View from the mist: Tale of Two Planters
TALE OF TWO PLANTERS
SB Veda, Darjeeling and Kolkata
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 GREAT TEA BARONS
With Rajah Banerjee selling Makaibari to a large company and Sanjay Prakash Bansal selling his interest in tea, the owner of the largest producer of organic Darjeeling Tea, and the last of the formative generation that fought for international protection for Darjeeling tea, Sri 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 Mr. Lohia, 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 (Heart of Joy) where they built a family home in 1880. They bought much land and rented it out, helping to develop the town around the jungle where they had settled. Eventually, the Senior Lohia 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 financial leverage, 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, other businesses continued including those of a financial nature but by then banks had been nationalised and the highly regulated financial markets did not permit private lending. That said, the Lohia’s provided financial relief for the fiscall marginalised 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 nature of the transaction but in accepting Darjeeling plantations as payment in lieu of cash. 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 was rising. Rather than be content with the two gardens, Lohia had an eye on expansion, and other business operations 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 Mr. 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. The same seems true of Luxmi, with its de facto head being a career business person rather than a planter.
While the Lohias have been very successful in acquisition and expansion and led the charge to establish the Darjeeling GI Tag, they make tea basically the same was as their British forbears did. Blessed with having a high proportion of China, China Hybrid and good clonal plants, the company can be more focused on the best orthodox Darjeeling tea from the best plants, carrying on a tradition that has been the staple of the region.
In sharp contrast to how the Chamong Group is run, owner of Sona Tea, which boasts two fine Darjeeling 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.”
Most of the Nepal plantations are run by farmers who sell their leaf to manufacturers. So, what is being made in Nepal doesn’t come from a consistent leaf. Moreover, it is generally not organic, so despite deceptive local labeling, Nepal doesn’t really produce any organic tea. If this is adulterated with organic Darjeeling, it ruins the purity of the those plants that have been cultivated chemical free.
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.”
But this foregoes a large market in flavoured teas.
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 and plans to set up 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 – his slow cooked Oolongs in first flush. 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.