Champagne of Teas Strives to Retain Sparkle
SB VEDA <CALCUTTA>
“My theory is that the British, who had basically smuggled in the tea plants from China and taken some manpower with processing knowhow from the Kingdom, really didn’t know how to process tea. Whereas, in the far east, they had been making tea for centuries by that time.” – Rishi Saria, Owner Gopaldhara / Rohini Tea Estates
Known as “The Champagne of Teas” (sometimes served in champagne flutes to tourists to punctate this elite image) with the British era “Burra Saheb” culture still lingering in the mist, Darjeeling Tea has come been known as the pinnacle of a certain kind of excellence in the cultivation of and consuming of tea.
With such a reputation, it may come as something of a surprise that much of the region stands as imperilled with 2022 shaping up to be a particularly bad year for the industry. In March of this year, the Secretary General of the Indian Tea Association, which represents growers and manufacturers, met a standing committee of the Indian Parliament to propose a relief package for the region, calling the industry “unviable.” Iron-fisted Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a proud self-proclaimed former chaiwallah, is loath to accommodate the planters, saying that it would set a bad precedent, and other industries would then visit Delhi with begging bowls in hand.
To be fair, Darjeeling hasn’t come knocking with a panhandler’s intent – the industry has genuinely suffered unexpected difficulties.
Indeed, there are several reasons for the woes of the industry: A strike resulting from political agitation numbering 104 days in 2017 during peak production season was costly and buoyed the prospects of key competitors from Nepal and Kenya. With jungle overgrowth having occurred, when the gardens opened, workers (those who hadn’t left for other jobs during the hiatus) began the daunting task of clearing, cutting, pruning, and re-cultivating but that year, the weather didn’t cooperate. 2020 was shaping up to producing a stellar harvest with ideal weather for the cultivation of tea having presented that year – but Covid-19 brought lockdowns and the crop was basically a write-off. Another re-building with an even more marginalized workforce ensued.
While workers’ movements, which have succeeded in changing Indian laws to provide much needed healthcare and pensions for workers – something their comrades elsewhere to not get, has driven up the cost of production significantly. Their Nepalese brethren work for a fraction of this cost and lack the protections of Indian workers. Grown in a climactically and topographically similar region, Nepalese tea (made from the same plant) carries Darjeeling-like flavour notes and astringency and can be produced far more economically than its more storied and distinguished cousin.
Moreover, over the past thirty some years, Darjeeling planters have painstakingly converted many of their gardens from conventional to organic – a meticulous and arduous process requiring much investment, checking and patience. European exports have increased as a result. However, both domestic and foreign mixing of Nepalese tea with Darjeeling leaves has brought about a new and more profitable commodity termed “Himalayan Tea.” Hence, the valued Geographic Indication (GI) tag associated with Darjeeling Tea (akin to French tagging of Champagne) has been put in jeopardy in protecting Darjeeling Tea from bastardisation.
Climate change has been a huge challenge with which garden managers have been contending. The Chinese origin tea plant grown in Darjeeling district best flourishes at high altitudes in the foothills of the Himalayas; it is sensitive and requires moderate temperature, early sun, followed by spring rain and then more sun brought and drying on by summer. Later, monsoons bring a different type of harvest in autumn. But winter drought, early summer, sporadic storms, gales, and hailstorms as well as overall increased average temperatures have made it far more difficult to produce tea of such consistently high quality as Darjeeling consumers have come to expect.
The leaves are losing their flowery, astringent, fruity characteristics, leaving orthodox Darjeeling tasting a little bit flatter. Organic gardens find it difficult to manage the unwelcome pests that have found favour in these warmer and more humid habitats. Such vermin like mosquitoes actually damage the tea leaves, causing premature oxidation of the plant. The subtle flavour protected in the chloroplast-fortified walls of these treasured leaves leaks out. With nymphs (baby mosquitoes) sucking he sap from the leaves shoots and buds often leaves nothing left to pluck – and is causing significant crop loss.
