India's summer monsoon had started to taper off when I climbed the bank from the chai-colored Hooghly River to the railroad bed. Pottery shards and other detritus littered the stones between the railway ties, and it was there that I found a relic, my most sentimental acquisition from the trip: a kulhar, or earthenware tea cup, discarded from a moving locomotive, as is the custom.
Miraculously, the vessel had survived intact. Its rough surface was glazed and darkened by rainwater. I held it to my nose. The thick, dark residue at the bottom smelled sweet, of sugar and milk, which is how most Indians take their tea.
I had just returned from a tour of Darjeeling, the hilly northeast region tucked between Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, home to what aficionados know as the "champagne of teas." Escorted by proud estate managers, I had tasted what every enthusiast prizes—clear decoctions that were astringent, muscatel-scented and gorgeously evanescent.
Oenophiles have their own unpronounceable group sensibility, and those of us besotted by tea are just as passionate and particular. Tea is said to stimulate more of the human palate than nearly any other food, except the grape. And although the French may bandy about the term terroir to denote the unique environmental character of wine, tea—without the snooty terminology—is a truer terroir product. Its tender, topmost leaves register the subtlest changes in soil, rain, wind and sunlight. Importers liken great Darjeelings to Château Lafites and Montrachets, at nearly the price.
The 19th century British coined a term for the madness that lured us to these isolated hills: tea fever. On this trip, many in our little group of American buyers and devotees were severely afflicted.
We had flown halfway across the planet, crowded into jostling jeeps and held on to our seats as the vehicles climbed rutted, mist-cloaked roads more than a mile up, all to imbibe the freshest possible samples from some of the world's best tea estates. There, in tasting rooms, we paid homage to the newest production lots. We scrutinized dry leaves scattered on white paper, the better to discern the presence of silver or golden tips—that is, buds—that abound only when tea plucking and manufacture are done with extraordinary care. We poked and sniffed the hot-water-doused leaves, known as the "infusion." We feigned expertly swirling the steeped tea, or "liquor," in our mouths before releasing it sharply into a brass spittoon.
Darjeeling teas are special on several counts. The leaves come from China bushes, which the British planted 130 years ago here in the Himalayan foothills. In good years—meaning when spring rains are followed by a prolonged dry spell—flavors are concentrated down to pinpoint and idiosyncratic perfection. Though muscatel flavor is the coin of the realm, a stray stand of bushes may sprout leaves that smack of raspberries. Another's leaves may yield a lingering finish that conjures up fresh cream.
Like fine wine, great lots of Darjeeling teas are one-off propositions. Unlike vintage wine, which can improve in the bottle, Darjeelings are best consumed very fresh and rather quickly, because their refined flavors vanish after 10 minutes of cooling.
We sought peak experiences in every sense of the word, which led us, among other lofty destinations, to the Puttabong Estate. A painted sign over the factory entrance proclaims its 1992 DJ-101 lot the "First to Fetch World Record Price" of 10,001 rupees per kilogram (at today's exchange rate, about $100 a pound). Since then, prices for top teas have zoomed far higher, reflecting global appreciation of the fragrant leaf. But tea zealots still remember the DJ-101.
"It was beautiful. It was an exquisite tea. It was an outstanding, outstanding tea," said Krishan Katyal, a velvet-voiced middleman who also possesses one of the most renowned tea palates. Katyal happened to be the broker of that celebrated lot. At the victory party at Puttabong Estate, he had noticed that the wife of the estate superintendent served the pricey DJ-101 but didn't partake. He followed her into the kitchen.
"This is a magnificent tea," he said. "Is something wrong? Don't you like it?"
"That's not tea," she shot back.
Then, he told us, "she took out a Dooars"—a common, low-grown Indian black tea—"mixed it with water in a pan, boiled it with milk until it was stew, added cardamom and cinnamon, and said, 'This is tea.' "
We Americans spent two weeks chasing the perfect brew. But for most Indians, tea drinking is not the culmination of an aesthetic quest; it is a non-event, a familiar pleasure—a pleasure because it is familiar. The biggest tea-consuming country in the world regards its national beverage not as a lifestyle but as life. In Guwahati, the bustling city in Assam that is India's biggest tea auction center, I spoke to a buyer for Unilever, the giant multinational that owns Lipton and a slew of other commodity tea brands. The young man lamented the stagnant state of his homeland's domestic tea sales.
"Here," he said, "tea is something your granddad used to drink."
Beyond the serene tasting rooms, with their silence and pure white cups and bowls, real life coursed through the streets, noisy and precarious. Every passing scene framed the full spectrum of joy and misery, devotion and toil. A precious Darjeeling, I began to realize, was not the proper accompaniment.
A man carried a massive load of bricks on his head, a poverty-wage Olympian. Feral dogs congregated with casual authority at street corners. Women in brilliant saris sailed by, carried on battered bicycle rickshaws. A hotel security guard closed his eyes and prayed before hoisting up his rifle. Child beggars performed elegant hand gestures and mime to guilt-frozen Westerners. Diesel fumes, wood smoke, urine, incense, truck horns, motorbike buzz, tinny storefront music, a riot of sensations.
In the town of Darjeeling proper, a plump chai wallah—or tea maker—sat on a stool like a jazz drummer playing his pots and pans. His wasn't tea made from the just-plucked and tenderly manipulated leaves that we fanatics venerated. Rather, it was Indian tea for Indians: a muscular brew produced by the brutal process known as CTC—Crush, Tear and Curl—in which a machine shreds the leaves into cheap, sturdy, uniform delivery systems of color and strength.
CTC tea was the tea held by the discarded earthenware kulhar I had cradled on the railroad tracks. As I would later learn, India's railway minister had barred the use of plastic cups on train platforms. The policy, announced in mid-2004, had two goals: to stem the tide of littering and to create new jobs for hundreds of thousands of potters, thus rejuvenating rural economies.
Every 24 hours, India's trains carry about 14 million passengers. According to government calculations, that translated into a daily order for 12 crore, or 120 million, traditional clay cups, a figure that took into account their frequent breakage. My archeological relic was one of those 120 million.
I made a pilgrimage to Darjeeling to pursue my own version of tea pleasure: laced with mystique, served in ceramics, gone within 10 minutes. Someone else just as assuredly found his or hers in a crowded Calcutta railway car. It was milky and sweet, round and earthy, like the vessel that held it, and tossed out the window after 10 minutes. In the vast and bracing bazaar of India, you can always find your cup of tea.
Madeline Drexler is a Boston-based journalist and author.