Darjeeling’s tea plantations have led its cash crop to be called the ‘Champagne of teas’ (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Set 2,200m high on the steep slopes of the Indian Himalayas and surrounded by the ice-capped peaks of Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain, the hills surrounding Darjeeling are – quite literally – breath-taking. Wild elephants and tigers roam the valley ridges and Buddhist monasteries cling to the slopes, but it’s Darjeeling’s vast blanket of emerald-green tea plantations that has led its cash crop to be called the ‘Champagne of teas’ and propelled it to international fame.
Each of Darjeeling’s 87 tea estates is renowned for producing delicate, muscatel-flavoured brews. But if you venture 33km south from the town’s bustling Victorian-era resorts to one of the world’s oldest tea factories, you’ll find a rare variety that’s arguably leaf and bud above the rest. Known as Silver Tips Imperial, it’s only plucked by expert pickers from the Makaibari estate on clear, full-moon nights when the planets align to produce optimal harvest conditions. This mystical Oolong isn’t only cosmic, it’s costly: in 2014, it sold for the equivalent of $1,850 per kg, making it the most expensive tea ever produced in India.
Makaibari is said to be both Darjeeling’s oldest tea estate and the world’s first biodynamic tea farm (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Written in the stars
Established in 1859, Makaibari is said to be both Darjeeling’s oldest tea estate and the world’s first biodynamic tea farm. Unlike most farms that rely on the earth, soil and plants to dictate their harvest, Makaibari looks towards the heavens. It adheres to the rhythm of the planets and a celestial calendar to determine just the right time to pluck its tea leaves during the picking season from March to October.
On the first clear full moon night from mid-March to May (a period known as ‘first flush’), when the oceans are at high tide and the water levels in plants decrease, Makaibari’s farmers believe that the air’s high oxygen and energy levels combine to produce a tender, smoother tea-leaf taste. And so, once the sun begins to set, the estate’s workers prepare for a unique event that’s part spiritual, part ceremonial.
Silver Tips Imperial can only be picked four to five times during the seven-month season (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Silver Tips Imperial can only be picked four to five times during the season. Before each harvest, hundreds of Makaibari workers adorned in West Bengal dresses gather on the estate’s slopes just after dusk. As men beat hand drums, women dance and chant Vedic prayers for good fortune and protection under the light of the full moon. Onlookers light tallow torches fuelled by animal fat – not just to help the pickers see, but to help ward off wild leopards.
Workers must race to finish the harvest the tea by midnight (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Harvesting under the moonlight
After 20:00 when the moon is at its brightest, some 80 to 100 specially trained tea-pickers take to the hills to quickly pluck two leaves and the bud from each Camellia sinensis plant and place them in a large woven basket strapped around their heads. If the sunlight touches the leaves, it is thought to alter the tea’s aroma and consistency, so workers must race to finish the harvest by midnight so that the plucked plants can be processed before dawn that following morning.
It takes 200kg of leaves to make 50kg of processed Silver Tips Imperial (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
It takes 200kg of leaves to make 50kg of processed Silver Tips Imperial tea, and workers rarely pluck more than that each harvest. Buyers typically pay the most for tea collected during full moons between mid-March and May when the leaves are brighter and have a more floral scent.
The limited quantity of Silver Tips Imperial likely contributes to its premium price (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
The limited quantity of Silver Tips Imperial likely contributes to its premium price, but the celestial secret to Makaibari’s magical brew is harder to identify. According to estate manager Sanjay Das, the semi-fermented Oolong tea fuses the flavours of mango and the frangipani flower to create an uplifting, anti-ageing effect, and as soon as some sip the light-golden blend, they feel completely reinvigorated.
This smooth, elixir-like effect is what led buyers in the UK, US and Japan to pay $1,850 for a kg of the stuff during an especially powerful planetary alignment in 2014. In recent years, the brew has also cast a spell on Queen Elizabeth II, who received a packet of it as a gift from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was also sold at the FIFA World Cup in 2014. These days, most of the limited-batch variety is quickly scooped up by elite international buyers and businesses in the UK, US and Japan.
Makaibari is the only estate to harvest tea only during full moons (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Indian owned, family run
While several other estates near Darjeeling produce limited quantities of Silver Tips Imperial tea from the plant, Makaibari is the only one to harvest it only during full moons. The farm is also one of the few estates in the country that never belonged to the British, who swooped in and established a network of colonial tea plantations in the 19th Century.
Today, 159 years after GC Banerjee established Darjeeling’s first tea factory on these hills, Makaibari is presided over by his great-grandson, Rajah Banerjee, who says that he had a vision to transform the farm into a fully sustainable enterprise after falling off a horse in 1970.
Makaibari chairman, Rajah Banerjee: "Healthy soil is healthy mankind." (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Healthy soil is healthy mankind. We have the tools for a much better world, a sustainable world,” said Makaibari chairman Rajah Banerjee.
Makaibari is the steepest tea garden in the Darjeeling region (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Pricey tea, poor terroir
When the British established Darjeeling as a major colonial resort and tea-production centre in the 1800s, they dubbed it Queen of Hills. But for a region that produces some of the finest tea in the world, it has surprisingly poor growing conditions – especially around the Makaibari estate.
Set sky-high on the Himalayan slopes, Makaibari is the steepest tea garden in the Darjeeling region. There isn’t much topsoil and what little is found atop the rocks is often washed away during the June-to-September monsoon season. Since this period coincides with the Silver Tips Imperial harvest, Banerjee devised an ingenious permaculture mulching system to ensure that tea plants can cling to and grow alongside a variety of plants in Makaibari’s surrounding forests. Today, tea is only found on 33% of the estate’s 668-hectare property, with the rest covered by trees.
Makaibari's world-renowned Silver Tips Imperial have been in the same family for 159 years (Credit: Kalpana Prodhan)
Turning a new leaf
After 159 years in the same family, Makaibari and its world-renowned Silver Tips Imperial are about to embark on a new path. Earlier this year, Banerjee announced that he would step down as the company’s chairman after 47 years at the helm, dividing all his shares among the company’s 600-some workers.
It took Makaibari decades to unlock the celestial secrets of Silver Tips Imperial. Perhaps it is only fitting that the future of its heavenly brew is now up to those who tend to it here on Earth.
The World’s Rarest is a BBC Travel series that introduces you to unparalleled treasures found in striking places all across the world.