Conversation: Flaws of Darjeeling teas

by Jason Walker on November 23, 2012

in black, darjeeling, origin, Voices of Tea

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Whenever you explore the taste and sensation of a new kind of tea and a decision about the tea must be made,  a series of questions begin to flow through your mind. The simple version of the question is: “Is this a bad (or good) tea?”.

But what happens is often a series of questions, like:

  • How good (or bad) is this tea compared to others?
  • Am I aware the characteristics that make one of the teas better than another?
  • Why is this tea worse/better, and how can I know what caused this flaw or improvement?

I went to Darjeeling Tea Xpress and Lochan Tea to help us understand some of these issues as they relate to Darjeeling teas.

Darjeeling Tea Xpress has worked to create an extensive selection of Darjeeling tea offerings from multiple plantations across several harvests. They also have one of the best collections of information on Darjeeling plantations, processing methods, and seasonal updates for Darjeeling teas.

Lochan Tea Limited has been in service for over 20 years. Rajiv Lochan is CEO of Lochan, and has planted tea, manufactured Darjeeling tea, and managed tea Darjeeling plantations for many years. Much of Lochan’s responses below came directly from Rajiv.

What are some of the most common flaws caused during Darjeeling tea production?

Lochan: Withering – mainly because it is done overnight when people sleep. Plucking is done in the gardens from 7 am to 4pm and green leaf thus plucked is brought to the factories where it is put into the withering troughs with fans blowing normal air. Even withering requires the right mix of hot air and reshuffling uneven leaf in the trough. These need to be done throughout the night when people tend to sleep, and mistakes can happen.

Darjeeling Tea Xpress: Flaw by definition is a marked flaw or imperfection – in the case of Darjeeling each and any flaw usually always results in an unsatisfying cup. There could be many flaws that can create a below-average cup:

  • Poor manufacturing – Darjeeling is a very delicate tea and it requires an expert eye with years of experience to bring out its nuances. Darjeeling tea production goes through many steps (read here ), and each step in the production needs to be monitored. The duration of each manufacturing step also differs for different flushes and with daily weather patterns. Hence a little deviation can wreak havoc on the taste of Darjeeling.
  • Unsuitable leaves – Darjeeling bushes are regularly pruned to ensure that only the most suitable two leaves and a bud go into processing. As with many other agricultural commodities, Darjeeling plants are vulnerable to insects/pests attack that can drain the juices and sap the tea of its flavour.
  • Improper packing – Darjeeling tea has to travel great distances before it arrives in the cup. An excellent tea can be rendered worthless if its not packed properly to survive the long distances in transport. Ineffective packaging allows air to seep in, causing tea to be affected by moisture and hence rendered unpalatable.

How often do flaws get past inspection and end up in customers’ hands?

Darjeeling Tea Xpress: As Darjeeling planters/producers/manufacturers are people who have years of experience to guide them, it is rare that these flaws get in customer’s hands as they go through many checks in the system. However it does happen that the flaws are un-noticed or get overlooked and these end up in the cups of tea lovers.

Lochan: For low cost teas (which can amount to almost 75% of teas produced) many flawed teas can be passed along. During the (potentially) frequent periods of: heavy cropping, rains, lack of supervision, or breakdowns, the resulting flaws can end up in the hands of customers.

Are some flushes more likely to have flaws? Why??

Darjeeling Tea Xpress: Rains tea (between second and autumn flush) generally have more of these flaws as the continuous rainfall necessitates  adjustments in manufacturing style. Processing in this weather requires long withering and drying due to extremely high presence of moisture.

Lochan: Rain flush has increased incidence of flaws because the harvest quantity increases and weather conditions interfere. There is more moisture inside the leaf, on the surface of the leaf, and in the air.

How can a tea consumer detect these flaws? What do they look, smell, and taste like?

Lochan: Flawed rain flush teas are stewy, dark, and dull, lacking in flavour with heavy, darker cups.

Darjeeling Tea Xpress: It would not be easy for a non-Darjeeling tea drinker to detect these flaws as it would need a strong familiarity and experience with Darjeeling. However, a basic thumb rule would be – if the tea tastes weird to you, something has gone wrong somewhere.

Is there anything else tea drinkers should know about flaws in Darjeeling teas?

Darjeeling Tea Xpress: Over the years, the industry has been able to overcome many of the flaws in manufacturing purely through a strong history of record keeping. Minute details of each and every step of manufacturing, including weather patterns, duration, pressure, and humidity are recorded to ensure each successive processing period has enough information to manufacture an excellent Darjeeling.

Lochan: Flaws can also be created during the fermentation/oxidation and firing stages. It is not uncommon for the tea to become smoky during busy harvest/processing periods.  Different types of leaves need different types of treatment- and it is not always possible to give that kind of treatment during the bustle of heavy cropping months.

JW: Does this conversation answer all questions about the potential flaws a Darjeeling tea can have? No, but it sends us along the right path. A series of taste memories would help immensely. And developing such a taste-memory requires years of experience with the good and the bad.

Thanks to my contributors.

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