Teas from Darjeeling and Ceylon are gaining prominence among tea drinkers the world over. No big surprise, considering the amazing level of expertise, quality, and variety the tea growers have developed in a relatively short time (when compared with those in China).
Tea used to be grown almost exclusively in China, a well-guarded secret that gave them the edge when trading. This went on for thousands of years. Finally, the “tea monopoly” was broken by a brave Brit who smuggled some tea plants (Camellia Sinensis) out of China to plant in the then-colony of India in the Darjeeling region. (Tea drinkers have been thanking him — whether they knew it or not — ever since.) As recently as 1852, the region of Darjeeling in India was successful in growing tea on a commercial scale.
Around the same time that tea began flourishing in Darjeeling, the island nation of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), just south of India, was saved from what would have been an economic disaster by this special plant. In the late 1800s, Sri Lanka was forced, due to the total destruction of their coffee crops by a leaf disease (coffee rust), to switch to growing tea. They haven’t looked back since.
So, how do these two tea regions and the teas they produce compare? The similarities and differences are rather too complex for one short article, so I’m just giving a brief synopsis of each and will delve into details in later articles.
Growing conditions (climate and altitude):
Darjeeling — The terrain is hilly and has several rivers running through it. The climate is often described as close to the climate in the United Kingdom in terms of rainfall, temperature, and humidity. It is also quite suitable for growing tea. There are 87 gardens/estates in active production, cranking out 9 to 10 million kilograms every year. The growing season is March through November. Harvest times are “Spring” (March, April), “Summer” (May to mid-July), “Monsoon” (mid-July to September), and “Autumn” (October, November), each imparting its own characteristics to the tea flavor. The flavor can also vary by estate.
Ceylon — Altitude where tea is grown varies from sea level to about 2,000 meters. These changes affect climate conditions, which affect tea taste. The teas are therefore classified into three growth zones:
- Low (sea level to 600 meters)
- Medium (600-1200 meters)
- High (1200meters and above)
Darjeeling — Tea taste varies greatly by harvest time and by tea estate. “Spring” teas steep up to a light, clear liquid that has a fresh, bright, and lively character with slight astringency. “Summer” teas are produced from leaves that have a purplish bloom and a smattering of silvery buds (tips); they steep up a liquid that is full, mellow, and has that muscatel flavor that gives Darjeeling a reputation for being the “Champagne of Teas.” “Monsoon” teas, used in many breakfast blends, are strong in flavor and color. “Autumn” teas are made from the last leaves of the growing season, when they have become tinged a pale coppery brown and steep up a delicate but bright tasting liquid. The quality of Darjeeling teas is controlled by the India Tea Board. There is also a Darjeeling Tea Association dedicated to assuring that Darjeeling teas maintain their high standards and consistency.
Ceylon — Their teas are mostly identified by the 6 regions: Dimulla, Galle, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura, and Uva. The best teas come from the leaves harvested in February, March, August, and September. True Ceylon tea, that is, tea actually grown, harvested, and processed in Ceylon, is labeled with a special logo, a stylized lion, as mandated by the Sri Lanka Tea Board. Look for this to assure you are getting true Ceylon tea. These teas are mainly black teas produced by the orthodox process, that is, the leaves are hand-plucked to assure that only the unopened leaf bud and two leaves, the most flavorful, are taken. Generally, they are described as brewing up strong, dark, and flavorful, and having complex hints of orange and spice. They are often used in blends, but some are so special tasting that they are sold “pure” (unblended).
There is a growing trend in the tea market toward labeling teas with their year and season harvested. If you really want to experience these teas in all their variety, look for ones with this labeling. For a more consistent taste experience, stick with generically labeled “Ceylon” or “Darjeeling.” You can also find both teas in blends.
Enjoy your ventures into these wonderful teas. More details to come in future articles.
Little Yellow Teapot Tea Reviews is a great place to catch a few reviews of Ceylon and Darjeeling teas!
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