Plucking tea leaf in Darjeeling
produces the world's best aromatic tea. Presently Darjeeling has 86 tea gardens which
produce about 10 million kgs of tea annually. Tea is grown in Darjeeling from a height of
100 mt. (300 ft.) to 2,000 mt. (6,000 ft). Output and the quality of tea varies with the
altitude. Most of the Darjeeling tea estates have China or China hybrid plants, although
some tea estates at lower elevations have Assam hybrids too. The China or China hybrid
plant is small leafed and, therefore, difficult to pluck. Some 6,000 shoots of tea leaves
and a bud from these bushes make about ½ kg. of tea, whereas a broad light leaf of Assam
variety can produce the same quantity with about 3,000 shoots. All Darjeeling teas are
The average production in the hill per acre is almost half compared to
the production in the warmer plains. It is this climate and high altitude affecting the
slow growth of the tea leaf which help to give Darjeeling teas the flavour for which it is
known. In other tea growing areas and other tea growing countries tea is produced
throughout the year, but in Darjeeling it hibernates in dry and cold winter. Growth starts
in Spring when the tea bushes of Darjeeling are covered with a mass of small soft shoots.
This is the first 'flush' tea. After which there is a lull in the growth until the second
'flush' appears; the quantity of leaf on the bushes is not great but a unique flavour
predominates in the first and second 'flushes'.
The monsoon starts in Darjeeling about mid-June and from July onwards the
quality of tea (monsoon 'flush') is of standard character until the rains stop in October.
Then for a short period until the end of the season in November, a small crop of
'autumnal' leaf is harvested which is flavoury but has 'thin' liquor.
Darjeeling tea's unique flavour is influenced by altitude, type of soil, slopes
and the character of Nepali labourers who hand-pick these tea leaves.
Every tea garden has its tea processing factory. The hand picked tea leaves are
brought to the factory and are spread out thinly on tiers of racks or troughs for
'withering'. This process reduces the moisture and makes the leaf flaccid within a period
of about 18 hours. So the leaves plucked today is ready for final processing next day. The
next stage is called 'rolling' where these limp and withered leaves are twisted and their
cells ruptured so as to expose their juice in the rolling machines. The rolling process
continues for 1½ hours. The leaf is then spread out for about 2 to 3 hours for
'fermentation' in rooms where the humidity is controlled to 95%. After this it is taken to
drying machines (temperature 200° to 225° F). Then it goes to 'sorting' where different
quality teas are sorted. The best quality tea comes from the 'leaf' grades ('broken'
grade, 'fanning' grade and 'dust' produces lower quality teas). Of the total crops of 10
million kgs. the first and second flushes and the autumnal teas are highly prized. India
alleges that Darjeeling produces only 10 million kgs. tea but about 40 million kgs of
'Darjeeling tea' is available in the world market every year. That is why the Tea Board is
taking steps to protect the name 'Darjeeling Tea' against erroneous use.
The use of chemical fertilizers in tea gardens is being reduced to a minimum
and some of the tea gardens have gone organic with no use of chemical fertilisers at all.
Inspite of the problems and the adversities in a fast changing world,
Darjeeling tea estates are striving to maintain and indeed improve the unique quality
which has made Darjeeling tea renowned as the finest in the world.