Now that tea drinking has shaken its fussy old-ladies-only image, I’ve developed a sudden taste for the ancient brew—and satisfying it means supplementing my traditional morning “cuppa” with new blends and varieties. The quest to find them not only involves some unusual flavors (anyone for hand-tied Red Lychee Ball Tea?) It also involves some unexpected locales: India among them. Sure, you may think all the tea is in China. But in fact, some of the world’s best comes from the Himalayan foothills around Darjeeling , 370 miles above Calcutta.
In a land where age is relative, this industry is comparatively new. It started in 1841 when a British surgeon with the Indian Medical Service planted the first seeds in his backyard. Clearly, they thrived, because less then a dozen years later, commercial tea gardens began springing up—and before you could say “brew,” business was booming. It continues to do so today, with almost one hundred local producers cultivating about 47,000 acres of land.
A fortuitous blend of topography and climate has helped the Darjeeling variety gain an international reputation as “the Champagne of Teas.” Making it, though, isn’t easy.
Since tea bushes have to be hand-plucked every four to eight days from March until November, the work is very labor intensive. In the final accounting, there’s not much to show for it either: a typical bush yields only about four ounces of tea per year! Luckily, the Glenburn Tea Estate , a slope-side property located a little over an hour from Darjeeling Town, is positively steeped in the stuff. Glenburn is owned by the Prakash family, and when it comes to giving “tea tours,” these fourth-generation planters have it in the bag.
You start off by seeing an audio-visual presentation that covers both the plant-to-cup process and the history of the plantation, which was originally developed by a Scottish company in the mid-19th century. Afterwards, the estate manager escorts you through the sublime fields to the nursery where the tea is grown, then into the factory to show you how it is weighed, withered, rolled, fermented, dried, and sorted. Since all of that activity is bound to make one thirsty, the tour ends with an illuminating—and much-appreciated—tea tasting session.
Once you’ve learned to differentiate between Starlight White and plain Orange Pekoe, you can put your knowledge to good use in Darjeeling Town because Glenburn also organizes complimentary excursions there. It is a “Passage to India” sort of place where a whiff of the Raj Era still lingers and tea is indisputably the order of the day. Of course, if that seems too arduous, overnighters can simply sip another relaxing cup on the verandah of Glenburn’s 150-year old Burra Bungalow.
This plantation-style building, formerly the manager’s quarters, comes highly recommended (Britain’s Tatler magazine listed it among the world’s “Best 101 Hotels”). The four elegantly appointed guestrooms evoke the colonial days through details like massive mahogany beds and antique maps. All also feature decadent bathrooms complete with—you guessed it—Darjeeling Green Tea toiletries. Spring through summer, double rooms including all meals, tours, and activities, plus ground transfers are $300 per couple per night. They rise to $400 in the fall.
Fresh tea can be purchased on site. However, bringing bags of loose odd-looking leaves in from India can raise the eyebrows of customs officers. So it’s probably easier to place an order through Glenburn’s British sales office  in London. Online tea seller Camellia Sinensis  also has a Darjeeling catalogue that includes first flush and politically correct “fair trade” teas.
Related story: Nourishment and You: Coffee or Tea?
Photo courtesy of The Glenburn Estate