The situation prompted some owners to make innovations in processing to ‘engineer’ the distinct Darjeeling flavour even as tea tasters and tea traders are stuck in the past when it comes to their expectations of the taste of Darjeeling tea. Flavourful green teas from Darjeeling leaf and Oolongs bursting with flavour are being produced as a result of persistent climactic anomaly but Japan and China dominate these market segments.
Domestically, the tea sold as Darjeeling is triple the district’s total capacity (including exports) evidencing that tea traders are mixing loose Darjeeling leaf with cheaper variants chiefly from Nepal. There are no organic gardens in Nepal (in fact, Nepalese tea has tested to contain between thirty to one hundred chemicals many of which are classified as carcinogenic). So, those who drink Darjeeling tea for health reasons having been duped by unscrupulous traders, are paying a premium to imbibe a tainted brew.
Some owners like Ashok Lohia, the last of the great tea barons of the 20th Century, say that Darjeeling tea should be sold in sealed packs from garden to shelf, allowing for margins to be taken by retailers just like wine or champagne. Indeed, Rishi Saria, a young tea innovator who owns three tea gardens is doing just that – but both say that the antiquated tea auction system at which around 50% of Darjeeling is marginalising this kind of retail business, domestically. Direct sales, if successful en masse, would cut into the profit taking of tea brokers and retailers who both blend (even adulterate) the tea sold and mark-up the prices of tea to the consumer for the quality being sold.
Online sales have helped but don’t make up for siphoning of tea by local tea merchants who’ve eaten into the sales of pre-packaged and sealed boxes off the shelf directly from gardens. Sales from Darjeeling gardens, as a result, are down, workers aren’t getting promised increases due to faltering sales; the only people getting rich are the traders who cut open wholesale bags and mix. Meanwhile, owners must assess the viability of gardens on an annual basis. Already, Sanjay Bansal, whose Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Private Limited was the second largest producer in the region, and who was personally known as a visionary for reviving ailing gardens and making them profitable, penetrating the competitive retail markets abroad including Harrod’s in London, has sold off all put a tiny remnant of his stake in tea. The new owners from Europe, his erstwhile buyers, have found the finances in a mess and entrusted new CEO, Indroneel Goho to clean it up.
With several interviews with Mr. Goho being scheduled and then cancelled, it appears the situation is not one about which ODTPL is willing to discuss. “So much of my time is being monopolized by lawyers and accountants,” admitted Mr. Goho the last time he cancelled. Surely he has to be careful about what he reveals to the press during this highly sensitive period. Indeed, one hears that the company is in talks to sell off some six gardens amidst lack of funds and significant labour troubles as workers are not getting paid by management due to the shortage in money.
Presently, a new player in the industry, Krishnendu Chatterjee’s Lemongrass Organic Tea Estates Pvt. Ltd., appears to be poised to benefit the most from OTEPL’s woes. But what deals will be made have yet to transpire.
TALE OF TWO PLANTERS
Others in Darjeeling are contending doggedly with the challenges and finding ways to survive without the hope of depending on government help.
THE LAST OF THE TEA BARONS
Owner of the largest producer of organic Darjeeling Tea, and the last of the formative generation that oversaw the conversion of Darjeeling gardens to organic plantations and application of such innovations as bio-dynamic farming and moonlight plucking, (Makaibari’s Rajah Banerjee and erstwhile CEO of Organic Tea Estates (P) Limited, Sanjay Bansal, having divested themselves of their legacy tea holdings) Ashok Lohia is the last of the great tea barons.
Mr. Lohia is a fifth generation planter, whose Marwari family gained entry into the mainly British business of tea cultivation back in 1865. According to Lohia, that at the behest of a visiting Rajput (British) Indian army officer stationed in Assam, the Lohias moved from their native village of Rathanghar to the burgeoning state where the British had become engaged in planting tea. The thinking was that the trading family would involve themselves in the economic activity generated by cultivation, processing, and selling/transport of tea.
The Lohias opened many shops around the plantations, and soon began to thrive as demand for goods in the growing state was high. Flooding of the Brahmaputra river brought the Lohias 50 km north east to a place called Dilsukia where they built a family home in 1880. They had bought much land and rented it out, helping to develop the town around the jungle where they had settled. Eventually, Lohia senior was made a ‘Rai Bahadur’ by the British and was empowered to collect taxes on his land on behalf of the Crown.
