A book review of “Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea”
Unlike when you see a retro laundromat façade and then walk inside to discover a hipster coffee shop with $15 avocado toast, Jeff Koehler’s “Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea” is not an ironically-titled wine book in disguise. This is a book solely about tea and focuses upon one of the most amazing tea regions in the world, Darjeeling. The reason I’m reviewing it here is that it’s a must-read for anyone the least bit interested in wine.
I’m a relatively recent convert to tea, having no relationship to the hot beverage growing up other than squalid herbal lemongrass & honey concoctions I was given when sick. The fine infusion of hot water and camellia sinensis is something I did not become hooked on until a trip to London in 2003. Ever since, I’ve been fanatic about it to the point where, at my apex of tea geekery, I drove an office carpool truly bat shit insane by constantly yabbering about it. “But Miquel,” you probably weren’t about to ask, “surely there’s not that much to talk about when it comes to tea?” There is and Koehler’s book is a wondrous 300 page deposition of “only” Darjeeling which I’m sure must have come about as self therapy to his own fixation with tea.
For most people, if there’s one name for a tea that comes to mind most readily, I’ll bet that it’s probably Earl Grey given that Jean Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” would always order it from the star ship replicators, “hot”, despite being… a Frenchman? The thing to understand is that Earl Grey is a type of teamaking (infusing black tea with bergamot) whereas Darjeeling is an actual region and so to understand its teas is like understanding Burgundy wines. Unlike Burgundy however, which has literal centuries of grape growing tradition, Darjeeling is a relatively new tea region and Koehler does an excellent, detailed job in explaining how it came about in the 19th century, basically as the occupying British Empire needed a recovery station up in the mountains.
There are countless interesting facts, anecdotes, and historical stories that are all brought to life by Koehler’s narration of the region going up through Independence and then how the tea region has fared since then. But, the book is much more than just a “history” and it delves into aspects that wine people will readily enjoy such as talking about the individual estates (terroirs) of Darjeeling as well as how tea is made as well as selected and graded as well as why some have shown a higher quality level over the years and thus have demanded ever-higher prices. If this all sounds familiar to the wine world, then you can understand why I’m recommending the book.
The last third or so of the book revolves around the current and future issues facing Darjeeling and again, there’s much for wine people to take from here. The development of “tea tourism” is incredibly similar to enotourism for example. Environmental questions weigh heavy on Darjeeling, much as they do in wine, with Climate Change taking center stage in the list of concerns. And then there’s the always-looming questions of generational change, evolution of the region, how to reach new consumers, and how to protect the brand.
While Koehler’s book is obviously about tea and some parts have no relationship to wine, the writing is clear, approachable, and inviting. It’s plain to see that he spent many months actually in the region–not just parachuting in for a week or two for snippets with a fixer doing the heavy lifting. He witnessed all the stages of harvest (again, something I fully didn’t understand until reading this) and ultimately crafted an excellent book. It’s a fine read for anyone who likes books about history but it’s an even finer distraction for anyone a bit tired of memorizing appellations in Bordeaux. Also, there are tasty tea recipes at the back!
(PS – Koehler now also has a new book called, “Where the Wild Coffee Grows that is also worthy of dive by anyone into this kind of in-depth work.)