This may come as a shock to some, but, as I mentioned in my recent post about lassi, I do occasionally partake in the drinking of non-alcoholic beverages.
In fact, I’m a big tea fan. For starters, I’m British, also fell in love with mate in Argentina and Paraguay and, while we were busy poisoning our livers in Japan, a teetotal friend even convinced me to join the university’s “Tea Ceremony Club” – a proposition I ridiculed for months, until I realised he’d landed a gold mine: a club consisting entirely of hot Japanese student girls. Consequently, I developed a strong extra-curricular interest in “the way of tea”.
But that was Japan and this is India…
To be honest, even if I had preferred to stick with alcohol in Darjeeling, I would’ve been hard pressed. A 10pm curfew means nightlife in Darjeeling is effectively non-existent, with the exception of Joey’s pub – the evening hangout of foreigners in Darjeeling (while the typical daytime hangout is Glenary’s bakery)…but, even then, you only have a short window, with Joey’s only opening at six (and not really picking up until 8, 8.30pm) – and Gatty’s, which will generally stay open as long as you want to keep buying drinks…if you can find it.
Basically, I could drink my heart out and still wake up and enjoy the next day.
Everyone’s heard of Darjeeling tea, and the Happy Valley Tea Estate produces the finest of the fine. The estate is home to around 100 hectares of tea plantation and the world’s highest tea factory, at around 2000m above sea level.
The best part is the tour is free. You are free to walk around the cool tree-lined paths of the tranquil tea fields, watching the pluckers, before a member of staff guides you through the various stages of the factory line, explaining each process in depth, how black, green and white teas are made from the same leaves, and, finally, why Darjeeling tea is so superior to “that Assam shit”. (I’m paraphrasing.) (Also, I like Assam tea.)
The Darjeeling Tea Making Process
Some of these stages are integral to the production of tea, while others (and the order in which they’re carried out) are what make Darjeeling tea, and more specifically Happy Valley tea unique.
- Plucking takes place in the fields between 7am and 11am and then later from 1pm to 4pm. The factory is only operational until 12 noon, so leaves picked in the afternoon are processed the next day.
- Withering removes approximately 65% of the moisture and softens them ready for rolling. This is done by placing the tea on wooden beds which are heated with hot air. The tea leaves are extremely sensitive in this state and absorb odours, so you can’t get too close to them.
- Rolling brings out more moisture and darkens the leaves in colour. Leaves are rolled for about 45 minutes.
- Oxidation or fermentation only applies to black tea. Here the leaves get even darker, which produces a stronger flavour.
- Drying or heating is the process of removing the final moisture from the leaves.
- Manual sorting doesn’t apply to all the leaves, but you can observe local women kneeling amongst baskets of tea leaves, sorting them.
- Cutting is pretty self-explanatory. The leaves are cut into different sizes.
- Grading is then done automatically using machines that filter the leaves. The four grades are: whole leaves, broken leaves, fannings and tea dust. Whole leaves make a “light cup”, which is why Darjeeling tea is best enjoyed without milk.
- Packing can then take place. Tea from Happy Valley is only available in Germany, Japan and the UK, with Harrods being the major (in fact, the only) place to get it. You can also buy it here at the factory of course, though I was surprised that there was no pressure to do so.
How to Get to Happy Valley Tea Estate?
Jeeps from Darjeeling town cost around 400 to 600 rupees and can be shared between up to eight people, though if it’s not too hot or wet I’d recommend walking. It’s a nice walk and takes around 15 to 30 minutes.
When to Go?
Opening times are 8am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday, though it’s best in season (March to November) and in the mornings (before 12 noon) when the plucking takes place and the factory is in full swing.