If you ask 100 people to name a tea from India, two will say Assam tea. The other 98 will say Darjeeling tea. It is by far the most famous tea from India and it is also the best quality tea from the country (Assam tea is generally a pretty low-quality leaf).
Despite it being the best quality tea, the majority of Darjeeling tea sold on the market is actually pretty bad. Like so many other products from India, much of what is sold is actually fake. If you’ve bought this variety of tea, chances are it was not grown in the Darjeeling region. Instead, it came from somewhere else and was a much lower quality.
Even real Darjeeling tea is generally pretty low-quality. Only a small amount of high quality tea is produced every year. Of course much more than is produced is actually labeled high-quality, real Darjeeling tea. You see, the Indian government established a rating system, including an authentication seal, that should ensure buyers they are getting their money’s worth. This was a great idea in theory, but in practice it didn’t quite work out so well. I’m sure you can imagine why: corruption.
India is one of the world’s most corrupt countries and even tea growers with the worst quality teas can easily get their tea certified as authentic Darjeeling, if they simply pay the correct person enough money. That is a shame, because it means that most people who think they’ve tried Darjeeling tea actually haven’t. In fact, I myself was under the impression that Darjeeling tea was overrated, since every time I tried it, it was not very good. It turns out though, that I just never had an actual Darjeeling leaf before. Once I had a real one in India, I saw what a difference it can make to the flavor of the tea.
Within this rating system, there are also numerous different grades. Again, in theory, they should help you select the quality of tea you want. In practice, though, corruption once again ruins a good idea. One thing you can be sure of, is that a tea labeled a low-grade will not be a higher grade. Naturally, tea labeled higher grade will usually be a lower quality than the label would indicate.
One important fact about Darjeeling tea is that it is not actually a black tea. It is labeled as a black tea and is generally considered a black tea, but it’s actually an oolong tea. The main characteristic of oolong tea is that the leaves have not been allowed to fully oxidize. They’ve oxidized longer than a green tea but not long enough to be considered a black tea. That leaves a wide range, and oolongs come in many different flavors. When it comes to Darjeeling tea, different varieties have oxidized for different lengths, so they will all inhabit different places on the oolong scale. None of them are actually black teas though.
This might be disappointing to you, but it shouldn’t be. Oolong tea is much richer and much more complex and flavorful than black tea. Perhaps this is why Darjeeling tea is considered such a high-quality black tea: it is not actually a black tea. While there are black tea varieties in China that have rich, complex flavors, black teas from regions other than the Darjeeling area in India, are not generally that special. Thus, it makes sense why Darjeeling tea is so highly regarded.
If you ever find yourself in the Darjeeling region of India, definitely try some tea, but try to stay away from the tourist shops which will sell you overpriced tea that, in all likelihood, is not as good as they claim. If you can go to an actual plantation, not a touristy one, you may get a chance to have a high-quality cup of tea. It will definitely take more effort than just sitting down in the touristy cafe, but the effort is worth it. A great cup of Darjeeling tea really is a good thing. It might not be the world’s best tea, but it is India’s best.