Darjeeling tea, the first Indian product to get the Geographical Indication (GI) tag as early as 2004, has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Many tea gardens are reportedly up for sale.
The crisis has been building up for the last five-six years. Cheap imports from Nepal have led to unchecked blending, taking a toll on the quality of what is sold as Darjeeling tea. The GI tag has done little to promote the brand. Moreover, Darjeeling gardens are struggling to keep up with production because their bushes are ageing.
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Darjeeling tea is about 150 years old, an industry created by the British East India Company. Spring and summer offer its most popular teas, earning the producers a premium price. Forty per cent of the region’s tea, though, is produced during the monsoon, the longest season. Considered less prime, this often goes into Darjeeling tea blends or—a better option—roasted varieties. The autumn harvest is, to my mind, so underrated that it seems to just stay under the radar.
Two factors, in particular, have contributed to Darjeeling’s current state of despair. The 2017 Gorkhaland agitation saw gardens closed for 100 days as workers went on strike with the demand for a separate state. This coincided with the prime harvest season between spring and summer flush. Buyers who would have descended from Europe and Japan, as they did every year, were forced to look for alternatives. Nepal tea, a fledgling industry, stepped in to fill the gap.
Yet while Nepal may share geographical similarities with Darjeeling, its tea is just not the same. Darjeeling planters complain that the entry of dubious quality tea has led to an unchecked blending of Darjeeling tea with cheap and poor quality Nepal tea that is then sold as Darjeeling.
As tea drinkers, we can do our bit to support Darjeeling tea. Many Darjeeling estates have chosen to go direct to consumers by setting up a retail channel; some did it as late as the pandemic-triggered lockdown. When you buy direct from gardens, you know you are getting the real deal. Many tea retailers also sell Darjeeling tea by garden and are committed to supporting Darjeeling. Do ask for a source and check for the Darjeeling logo on packs. If you buy your Darjeeling tea loose from a neighbourhood tea seller—especially if you live in Kolkata—you may want to probe the source if your tea seems particularly low-priced.
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Every Darjeeling planter I have spoken to is wistful when it comes to describing tea from the region. For them, it is a magical place, almost mystical, producing the finest brew. Tea is much more than a business, they say. But for us to enjoy the place and its tea, the business of Darjeeling tea has to be restored to its prime position.
Gopaldhara, Dorje Teas, Goodricke Tea, Jayshree Tea, Makaibari, Glenburn are gardens that retail direct to consumers.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.