Darjeeling Tea article by Matt Gross

DARJEELING, India: The Himalayas rose almost out of nowhere. One minute the Maruti Suzuki hatchback was cruising the humid plains of West Bengal, palm trees and clouds obscuring the hills to come; the next it was navigating a decrepit road that squiggled up through forests of cypress and bamboo. The taxi wheezed with the strain of the slopes.

For an hour or more, as we climbed ever higher, all I saw was jungle with hardly a village to break the anxious monotony. Finally, around 1,200 meters, or 4,000 feet, the foliage opened just enough to allow a more expansive view. From the edge of the road, the hills flowed up and down and back up, covered with low, flat-topped bushes. Tiny dots marched among the bushes and along the dirt tracks that zigzagged up the hillsides - workers plucking leaves from Camellia sinensis, the tea bushes of Darjeeling.

Flying to a remote corner of India and braving the long drive into the Himalayas may seem like an awful lot of effort for a good cup of tea, but Darjeeling tea isn't simply good. It's about the best in the world, fetching record prices at auctions in Calcutta and Shanghai.

In fact, Darjeeling is so synonymous with high-quality black tea that few non-connoisseurs realize it's not one beverage but many: 87 tea estates operate in the Darjeeling district, a region that sprawls across several towns (including its namesake) in a mountainous corner of India between Nepal and Bhutan, with Tibet not far to the north.

Each has its own approach to growing tea, and in a nod to increasingly savvy and adventurous consumers, a few have converted bungalows into tourist lodging, while others are accepting day visitors keen to learn the production process, compare styles and improve their palates.

I set out to travel from estate to estate last March during the "first flush" harvest, said to produce the most delicate, flavorful leaves. (The second flush, in May and June, is really just as good.)

My first stop was Makaibari, an estate just south of the town of Kurseong, around 1,500 meters above sea level. Founded by G.C. Banerjee in the 1840s, during the region's first great wave of tea cultivation, Makaibari remains a family operation, run by Banerjee's great-grandson Swaraj - better known as Rajah. Rajah is a Darjeeling legend: He's arguably done more for Darjeeling tea than anyone else in the district. In 1988, he took the estate organic; four years later, it was fully biodynamic, the first in the world.

Today, it produces the most expensive brew in Darjeeling, a "muscatel" that sold for 50,000 rupees a kilogram (about $555 a pound) at auction in Beijing last year. You won't often spot his logo on grocery store shelves, but you'll find his leaves in boxes marked Tazo and Whole Foods.

After checking into one of the six no-frills bungalows he has erected for tourists, I met Banerjee at the Makaibari factory (opened in 1859). What, he asked, did I hope to accomplish at Makaibari?

"Well," I said, "I guess I'd like to see how tea is made."

"Ha! You've come to the wrong place for that," Banerjee declared with an eager grin. "This is the place to see how tea is enjoyed!" Then he poured me a cup - bright but mellow, with a faint fruity sweetness that lingered on my tongue. It was to be the first of many perfect cups.

Enjoying tea at Makaibari was an involved business. At 7:30 every morning, Mr. Lama, the grandfatherly caretaker, would present me with a cup of fresh, hot "bed tea," which I'd sip groggily before leaving my woolen blankets for the chilly mountain air. At breakfast in the glassed-in common room, more tea, after which I'd go to the factory. On one side of the road were the tea bushes. On the other, the prayer flags of a Buddhist monastery fluttered in the Himalayan breeze. Children on their way to school would shout "Hello!" while their parents, many of them Makaibari employees, would put their palms together and quietly say, "Namaste."

In Makaibari's offices, I'd have a cup while waiting for Banerjee to arrive. After making his entrance, Banerjee would expound on everything from Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic farming theories to the fall of Atlantis to his youth on Carnaby Street in London, where he made a fortune before retreating to Darjeeling to grow tea.

Eventually, we'd move into the tasting room, where Banerjee would inspect the day's production. This was "SFTGFOP," the labels noted: super-fine tippy golden flowery orange pekoe, the healthy, unbroken leaves from the very top of the bush. Earlier, an assistant had weighed out precisely two grams from several batches, steeped them in nearly boiling water for five minutes, and strained the tea into white ceramic bowls.

As with wine, tasting tea is no simple process of gulping and grading. Banerjee first inspected the infused leaves for color and nose, and only then sipped from each bowl, inhaling sharply to oxidate the liquid and release its flavors, and sloshing it loudly around his mouth before spitting it into a nearby tub. Then, with hardly a moment's hesitation, he'd move on to the next bowl.

"Taste those two," Banerjee ordered the first day, "and tell me which you prefer." I did as he said. Both had the gentle floral aroma typical of first-flush Darjeelings, but the second had a pronounced strength and astringency that appealed to me, even though I knew that Darjeeling growers try for subtlety over punch. I told him my decision.

"Bah!" he said after resampling them. "That one only has undertones of peach. The first one has peach flavors and is much more complex. It's far superior!"

I blushed - I had much to learn. And for the next few days, I studied hard. First, I followed the tea pickers - mostly ethnic Nepali women - into the fields. "Dui path, ek suiro" was what they plucked - "two leaves, a bud" - slowly transforming each bush from bright yellowish green to the deep sheen of the older leaves.

In the factory, massive steel machines were turning the harvest into drinkable tea by the "orthodox" method. After 16 to 20 hours in withering troughs that remove much of their moisture, the fresh leaves go into rollers that curl them into precise formations once achieved only by hand. Then comes the fermentation, during which the tea develops its flavor, becoming a half-fermented oolong or a fully fermented black tea. Next the tea is fired - baked - to stop the fermentation, and the leaves are sorted, graded, packed and sent to the tasting room for Banerjee's approval.

After exploring Makaibari's hundreds of hectares of wilderness, I moved on to Glenburn. This century-old planter's house, meticulously restored, stood on the edge of a plateau. The suites were vast, kitted out in teak club chairs and four-poster beds that evoked the Raj. The man responsible for Glenburn's tea was Sanjay Sharma, 33. As estate manager, he has tried to push the production in new directions, and he asserted that Glenburn now ranked No. 17 in the district. Sharma's first-flush teas had that wonderful flowery scent and a long, lingering aftertaste, with just a hint of bite.

Alas, Glenburn was booked, so I went on to Goomtee, a resort recommended by Nathmull's, the best tea shop in Darjeeling. In terms of luxury, Goomtee stood somewhere between Makaibari and Glenburn. The comfy planter's house recalled 1950 rather than 1850, with huge rooms and a garden of azaleas, and since the owners of the estate were vegetarians, so were the guests - myself and four Japanese women. After checking in, I followed them and their translator to the fields.

And I began to fade. I was about to drop off entirely when an assistant brought in a full tea service and poured us each a cup. I sipped. This is what they mean by "brisk," a bright flavor that fills your mouth and wakes you up.

I soon learned more about briskness, when I set off one morning for Muscatel Valley, Goomtee's organic fields. If Makaibari had been wild and Glenburn a fantasyland, then Muscatel Valley was positively prehistoric, with massive stone outcroppings amid lonely fields of tea bushes.

When I returned to my room, I flopped down in exhaustion. How, I wondered, could these professionals differentiate among the infinitely subtle gradations of flavor and scent? What stuck in my mind was the tea-ness of tea, floral aroma, hints of fruit and wood on the palate, and a fragile astringency that buzzed in my mouth long after the liquid had gone down. But which cup had that been, the Makaibari or the Glenburn? Or had I just imagined it?

By Matt Gross