darjeeling

By Rajah Bose

“With characteristic brightness frequently likened to newly minted coins, fragrant aromas, and sophisticated, complex flavors — delicate, even flowery (more stem than petal, as one expert blender put it), with hints of apricots and peaches, muscat grapes and toasty nuts — it’s the world’s premium tea, the ‘champagne of tea.’ ”

I caught Jeff Koehler wandering through campus, strolling down the quad, snapping photos of the newness. “I used to live in the second floor there,” he said as he stole a frame of DeSmet Hall glowing in the afternoon sun.

We swung by Starbucks and Koehler ordered a drip of the light roast. We both slung our branded cups up the stairs and pulled up between two studying students. I asked how his coffee was, hoping he would comment on its layered flavors or juicy lemony notes, at least the satisfying crisp finish. But he just slurped it between sentences without comment.

Koehler had just finished the first draft of his book about coffee, but he hadn’t returned to campus after two decades to talk about that – he was back for the Visiting Writers Series to read from his book about another famous beverage – tea, (Darjeeling to be exact) and to chat with students about how exactly one goes about becoming an internationally known travel writer.

Since he graduated, Koehler has been living the life that many students purport to want – one of the writer who hops a redeye across the equator for a magazine cover story, or the photographer who picks up assignments as if they’re being given out like sugar packets. Koehler enjoys both in a one of-a-kind career.

After he left Gonzaga in 1991, Koehler spent a few years traveling, eventually stopping in London for graduate studies. He married and started a family in his wife’s hometown of Barcelona, Spain.

After being inducted into his wife’s family through the commune of breaking bread, and plenty of wine, he sat down to write his first books centered on the cooking and culture in Spain. More than mere instructions on how to make the gazpachos and paella, they were filled with the stories and history that have created the culinary culture, not in the restaurateur’s kitchen, but in the homes of the people who have crafted and served the food for generations.

“For me food is an ideal subject because writing about it – especially here in the Mediterranean – is writing about culture. It is the window through which almost any story can be told,” Koehler writes.

It was this sentiment that pulled him to India in search of the culture. Since his earliest travels in the 1990s, Koehler had begun to fall in love with tea, tasting it for the first time without milk during his travels.

After amassing a library of Indian literature, Koehler saw an opportunity in the untold story of Darjeeling. “I couldn’t believe nobody had written it yet. I was just praying nobody was writing it at the same time,” he said. When he made his pitch to write “Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea,” he was looking for adventure. “I wanted to spend time in India and other places, and this story about tea was the thing that connected it all.”

Darjeeling is a fascinating journey into the back offices of the modern-day tea trade. It introduces us to the characters who are responsible for some of the 2 billion pounds that India produces yearly, shows the labor intensive, hand-picked process of cultivating the leaves, and walks us through the “four flushes” (the harvesting period for tea which in different seasons produce a completely new flavor and color). The book has something for everyone – the tea connoisseur to the history professor, the young wanderer to the armchair foodie.

Koehler was late for another campus appointment so we took our last sips and tossed our empty cups. I still wanted to know about the coffee book, but someone else was about to whisk him away. He turned to give me the last teaser.

The new manuscript is a fresh history on coffee, he said. “It is an origins story. You’ll see.” He said it as if he’s about to unleash something fresh into the world, something unexpected and bold, with layered notes and a satisfying finish.

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