While Darjeeling Tea Companies Seek Relief, One Maverick Planter Sees Solution in Innovation
SB VEDA <CALCUTTA>
Darjeeling arguably grows the world’s finest tea. So, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that the gardens responsible for producing the famed brews are in danger shuttering within five years, according to industry insiders.
Beset by infighting between garden owners as well as among brokers, traders, and planters – all having tense relations with the Central Government, the industry is fractious and short-sighted. Having long enjoyed steady sales and premium prices, strikes, the pandemic lockdown and decreased demand amidst the availability of cheaper (and dirty) alternatives primarily from Nepal has caused 10% of gardens in 2021 to be put up for sale. This, coupled with a reliance upon an antiquated sales system (the Tea Auctions), has left Darjeeling fighting a war on many fronts.
In March of this yar, 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.”
None of this phases Rishi Saria, owner of Gopaldhara and Rohini Tea Estates –
one of a new breed of Darjeeling planters who don’t view the industry through the lens of their forbears.
Where most Darjeeling owners run their tea companies from boardrooms in Kolkata or Siliguri, Saria runs his tea business from the gardens, in between the bushes.
The woes of the industry don’t really phase Saria whose perspective around tea cultivation is more philosophical. “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 believes that there is no reason why Darjeeling should not be viable as an industry so long as it is willing to innovate to move in synch with the shifting demands of the global tea market.
“Tea has been made in India for max around two and a half centuries,” says Saria. “That may seem like a long time to many – but in the history of tea making in the world, it’s really not a long period of time.”
Most planters in Darjeeling follow the British model of making tea – but Saria insists that the British really didn’t know how to process tea. “They’d smuggled some plants in from China, along with some workers who had some notions on how tea should be processed. They knew about withering, rolling, beginning oxidation and stopping it – but not much else.”
Respect for the plants is something the British never reallt had, insists Saria.
Particularly as climate change interferes with the weather patterns that Darjeeling has known for the past two hundred years, he looks to the plants to teach him how he needs to process to coax out the natural floral and fruitiness from the leaves.
“We’ve experimented with changing planting configurations, application of lower heat to stop oxidation gently – and most importantly gentle rolling, to minimize the emergence of harsh astringency that would require addition of some condiment like milk or sugar.
Saria is proud of the oolongs he has produced, which are not typical of Darjeeling tea gardens, which are focused with laser-like precision on producing orthodox tea.
“So why not enjoy a green that will taste nothing like the grassy green teas that people drink because they think it’s healthy but not for the flavour?” Saria asks rhetorically.
“What about a Darjeeling Oolong that is honeyed and full bodied as well?”
Such questions approach heresy in the Darjeeling canon of how to make tea. Saria insists they are questions that must be asked if Darjeeling is to be viable. “We will innovate or die,” he insists.
Saria believes that the natural flavour must be coaxed out of the tea leaves with a level of delicacy and care that is not well executed using cumbersome British machines. So he moved away from 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.
Walking on to the rolling hills that are the among the highest altitude cultivation areas in Darjeeling at Gopaldhara Tea Estate, one gets a glimpse into what Darjeeling could be: it’s a vision that Saria is willing to put his mind, body, and soul into.
Indeed, I’ve not seen any other owner participate in the guiding of production in so hands on a fashion as Rishi Saria.
“Well, I don’t think one can sit in an office in Kolkata or Siliguri, and simply count one’s money. Those days, if they ever truly existed, are long gone.”
Taking lessons from the Chinese, Japanese, Kenyans and Vietnamese to name just a few, Saria is not locked into his thinking around tea cultivation models as most planters are in Darjeeling. And, his team is designing their own custom equipment to help him achieve his vision, something unheard of at other gardens. Indeed, his efforts seek to build a bridge from Darjeeling’s past well into the future, until one day, Darjeeling tea is, indeed, enjoyed from an array of people who drink sodas to those who sip champagne.