Koehler’s descriptions paint a very visual narrative; having read several more technical, dry manufacturing guides on Sri Lankan and Indian tea processing, this is a welcome change. In his Acknowledgements at the back of the book, Koehler talks about the research he did for this book, and how although he consulted many records and books, the majority of what he documented came from staying at the gardens, talking to planters and pickers and meeting interesting characters to learn Darjeeling’s story.

And this definitely shows in his writing. Every chapter opens with a vivid picture of the different environments he spent time in, followed often by a whimsical narrative of the journey. He describes people intimately, and it adds to the overall impression of the book. The book feels a lot ‘lighter’ on hard facts and statistics and historic documents, unless they’re first-hand accounts. This isn’t a bad thing; it depends on what people are looking for in a book. I think it makes the book easier to pick up, but doesn’t mean it shies away from uncomfortable or heavier topics, given Darjeeling and India’s tea economy is rooted in the British Raj.

I do oftentimes like my books a little denser than this book, but that’s not what ‘Darjeeling’ is about, necessarily. However how the book flows from topic to topic does make it a bit of a difficult reference-book for me. It does have a rough chronology to it, but that’s mostly restricted to the first part; it otherwise jumps forward and backwards in history largely dependent on adding context to each topic. That doesn’t break the narrative or anything, it suits how this book is organized and is more just a personal gripe.

The book is broken up into four sections, each with four to five chapters. These sections are each named after a flush of tea: First, Second, Monsoon and Autumn(al). They each follow a topic or theme, and each opens up with a beautiful setting description, and usually introduces one or two interesting characters the author keeps returning back to.

“First Flush” focuses on the history of Darjeeling and tea, how it became established in Darjeeling, and the British Raj. Focusing on agents like Robert Fortune and the East India Company, with a fairly concise historic recounting–with much more focus on Darjeeling.

“Second Flush” follows the tea drinker’s and public’s perception of Darjeeling tea; what makes it ‘Darjeeling Tea’, what defines ‘quality’, and how it’s set apart from other tea-producing regions, as well as India’s framework in establishing that.

“Monsoon Flush” is a more up close exploration of estates, exploring labour, people, and history. It touches some on labour shortages and Darjeeling’s current framework, with those issues more expanded upon in the last section.

Finally, “Autumn Flush” looks at modern-day problems facing Darjeeling (orthodox tea, organic practices, and labour shortages). It only briefly touches upon India’s attempts to shift auctions towards digital, but as the book was published in 2015, this makes sense; ‘Tasting Qualities’ covers that topic much more in-depth, having been published in 2020. Publishing modern history quickly dates a book, but I think also serves to preserve the mindset at a given time.

There are many books about Indian tea, and India-British history, but it’s nice to see books more focused on specific growing regions, as there’s a lot of individuality. Darjeeling probably invites the most, but I wouldn’t mind seeing other regions; there’s one book that was supposed to have come out sometime last year—‘Two hundred years of Assam Tea 1823-2023’, by Pradip Baruah focusing on just Assam’s history; it was announced as part of their 200th anniversary, but I’ve yet to find any information on where the book has been released, and how to obtain it. I can only assume it was never released in English.

There’s two books I know of that focus on Darjeeling; the other is ‘The Darjeeling Distinction’, by Sarah Besky (whose book ‘Tasting Qualities’ I reviewed previously, and is mentioned above). At some point, I’ll pick up a copy and likely do a proper comparison. Comparisons between ‘Darjeeling’ a lot to ‘Tasting Qualities’ popped up in this post anyways, as they’re both very similar-feeling. I think those that picked up and enjoyed ‘Tasting Qualities’ will find something to like here, too.

Both ‘Darjeeling’ and ‘Tasting Qualities’ are colourfully described, and focus a lot on people and places, personalizing the history and journey described. I think I lean a little more into Sarah Besky’s writing, of the two. But both are staying on my bookshelf.

‘Darjeeling’ is very accessible, and a great introduction to Indian and Darjeeling tea without being too dense, or requiring a good understanding of Indian history going in (although it certainly helps). It’s a new-ish publication, under $40CAD new, and under $20CAD used, and an ebook edition for about $14CAD. I get my hands onto some weird, obscure, and old works–so an available ebook is a nice change!

So… This review is three months late. I think I promised it for the end of January? I always end up dragging my feet after reading a book. It doesn’t help that I overestimated how quickly I’d finish this, and in the middle of reading it, ended up picking up two more books from the library. Before I even sat down to begin writing a review, I was already reading the library books (I was on a timelimit!).

That just gives me a compounding deadline. I owe one (possibly two) more reviews before the end of this year, but I can at least promise that the next one is already over half done.

  • Amazon – $30CAD Paperback, $13CAD Ebook
  • Abebooks – $14CAD Used