The laws around usury were not well established then, and the Lohias established their own private bank, lending out the proceeds in collateralised fashion. It was from the default of one of these loans that the Lohias gained their first plantation. In 1916, again through default against their money-lending business, they gained a second garden. Similar expansion of payment of tea estates in lieu of loans continued until 1939.
A young Ashok Lohia joined the family business out of college in 1970. At the age of 21, he was put in charge of a plantation. In parallel, the money-lending business continued – but surreptitiously as by then banks had been nationalised and the highly regulated financial markets did not permit private lending. Though it went on as many poor people without much collateral did not qualify for loans from nationalised banks.
In 1985, two Darjeeling gardens, namely Chamong and Pusong, were given to the Lohias as payment for loans taken from their then clearly verboten money-lending operations. However, from the family’s perspective, the controversy lay not in the money-lending but in accepting Darjeeling plantations as payment. Then, agitation was surging, and most in the family felt that it would be impossible to hold on to the new gardens much less manage them.
The young Lohia was attracted to Darjeeling, and took to the challenge with heart, eventually converting them from conventional to fully organic plantations in the early to mid-nineties. This was to cater to the German market where demand for organic teas. Rather than be content with the two gardens, Lohia had an eye on expansion, and the moneylending business provided a revenue stream that enabled funding this dream.
In 1996, Tumsong garden was bought. In 2001, three more gardens followed including Lingia. During that period, Lohia was elected Chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association, which gave him a big picture view of Darjeeling.
“What I observed,” says Lohia, “was that even after the turn of the current century, authentic high quality Darjeeling tea was not being sold on the world market, with the exception of a few low quantity high priced selections. Almost everybody was blending some other origin tea and selling it as Darjeeling.”
So, Lohia and his peers decided to protect the Darjeeling name by instituting the Geographic Indication (GI) tag on Darjeeling tea, in an attempt to rid the global market of this sham Darjeeling. The GI tagging meshed with other agreements signed by India with the WTO to fully protect Darjeeling tea.
Marybong and six other gardens were bought between 2001 and 2006 as former colonial establishments sought to divest of their holdings.
“By buying so many gardens, we came to understand the difference between a good and a bad garden – facing, quality, bush, altitude, issues regarding labourers – how all these factors affect the quality of the bushes,” Lohia says.
“Our last garden was bought in Assam – a huge garden – 600 hectares with 1500 workers, which is also 100% organic.”
Converting to organic is no simple process. It takes around 36 months to rid the soil of enough chemical residue to be certified as organic.
The Chamong group exports approximately 70% of their produce but their 30% is still a healthy measure of the Darjeeling market share. “The domestic market consisted mainly of the leaf, which could not be exported for quality reasons. And then the tea traders started to work against the GI Tag by blending and exporting this tea but calling it ‘Himalayan Tea’ rather than Darjeeling tea. So, GI did not in the end eliminate adulteration.”
All of this is going on as wages have increased dramatically. “In what other industry has wages increased 130% in seven years? And. Mr. Modi has said that no relief would be forthcoming for Darjeeling – the industry must stand on its own, despite strikes and Covid and climate change.”
Lohia is now far removed from running gardens. The company is now run out of their corporate head offices located in Kolkata COO Indranil Ghosh running the gardens, CMO Sujoy Sengupta, overseeing marketing, and Lohia’s son Yash overseeing hospitality (which is a relatively new business line). Hospitality seems to be the business line which aims to subsidize other areas of the business to keep it profitable.
Unlike Ashok Lohia’s salad days, the next generation is not being indoctrinated by running a garden. Rather, he runs a division of what is now a large specialised modern corporation.
While the Lohias have been very successful in acquisition and expansion and led the GI tag charge, they make tea basically the same was as their British forbears did. In that way, they are more focused on carrying on a tradition of producing Darjeeling how it has always been produced, and have shied away from making anything but orthodox Darjeeling.
