For 150 years, men in tailored suits or elegant kurta pyjamas would take their seats in a hall in Kolkata, India, to outbid one another for some of the world’s finest tea. This tea – grown in the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling, an elevated region of lush green forests, waterfalls and mountain mists – has, since the days of the British Raj, been famed for its exquisite delicacy. But last year, the final knock of the gavel rang out at 11 RN Mukherjee Road, Kolkata, the headquarters of the world’s oldest and biggest tea auction house, J Thomas & Co. Darjeeling tea has embraced the 21st century: This world-famous product is now bought and sold online.
Sales of other varieties of Indian tea moved online almost a decade ago, but Darjeeling tea, because of its relative rarity and cost, remained largely available only through the customary auctions. While some may mourn the end of a century-and-a-half of tradition, many of those in the business of growing and selling India’s most expensive tea believe the time is right for the “champagne of teas” to modernise.
“It’s a welcome move,” says Anil Jha, superintendent of Jay Shree Tea, one of India’s biggest tea companies, which owns estates across India, including a number of gardens in Darjeeling. “Buyers from all corners of the world can now register and bid in the online auctions. While in the physical auctions, groups of buyers would try to work together to reduce prices, the competition has now improved. Someone who knows their tea, and is looking for tea from one special garden, will bid properly.”
Several months on from the first online auction, it seems that the future of Darjeeling tea looks sweet. Prices have gone up, on average by about US$1.50 (S$2.10) per kg for the more affordable varieties of Darjeeling tea. The most sought-after varieties can sell for up to US$900 per kg. In 2014, Makaibari sold its estate’s tea for a record US$1,850 per kg.
Other factors may also be at play influencing sales of Darjeeling tea, and those in the tea industry say that it’s too early for certainty, but the outlook is upbeat.
“It’s been a better year for Darjeeling,” says a spokesman at J Thomas. “E-auctions appear to have fared well as they bring into play many more smaller players who would have otherwise been reticent about competing against the ‘big boys’. We were all worried that electronic sales might dampen prices. In my opinion, it’s more about demand – if a market is stronger, the picture looks brighter!”
Things have not always seemed so rosy. In fact, Jha describes the state of tea overall in India as “gloomy”. “Darjeeling is struggling, even though retailer end prices have not gone down,” he says.
“The cost of production has increased, wages have increased, although worker productivity is low and absenteeism rife. Then there’s the global recession and now India’s demonetisation woes. We have been waiting for a miracle.”
Because of the hilly terrain, the plucking of Darjeeling tea cannot be mechanised, as it has in other countries, such as Kenya, where huge, flat gardens measuring up to 1,400ha are common. The 87 Darjeeling tea gardens are boutique in comparison: the biggest Darjeeling tea estate is 350ha, with some gardens as small as 60ha.
All tea is picked by hand, almost entirely by descendants of the Nepalese workers brought to Darjeeling by the British in the 1850s to work in their newly planted tea gardens. The workers are born, go to school and often live their entire lives on the tea estates. The treatment of tea workers, including salary, subsidised rations, maternity leave, medical provisions, protective clothing, and so on, is governed by the Plantation Labour Act of 1951. But today, as education levels on the estates improve, fewer workers are inclined to work in tea.
Another major issue in recent years is the challenge posed by the tea produced in the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. Tea grown there, at similar altitudes in a similar climate, and often using know-how provided by retired Indian tea estate managers, has lower productivity costs and so a lower price tag.
Darjeeling tea is protected by Geographical Indication status, but while only 8 million kg of Darjeeling tea is produced every year, 40 million kg of tea is sold around the word labelled as Darjeeling. The Tea Board of India has promised to be more thorough in its policing of Darjeeling tea in the future.
Darjeeling is adapting to these pressures. “Traditionally, Darjeeling is black tea, but now there are many different kinds of Darjeeling tea on the market,” says Parveez Arshad Hussain, tea estate manager of the 285ha Glenburn Tea Estate.
“It’s a competitive market. Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Taylors of Harrogate in the UK, and Harney & Sons in the US, often approach us, tea estate managers, to come up with new types of designer tea. I don’t see it as breaking tradition, but complementing it.”
Glenburn produces award-winning black, green, and white tea, along with a new range of tea flavoured with natural spices, flowers and fruit. The manager’s bungalow on the estate dating from colonial times was also turned into a hotel about 15 years ago. The hotel now has eight rooms and is rated as one of India’s top luxury boutique hotels.
Rohini Tea Estate is also experimenting with tea varieties. It produces tea “pearls”, tea leaves rolled by hand into balls that unfurl in hot water, and flower tea – buds that are made into flower shapes. The garden is also experimenting with different clones of the tea bush, including some varieties from Japan.
But while Darjeeling has always looked beyond its borders and the online auctions make the tea even more accessible to international buyers than ever, one market that has always remained elusive is its own.
“The Indian market for Darjeeling tea is tiny. Tea drinkers here drink mass-produced CTC (cut, tear, curl) tea in masala chai with plenty of milk, sugar and spices,” says Hussain.
“Price is also a big factor here. Darjeeling tea is a connoisseur’s item. But it’s part of our heritage. I hope more Indians will drink Darjeeling tea in the years to come.”
THE CHAMPAGNE OF TEAS
Darjeeling is renowned for its captivating delicacy and its distinctive seasonal characteristics. Each season, or flush, has a defined flavour profile.
During the first flush of spring, the tea has a very different profile from the rest of the year. It’s flowery and fruity, with a lingering hint of citrus. The liquor is light with a hint of green. First flush is Darjeeling’s most exclusive tea.
In the second flush, Darjeeling’s famous muscatel, or “grapey”, flavours come to the fore. The tea is round-bodied and robust.
During the monsoon, usually June to August, when the bushes are in their growing phase, the tea has much promise but is not as high in quality.
“When a bush is under stress, the tea is of a good quality,” says Parveez Arshad Hussain, manager at Glenburn Tea Estate. “When it’s growing fast, as a general rule, the tea is not as flavourful.”
In autumn, the tea is again flowery, but stronger and sweeter.
“As the weather changes, the temperature drops and there’s a crisp feeling in the air – the tea has a unique character, strong and sweet,” says Hussain.
During winter, the tea bushes go through a dormancy phase with no new shoots, until the rains come again in spring. No tea is produced in Darjeeling during these months. This limits the production of Darjeeling tea further, adding to its exclusivity and accounting for its status as one of the most expensive and sought-after teas in the world.
Darjeeling’s white tea is some of the most sought-after in the world. While most other tea is made from the top two leaves of a shoot and the bud, white tea is made from just the bud. While a tea picker can usually collect 20kg to 30kg of regular tea in a day; for white tea, the picker collects only 200g. The rarity accounts for its cost: often more than US$100 for just 100g.
Glenburn Tea Estate’s Silver Needle tea regularly picks up the world’s best white tea award at international competitions. The tea is made from harvesting the very long buds on tea bushes pruned six months earlier in cold weather. The pruning takes place in December, and the buds are picked usually at the end of May.
At Glenburn, only 50 specialist tea pickers are entrusted with plucking the delicate buds. The estate makes only 60kg-70kg of Silver Needle tea every year, and it sells out almost immediately.
“To make this beautifully subtle tea, we wither the buds in ambient air, not hot air like we do for other tea,” says tea estate manager Parveez Arshad Hussain. “We don’t want the bud to change colour. The tea is very delicately flavoured and light in colour. As a tea bud contains no caffeine, and is high in antioxidants, white tea is also renowned for its health-giving qualities.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Victoria Burrows