The China Jats of Darjeeling

Tea growing in the area of West Bengal in northern India started with folks like Robert Fortune, a Scotsman who is credited with smuggling (some say stealing) tea plants and people who knew how to cultivate them and process the leaves, about 167 years ago. Some of these original China “jats” (the local term for the cultivars) still survive. Time to learn a bit more about them.

Singbulli White Jade

Fortune traveled to China as part of the Treaty of Nanjing so you could say that he was welcomed into the country. Being a Scotsman and a rather bold one, apparently, he did not confine himself to the things they wanted to show him. One thing was for sure: he was determined to find a way to get some of those Chinese tea plants. At the time, China was maintaining a stranglehold on tea production, and people were not aware of the sister plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica growing already in the Assam area of northern India. Fortune succeeded in his quest and then began to search for the right place to plant them. At some point in all this (I’ve seen different versions posted online of the exact process here) he ended up in the area near the town of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas. Success for Fortune meant success for tea drinkers everywhere, especially since the teas now knows as “Darjeeling” and bearing their special logo are of such a high standard that they are called the “champagne of teas” (and also due to the Muscat grape nature of their flavors).

Tea planting began small in 1847 and grew over the years in the small district known as Darjeeling. [Note: some sites say it was earlier in 1835 and credit a Dr. Campbell, the first British superintendent of the district.] In 2004 they obtained a special protection under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act of 1999. [Source] Only teas grown by a garden in a certain geographical region can label their teas as “Darjeeling” and apply the seal of authenticity. So much tea from Darjeeling was being used to sell inferior teas that the name was in danger of becoming a joke. A ton of inferior tea would have a fraction of that amount of Darjeeling tea added to it so it could be labeled as “Darjeeling” and command a higher price.

The old jats are another issue. Management of the gardens is spotty. Some do very well and others are not so good. Some have garnered a reputation through marketing efforts alone while others are actually focused on presenting a quality product. We stay in touch with people involved in the efforts over there and so can choose the best of the batch. These gardens also struggle with tending plants that may be worn out from over-harvesting. One manager discovered that the older plants in his garden were damaged by moss stem borers and had been poorly pruned over the years. He also realized that some of the plants had been uprooted and replaced with clonal plants and would not grow leaves producing the same Muscatel flavor profile. He dug down around the roots of some older plants, discovered the roots were alive and fairly healthy, but that there were tumors growing on the part of the trunk that was below soil level. The solution: pull back the soil and cut away the tumors, a method that was cheaper than uprooting and replanting.

A further issue is that there is quite a variety of these jats (and even some that are Assam jats, growing in the lower elevations mostly). Over the years various methods of propagation have been employed, including cloning, until there are now hundreds of them. This is a good thing in one way, since the old plants are at the end of their useful life. However, the challenge is maintaining that distinct flavor profile. The relatively low yield from these bushes is also one of the reasons prompting the protection of the name “Darjeeling.” A bush yields an average of 3-4 ounces of processed tea annually, meaning that it takes 4 or 6 bushes to make a pound of Darjeeling tea. That pound contains about 9,000 hand-plucked leaf-and-bud sets.

While the terroir of the Darjeeling area helps create this unique flavor profile from the leaves of those China jats, we can taste the similarity with other teas from China. It’s like seeing a family resemblance in siblings or even cousins.

Time to get better acquainted!

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
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