In sharp contrast to how the Chamong Group is run, owner of Sona Tea, which boasts two fine gardens in its portfolio, Rishi Saria often find himself knee-deep in the tea bushes. He seems happiest when examining his plants and managing the processing activities.
Saria’s Rohini Tea Estate, which is a lower elevation estate has supervisors but no “burra saheb” garden manager. Rather, Saria, himself, takes on that responsibility – and does so with gusto.
Both his factories at Rohini and Gopaldhara are unlike any other one is likely to find in Darjeeling. While he has the old British machines in stock, they are scarcely used. This former coder turned planter took on the mantle of the family tea business after he had been working at another job. Unlike those who’ve simply inherited their responsibilities, and held no vocation outside their family tea businesses, Saria brings that analytical lens to the cultivation of tea.
The only recognizable feature in his factories are the long bays that contain unprocessed green leaf in which the foliage is spread out for drying – a process known as withering.
In other, smaller bays are leaves that are doused with a fine spray of cool water, reminiscent of the Darjeeeling mist. This is to spur oxidation in some leaves, hydrate others for making greens and oolongs.
“My theory is that the British, who had basically smuggled in the tea plants from China and taken some manpower with processing knowhow from the Kingdom, really didn’t know how to process tea. Whereas, in the far east, they had been making tea for centuries by that time.”
He continues: “And yet, we Indians continue to process tea the same way the British had rather than learning from our fellow Asian nations.”
Saria is passionate about the process of making tea:
“For Black tea changes to take place and if you’re only doing indoor withering, it normally takes between 15 and 16 hours between the plucking and drying states. That is the minimum amount of time for the required chemical changes to take place in the leaf for it to qualify as a good black or a medium oxidized Oolong. If you’re talking about a green or oolong, the story is different – but if you’re talking about an orthodox black tea, which traditionally is made in Darjeeling, then that amount of time is required. Then only that coveted Darjeeling flavour develops in the cup,” says Saria
Saria believes that the natural flavour must be coaxed out of the tea leaves with a level of delicacy and care that is not achievable using the cumbersome British machines. This was first achieved by moving away from the heavy rolling that is used in traditional tea processing in favour of a more gentle process.
“First of all, you are in Darjeeling, which is a cold belt – a mountain region. And the kind of teas you want to make from here: they are supposed to be very delicate; very fruity; flowery. So, you don’t want something that is very harsh, too astringent, that it requires you to add any condiments like milk or sugar. In order to do that, what we realized is that the tea plant, itself has everything in it. It just needs to be preserved and made properly. So we moved away from the traditional heavy rolling, which Darjeeling used to do to one which is a very delicate style of rolling the leaf. So rather than using the big 36 or 48 inch rollers that are still used in most gardens and haven’t changed since the time of the British, we brought in some machines that are much smaller and roll very delicately,” Saria says.
Indeed, in addition to augmenting their technology with new machines, the Rishi’s team has been busy developing their own equipment. He continues: “To aid oxidation, after doing much research on the internet and other sources and – this too, after conducting many trials – we have designed machines which oxidize the leaf without firing. So, our teas are very clean, very easy to drink and the flavour and fruity aroma that you get – that is prominent and you don’t have to search for it; it’s abundant. That is something that we have spent a lot of time and energy and effort on, and you can say that we have now reached a level of mastery in this. That is what we’re proud of. That is our achievement.”
Another achievement prevalent at Gopaldhara and Rohini Estates is the degree to which Saria is planning for the future. Recognizing that the age of plants in Darjeeling is a problem with older plants being unable to produce such a flavourful leaf, Saria has been replanting much more than any garden-owner – more so than the Chamong group and even more than Goodricke at their signature gardens such as Castleton.
However, replenishment is no simple task. The plants must be first prepared and raised to the point where they are substantial enough in size to be planted in the gardens. This is done in the winter. To survive the harsh conditions of Darjeeling winter, they covered and sometimes wrapped. Those plants, which survive the first winter generally are viable in the long run. “Depending on the elevation, the transplanted bushes can be viable in as early as two years,” says Saria.
