This year I've added a new tea to the collection, Darjeeling Spring, which I am incredibly excited to share with you. With my own family roots in India, and having traveled to Darjeeling in May 2018, I have been eagerly awaiting this moment.
Below I share a little about my experience at the Makaibari tea gardens and why I love this tea so much. Cozy up with a brew and enjoy the read!
The Magical Darjeeling Hills
First, a little about Darjeeling.
Famous for its title as the "Champagne of teas", Darjeeling is praised for producing some of the world's finest teas, and there are only 87 tea estates with the right to label their teas as Darjeeling. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas in the West Bengal state of India, Darjeeling was introduced to tea by a Scottish surgeon back in the 19th century, with some bushes as old as 150 years.
Primarily producing teas from the Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis tea bushes (also sometimes referred to as the China bush), and benefiting from nutrient-rich soil, as well as high altitudes between 600 to 2000m, the hills surrounding Darjeeling produce some undeniably beautiful teas. The mark of this terroir is its distinct muscatel flavors and floral aromas. Each flush carries the signature Darjeeling taste but with noticeable differences.
The Four Flushes of Tea
The tea harvesting season takes place from March to October, divided into four distinct periods called "flushes": Spring (First), Summer (Second), Monsoon (Third) & Autumn (Fourth). You can learn about the differences between each flush in detail in this blog post I wrote.
My personal favorites are the Spring & Summer flushes, the first offering a light amber liquor with delicate floral aromas akin to spring, and the second offering bolder fruity flavors. After having tried both, I can't say one is better than the other! Both are fine teas which I will choose between based on my mood, and I'm incredibly excited to offer you the Spring Flush tea this year (I may offer the Summer flush later on if things align!).
One of the things I was also fascinated by upon my arrival to the Darjeeling hills was the cultural and linguistic diversity of the region, due to the many indigenous groups and large Nepalese population living in Darjeeling, as well as its historical British influence. Many people we met spoke four languages (!): Nepalese, Hindi, English and Bengali. Some spoke Tibetan as well.
There is also a strong sense of spirituality: The hills are marked by colorful Tibetan prayer flags, believed to spread good will and compassion into all surrounding areas by the wind. This makes for a lovely sight atop the mountains, reminding me of my trek in the Himalayas.
With this rich cultural diversity also comes a beautiful range of food, some of my favorites including momos (Nepalese dumplings, pictured above), thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and aludum (adaptation of the Indian potato dish).
Makaibari Tea Estate
Now onto the estate where our Darjeeling Spring tea is from!
Founded in 1859 by the Banerjee family, Makaibari is one of the oldest tea gardens in Darjeeling. It became the first organic estate in Darjeeling over 40 years ago, pioneered by the revered Rajah Banerjee.
With 1100 acres of primary rainforest, over four hundred species of birds, and a plethora of wild animals and insects, Makaibari is one of the most biodiverse tea estates in Darjeeling. During my visit through the Makaibari gardens in 2018, I was amazed by the range of trees and insects I saw, providing a very healthy ecosystem for many species to thrive. I also got to try my own hand at plucking tea leaves, guided by a very kind (and patient!) tea picker. Balancing the tea basket on my forehead while picking leaves was not easy, and having experienced this has given me that much more appreciation for the finished tea leaves.
The factory building we toured through was built in 1859 and featured many original machines from the colonial era (over 150 years old)! It was impressive to see the leaves artfully withered, rolled, oxidized, dried and sorted.
The estate places strong value on its people and its community, offering local homestays in the homes of families in the Makaibari village to provide opportunity for a secondary stream of income, and was the first estate in Darjeeling to appoint women in a supervisory position.
My Experience at Makaibari
During my stay there, I opted for a homestay with a local family of the tea gardens through a grassroots initiative organized by a local body known as Volunteer in Makaibari, and absolutely loved it. My friend and I shared three meals a day with Sundiya didi's family, which we looked forward to each day. In the daytime we explored the sprawling tea gardens just below, toured through the factory next door to understand how teas are processed, tasted their delicious (and fresh!) teas, and hiked to the nearby Kurseong town. In the evenings we enjoyed home-cooked meals together and played Carrom board games with the kids.
We had such a wonderful time in Sundiya didi's home, and are incredibly grateful to her family for opening their home to us, as well as Mr. Nayan Lama of Volunteer in Makaibari for organizing everything. When the time came, it was very hard to leave. The experience gave me a deepened connection with Darjeeling and I cherish the friendships we made during our stay.
Why I Love this Tea
Since returning back home from the beautiful tea region, I relish the moments I get to brew Makaibari's tea.
There is truly no other tea like Darjeeling. It is one of those teas where, upon first taste - with its signature muscat grape character, fresh, floral fragrance and pleasant astringency - my palate can immediately tell that it comes from Darjeeling. And that in itself is exciting!
I enjoy drinking this tea in the late mornings and early afternoons. A delightful brew, it never fails to bring me energy and inspiration. Each sip takes me to the fresh air of the mountains and allows me to experience the magic of Darjeeling once again, no matter where I am.
Its visual beauty is also something I often find myself admiring. The spring flush is an array of greens, browns, whites, ambers all in the same dry leaf, reflecting the complexity and natural growing environment of the tea.
Finally, it makes a fantastic cold brew, bringing out all the pleasant florals, delicate stone fruit and grape notes. Try brewing it in sparkling water and you will have found yourself your favorite summer refresher, opening the possibilities for a range of summer tea cocktails.
Sip & Support
I am privileged to be enjoying this tea and it breaks my heart to see the devastating impact the current wave of COVID-19 has had on India, including the regions where our teas are grown. That's why I will be donating 30% of the Darjeeling Spring sales in the month of June directly to Give India Oxygen for Covid relief measures, in particular through the supply of oxygen. If you are blessed to live in a safe environment and in a position to help, I urge you to consider supporting through the purchase of Darjeeling Spring, or a direct donation to the charity through the link above.
Have you ever tried Darjeeling tea before? What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment and ask questions below. ♥
Note: All photos in this post were taken by Mona Jhunjhnuwala on May 2018 in Darjeeling, India