There’s a mystery floating around in the world of tea, and it’s name is “Clonal.” Well it’s not that mysterious. I just keep seeing the word “clonal” in the name of teas reviewed on review sites, and I’ve even reviewed a couple of “clonal” Darjeeling teas myself. Time for a little exploration.
Basically, “clonal” comes from “clone.” Clonal refers to the method of controlled breeding of plants to produce the best results but is fairly rare in the tea industry due to the expense. Clonal tea bushes are not grown from seeds but from hybrid clones. A lot of times, these clones are developed by research laboratories, much the same way many other plants that have a commercial use are developed. They are bred for specific qualities and are thus some of the most sought after teas, usually selling quickly despite generally higher prices.
Mostly, these clonals are bred to thrive in adverse tea growing locations. For example, Duncans Tea Gardens are in an area of Darjeeling that has dry weather conditions with high temperatures for about seven months of the a year. Land that was once fallow is now about 70% replanted with clonals and has a potential to produce over 4000 Kgs of clonal tea per hectare per year, more than double the national average.
In Darjeeling and Assam tea growing regions in India, clonal teas often display a good selection of deep golden tips, which are becoming more in demand as tea aficionados come to regard “golden tippy” teas as more desirable than regular Darjeeling and Assam teas. Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) has been turning to clonal teas for several decades; in fact, much of their clonal tea bushes are 30-40 years old and the percentage of hectares planted in clonal versus regular tea bushes ranges from 46.6% (corporate production) to 87% (smaller tea producers).
The Arya Estate in Darjeeling and the Mangalam Estate in Assam are both well-known for their clonal teas. The former produces a green tea with a floral/fruity aroma and a classic black tea. The latter has black tea with a fragrance said to be like fresh-baked bread and a malty flavor.
The Nilgiri region of India also has estates, such as Quinshola, that produce clonals. In fact, the Quinshola Estate produces high quality Orthodox teas in demand not only from the locals but also from Russia to make Russian Orthodox tea (you don’t need a samovar to enjoy it).
There are also clonal teas from China, Kenya, and other tea growing regions. The Badgach clonal fields in China are selectively picked and hand-processed into an exquisite clonal tea with unbroken shoots and wiry silver tips; they reportedly produce a fully golden cup that has a sweet taste and lots of flavor. The Millima Estate Tea in Kenya has golden tippy, neatly twisted leaves which are claimed to produce a red-orange liquid that is flowery but robust without a tannin taste.
On a side note, different tea clonals have different caffeine levels. Younger, more tender leaves have a higher caffeine content versus older leaves, and the stalks have a lower content. How the leaves are plucked and seasonal fluctuation can also make quite a difference (often a variance of 24-30%) in caffeine levels.
Just when you thought tea couldn’t get any more complicated, tea growers throw the science of plant breeding into the mix. As a tea lover, I couldn’t be happier!
Someone should really clone Tea Time with A.C. Cargill! One just isn’t enough!