Little Sparrow Blog

Little Sparrow Goes To Darjeeling

Posted by Adrian Lee on June 09, 2018 (0 Comments)

We visited our organic Darjeeling suppliers in May, staying on the Tumsong tea estate. It's an incredible area for tea lovers and travellers, with mountainous landscapes dedicated to making just one thing. Anyway, here are a few words and photos on our trip and about Darjeeling, perhaps to read whilst you enjoy a cup of the so-called 'champagne of teas'.

Let's start on the map. Darjeeling district sits in the lesser Himilayas of West Bengal in north east India, bordering with Bhutan and Nepal. You'll find it at 'A' on the map here:

Darjeeling district has an almost mythical landscape, its neat emerald fields like blankets draping the curvaceous and misty foothills of the Lesser Himalayas. Kanchenjunga The world's third highest mountain (and deadlier than Everest)  provides the distant backdrop - a humbling and constant reminder that Darjeeling owes it's unique tea geo-climate to the fact it is parked on the lower slopes of Earth's most hardcore mountains. 

The district is ethnically diverse with Bengali, Nepali, Lepcha, Bhutia, Tibetan and other peoples, and around half the population here works in tea in some form or other. But last year saw widespread ethnic disputes in the district, and a three month strike that badly affected Darjeeling tea production - around 67% of tea never got picked, so it was a blessing to see these expert pickers back in the fields this year.  

Darjeeling Town

Before we hit the tea fields, first a quick stop in Darjeeling town, or Darjeeling 'City' as the locals like to call it, a classic bustling hill station town with a  population of around 130k. It's part ramshackle kaleidoscope of colour and dust, part British colonial hangover. It's a place that feels simultaneously busy and lazy - a messy, trade-y, friendly place (typical of North East India) and great to explore. It's also cooler - nestled at 6700ft the Darjeeling altitude provides welcome relief from the 45+ degree May heat of the plains below.

Pic below: Darjeeling town - just visible on the right, lining the top of the hill at 6700ft)

Darjeeling train station is a proper charmer and hosts the UNESCO protected Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, built 1879 - 1881, and a bunch of colourful little British-built steam-engines. These 'Toy Trains' run from Darjeeling to Ghoom on India's highest railway. You can ride them now - they're really lovely and fun but they do tend to break down. A LOT.

 (Pics below: Darjeeling station)


Darjeeling main st.

(Pic below: we stumbled on a volleyball match in downtown Darjeeling

Pic below: Darjeeling's town main square is often either misty or cloudy, it's hard to tell which

Tumsong Tea Estate

Leaving Darjeeling town for the tea fields near Ghoom, a slow and twisting 28km 4x4 drive takes us on 'roads' deep into the sublime greenness of the mountainous Darjeeling landscape to the Tumsong Tea Estate. It's rolling deep-green tea gardens are laid on an open hill slope with altitude varying between 5,500 ft to 2,700 ft. This is a bio-organic garden with fine China tea bushes. The flowing cool breeze helps to grow the bushes gradually and saturate slowly, nurturing a special muscatel flavor of tea. Tumsong Estate, part of the famous Charmong tea company, is also supplier of our own Little Sparrow Organic Darjeeling tea. Here are some pictures of awesome Tumsong!

(Pic below: the classic white 'bungalow' and surrounding fields of the Tumsong tea estate)



It really is like stepping back in time, inside and out, In fact, here's a photo of the same place in 1957

The plants here, as in all of Darjeeling's 87 gardens is the small chinese tea plant variation (camellia sinensis), rather than its taller broader leaf Indian cousin (camellia assamica) typical of Assam and Nilgiri.

The tea is hand picked in key seasons by a team of experts, selecting the newest tip and two leaves on either side. Some of the picking takes place on 75 degree slopes, more like mountaineering than harvesting and a specialised skill.


The talented picking team follow traditional methods, hand-plucking just the newest top shoot and two leaves on either side.

Not much has changed over the years, here'sare Tumsong pickers in the 1940's:

But these days you can get a mobile signal.



Teams of specialist pickers gather around 5kg of tea in their baskets.


The pickers then bring their baskets to the factory where everything is weighed and recorded.

As soon as the fresh leaves are in factory, a time-tested, simple and brilliant, converting a freshly plucked leaf into one of the world's best loved teas. 

Stage 1: Withering

First stage of production is withering; here the leaves are spread out with warm air blown through for around 15 hours, and around 75% of the moisture is removed from the leaves. The power is generated by a hydro-generator using water from the mountain rivers, so all slef-contained and eco friendly.

Stage 2: Rolling

The tea is then rolled for 20 - 60 minutes (depending on the harvest) to twist the leaves to desired grade, rupture the leaf cells and encourage oxidisation. 

Stage 3: Fermentation

This step sees the rolled tea laid out in very thin layers allowing the ruptured leaves to oxidise/ ferment. This crucial step is something of a high art, bringing forward the unique colour and flavour of a tea.

Stage 4: Drying

This stage reduces the moisture content reduced to 2 or 3 percent and halts the fermentation and enzymatic mellowing of the tea,

Stage 5: Sorting, grading and fanning

The final stage uses meshes that sorted an grade the leaf according to size and quality. The larger finest quality leaf rest on the top, smaller grade rests in the middle and the lowest grade is sieved to the bottom. The machines all have nicknames, this Tumsong sorter is known as 'Arnott':

BTW If you've ever heard of the tea grade 'fannings' (the low grade tea category that populates many UK teabags) and wondered from where the word derives, here's an answer. As a final, final stage, a 'fanning machine' (basically a large gentle fan!) blows the dry dusty residue off the quality bigger leaf parts. These 'fannings' are low grade but quick infusing hence often used for value teabags. It really is the small stuff that's left over at the end of the whole process. 

At the end of the process that teas are graded, bagged and sent out into the world.

The result is a really wonderful tea from a truly unique part of the world.

Little Sparrow is delighted to offer a delightful 2018 2nd flush Tumsong organic Darjeeling of exceptional quality. Graded Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe one (FTGFOP1), one of the finest grades achievable.

Darjeeling is such a unique and special region, not just for tea, and i urge you to visit. One last tip - take a brolly...

Thanks for reading!

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