical interest: Where is the tea from? What kind of tea is it? Is it authentic? How was it processed? Is it organic and/or fair trade? How much caffeine is in it? What are its health benefits? What is the history of this variety? What else can I learn about it? These are the questions that people are asking, and a designation of origin, though certainly no simple or direct ticket to fame and fortune, is precisely the kind of thing that gets consumers’ attention and tells them what they want to know. And of course, it protects legitimate tea producers from fraudsters intruding upon their market share. It would only be a boon for consumers, producers, and merchants alike.
The other item I learned – and it really is preposterous that I never even thought of this – is that teas from different years’ harvests taste different. Not radically different by any means, but naturally different, according to the differing weather patterns, soil conditions, etc. that accompany the advance of time. This got me thinking: Why are teas, and coffees for that matter, not labeled with a harvest year?
With wine, it has always been standard procedure to list the year on the bottle, even for blends. But with coffee and tea, that was never really how it worked. There are craft coffee and tea movements aplenty, but consumers and professionals alike are so accustomed to the mass-produced blends, designed to reduce taste variation over time to practically zero, with which we all grew up and which we still encounter with great frequency, that it has not really been demanded of anyone to label coffee or tea as being from a particular year.
To the coffee and tea connoisseur, there is a better explanation for this that will occur immediately and appear quite obvious. Wine, you see, ages. It can be kept on the shelf for a few years, a few years more, decades perhaps, and either drunk, sold, or stored yet longer. Furthermore, wine is not even distributed before it has aged for a long while, usually a year at bare minimum. What with most serious wine consumers, collectors, and merchants having hundreds or thousands of bottles of wine on hand, procured after being stored at the winery for years in the first place, a harvest year on the label is a most convenient datum. Coffee and tea, on the other hand, are not meant for that. Tea may last a while in brick form, or if kept in airtight containers, but it is intended for more or less immediate distribution and foreseeable consumption. Coffee especially has a brief shelf life, being ideally drunk within a couple weeks of being roasted. But let’s be generous and stipulate that the mass-produced coffee that sits in warehouses for up to months on end is somehow legitimate. Still, after a year or two, coffee or tea would almost certainly be no good unless kept in the very best of conditions. Which begs the question: what producer, merchant, or enthusiast would store coffee or tea away for so long in the first place? So why even bother with a year on the label? The coffee or tea is between one week and two years old, and either it tastes properly fresh or it does not. Isn’t that all that counts in this discussion?
My response to that is to return to the consumer profile described above. Casual imbibing of coffee and tea is as popular as it has always been, but not growing very much. It is not where the potential is in the market; it is not the future. Aficionados, on the other hand, are on the rise. More and more consumers are switching from major chains to craft coffee roasters and fine tea purveyors. More than ever before, they notice origins, processing methods, taste profiles, and numerous other data. They read the literature, and look for the new. Key here is that they record experiences more than ever: Is it only the emergence of the Internet that gave rise to Steepster and Coffee Review, or is it also the fact that people are there to take interest and participate in the first place?
By including a harvest year among the data for tea and coffee, merchants would not necessarily distinguish it from other tea and coffee sitting next to it on the shelf like with wine, of course. But, they would:
- Confirm the freshness of the product.
- Give consumers a sense of something new, thereby keeping up interest (“Oh, the 2014 Assam is here,” as opposed to, “Oh, Assam is here again.”).
- Create the likelihood that reviewers will mention harvest years in their reviews. This sudden consciousness of a new variable would make them increasingly interested in continuing to consume from the same region to observe firsthand the differences and similarities among the years, as any good aficionado would be. It would also mean that readers of reviews would be drawn back into that product by becoming conscious of the new variable. (“Oh, is that what there is to taste from the 2014? It’s different than what I tasted that other time,” as opposed to, “Oh, is that what this guy tastes? It’s different than what I tasted that other time.”). Finally, producers and merchants can mine the data for all it is worth.
Maybe it is the old product data manager in me (my old position when I had a day job, before I switched to a full-time school schedule), but I really do think that more attention to authenticating and publicizing the variables of tea and coffee is the best way to draw people in to the product.
Anyhow, on to the good stuff: It is time to explore the tea that finally got me to learn and think. McNulty’s was kind enough to confirm for me that this tea was harvested in 2013. The dry leaves of the Selimbong garden’s first flush are rather pastel hued, dark, all twisted tightly but alternately curled up or straight and long. Packed into the glass jar, the visual texture is akin to that of a Van Gogh painting. In stark contrast to the Darjeeling leaves that I reviewed in 2012, which had an aroma like wine and fruit, these leaves smell like a rainforest. There is some caramel, some tannins, some traditional florals, but mostly the rich maltiness that one might expect from, say, a huge mouthful of the dry leaves.
The brewed Darjeeling tea has a rich, smooth, brown color, like a deep, dark honey. The aroma is of sweet, sweet florals. Specific notes are smooth and include principally honey and flowers, with light hints of toffee and caramel as well. The palate offers a light body, although I was not confident noting that at first because there is such a thoroughly generous symphony of flavors that together with the malt they actually make the body of the tea seem rich! It took a little while before my mouth was able to sort it all out. Truly it is a most impressive, sophisticated, and unique tapestry that is woven, and I was reminded yet again why Darjeeling tea is my favorite black tea. (Well, some would say it is an oolong, but you know…)
Could it be that in my prior Darjeeling tea review, when I thought the tea was rich and thick, I was deluded by a similar phenomenon? I suppose it is quite possible.
The tea is not too acidic, not too tannic, not too malty (although the malt augments some as it cools), and not too brisk: just enough of each. The prior Darjeeling tea had some fruit flavors that are absent from this year’s crop. The 2013 offers good floral notes, though they are not quite as sweet as in the aroma. The flavor notes are of toasted things: toasted toffee, toasted caramel, even toasted marshmallow. Again, the body of the tea is light. It has a light body and constitution, even a light heart and soul – the flavors are bright, sprightly, and numerous. It is really curious how such a light body flatters the swirling bouquet of spirited tasting notes. The palate is balanced and even throughout, but it smooths out as the tea cools. The finish is of caramel and florals, with a drop of honey.