What is the scale of their replanting operations? “Next year, in winter, we’ll prepare another one fifty plants for replanting.” When I asked Castleton the same question, they had a very vague answer, which was if they got time, they would strip away unviable bushes and replant them – a far cry from the systematic approach taken by Saria.
Many Darjeeling planters are livid about the ‘invasion’ of Nepal tea on the international market and, domestically, where tea traders adulterate Darjeeling with Nepal, selling it either as Himalayan tea abroad or passing it off as Darjeeling on the local market. Saria is more philosophical in his view of the situation.
“Why shouldn’t they grow and sell tea. We don’t have a God-given sanction to monopolize the Camelia sinsensis sinensis plant,” he says. “They have a burgeoning industry, and it’s perfectly reasonable for them to want to sell to their neighbour.”
“We were sent some Nepal samples, once,” Saria continues. “It wasn’t bad at all. But, right now, the gardens over there don’t know how to process properly to get the most out of their leaf. They really have no idea what they have there, and how they can honestly go about developing an industry that is distinct from Darjeeling’s.”
The India-Nepal free trade agreement prohibits the government from levying tariffs on Nepal tea, and this has left the Darjeeling tea planters feeling neglected.
“I don’t expect the government to protect us,” says Saria. “They have far more important geopolitical concerns in the region than thinking about Darjeeling tea. In that respect, we’re not even an afterthought after an afterthought.”
On the efforts of the ITA to advocate for a relief package, Saria also stands at odds with his peers. “We’ve been hearing about the need for a package since the strike of 2017. This has been repeated post-Covid. What I feel is that where the government should be active is in providing the basic health and welfare infrastructures that one enjoys in developed countries. So, if we don’t have to worry about, say healthcare for our workers, then this is a financial pressure that, once alleviated, can impact positively the cost of production.”
Saria has hired consultants to experiment with planting different types of leaves and clones in his gardens, especially where he feels elevation and facing would favour these new variants. This is mainly to cultivate teas that are outside of Darjeeling’s traditional orthodox fold.
“There are so many flavours that can be rendered from tea leaves in this region, I don’t know why so many gardens are obsessed with this same type of light and bright orthodox leaf, which looks green in spring and black in summer,” he says. Saria wants to be ready with high quality variants that are ripe for the plucking when the market shifts.
Actually, the market is already changing. Consumption of tea as a health drink, particularly green tea is on the rise. But the green tea currently being produced by the large companies such as the Lipton and Tatas are quite devoid of flavour. “We want to make greens that are so flavourful, people will truly understand that they’re consuming a Darjeeling green as opposed to something more generic, which might taste like grass,” says Saria.
Saria is less enthusiastic about blends such as chamomile / green or chamomile / white. “Its silly,” he says. “because it’s a waste of good tea as ultimately, the flavour notes of the tea with which the flower is blended will become overwhelmed by the scent of the flower. My view is that, if you like chamomile, we’ll sell you chamomile, and then you can add it to your tea as you see fit.”
Saria has done much more than his Tea Baron counterpart at Chamong to cultivate the practice of selling directly to the consumer. He decries the auction system and shies away from selling lots to traders for the domestic market. “In any case, our leaves look so different, a trader would find it hard pressed to blend our tea with any others and pass it off as single estate,” he says.
Our observation, though, is that rather than blend, some traders just substitute. At a local Mirik area teashop, we tried to purchase Gopaldhara first flush in its original box as an experiment. Some black looking loose leaf was offered to us. Fortunately, the garden manager had come with us on our experiment, and he said, whatever tea this was it was the prior year’s monsoon flush.
Saria encourages people to purchase from the company website, for Saria has developed a system of selling the tea in sealed packets on their website as well as in a small tea boutique at popular tourist destination where Gopaldhara and Goodricke’s Thurbo gardens meet – a place called Gol-pahar or the round peak.
It is telling that despite being so close to a premiere Goodricke garden, Gopaldhara tea is selling very well. Clearly, despite being snubbed by the Calcutta tea auctioneers, the market has really taken to Saria’s clean and floral bouquet teas. Committed to continue the replanting regime, and with more innovation in the offing, Saria’s garden offer insight into what Darjeeling is likely to look like in the future if the plantations are to continue to be viable.