Darjeeling tea the ‘Champagne of Teas’ faces an uncertain future

Jeff Koehler gives a talk about his book 'Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea.'

Jeff Koehler gives a talk about his book 'Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea' at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Darjeeling tea the ‘Champagne of Teas’ faces an uncertain future

19 May 2015

By Naomi Canton

The future of Darjeeling tea is at risk – according to a new book by American author Jeff Koehler.

The famous tea-growing region in the Eastern Himalayan hills of India is facing three threats, the writer, photographer, cook and author, who has recently penned Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Teasaid.

“Darjeeling tea is in dire straits – maybe in 30 years you won’t be drinking it anymore,” he continued, in a talk during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

Firstly, tea-growing is very sensitive and the changing climate, for example a lack of rains or late monsoon, is affecting the long-term yield, he said. Rising temperatures were affecting the period of no plucking when the bushes needed cool temperatures to rejuvenate. Secondly, Ghorka separatists in the Darjeeling Hills and in Dooars are demanding their own state in West Bengal based on ethno-linguistic lines, and the Bandhs (days of protest) they organise, when tea plants and factories are forced to close for days or weeks on end, are hampering tea production. The third threat is labour. “No one wants to pluck tea anymore,” Koehler told the audience.

“These tea estates suffer from 40 per cent absenteeism. And you can’t fire people because of the way the estate works,” he said.

He said young people on the estate had no interest in working as pluckers owing to better educations and access to TV which gave them higher aspirations than the previous generation, many of whom had been illiterate.

“I did not meet any pluckers who want their children to be pluckers because they don’t feel they have any respect. This is the most pressing issue. Who is going to pluck?” he asked.

India is the second largest producer of tea in the world after China. The three prominent tea-growing regions are Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri.

Despite the growing popularity of coffee among the urban middle-classes in India, tea remains most the widely drunk hot beverage in India. Eighty per cent of Indian production of tea is used for national consumption.

However most Indians drink Assam tea with milk and sugar whereas Darjeeling tea, considered the ‘crown jewel’ or ‘Champagne’ of Indian teas, is drunk black.

“Darjeeling is a tiny tea-growing region compared to Assam – where half the tea of India is produced – but the best tea is grown in Darjeeling,” Koehler added.

India produces about one billion kg of tea a year. But Darjeeling produces less than one per cent of that of tea.

It was the Darjeeling region and its unique tea that fascinated Koehler and inspired him to write the book.

He spent the entire 2013 harvest on the Darjeeling tea estates with tea planters in a bid to discover what made its tea so unique. About eight to nine million kg of Darjeeling tea is produced from the region’s 87 estates which are spread across 20,000 hectares.

“Classically Darjeeling tea is fresh and aromatic, it has a famous bright metallic colour, floral notes – but more stem than petal – not flowery. In the spring it’s kind of grassy,” he said. “Darjeeling tea is known for its bright colour which changes throughout the year. No tea can replicate that. If you plant this tea plant in South India you get a South Indian tea, not a Darjeeling tea,” he said. Darjeeling tea is renowned for its muscatel flavour (musky spice with sweet notes).

It is also renowned for its single estate teas and its four flushes referring to the time of year the tea is harvested. Different flushes of Darjeeling tea affect the taste, quality and price. The most expensive and sought after tea is the second flush, he said.

Harvested end of May or early June, the second flush is considered the best tea with more rounded flavours, mellow, deeper, some peach notes and sometimes apricots and darker colour. It is often referred to as the ‘muscatel flush’ as this flavour is most prominent in this flush.

Conversely, the monsoon flush (July to September) is “the worst tea you can get,” Koehler said. “You will never find single estate monsoon flush. It loses its finesse because the leaves are bigger, it is very humid, the fermentation period is very difficult to control, and it’s really difficult to make a good tea.”

Another reason for its uniqueness is the elevation and the growing conditions of the region. “Darjeeling is 7,000 feet high. The plants grow slower in that elevation, the leaves are smaller, the flavours get concentrated, the soil has acidity to it, there is lots of mist and cloud cover which stops leaf damage,” he explained.

Each bush of Darjeeling tea produces only 3.5 ounces of tea, which is just 40 cups. “The per hectare produce is one third the Indian average, so it’s quite low,” he said. But that rarity and distinct flavour contribute to its uniqueness.

Another aspect of Darjeeling tea’s uniqueness is the way the tea is processed. Most black tea, especially the type used in mainstream tea bags, is produced using CTC (Crush, Tear and Curl.) “But the best tea is made in the Orthodox way,” Koehler said.

Darjeeling tea is produced using Orthodox Production.

“Orthodox Production is an old-fashioned way in which the tea is withered (to lose moisture), rolled, fermented and sorted and every part of the process is done by hand,” he said.

Women pluck the tea bushes taking two leaves and a bud using both hands, he said. “This is the classic Darjeeling pluck. They pluck a bush once a week. It takes 22,000 of these shoots to make a single kilogram of tea. It’s impossible to mechanise as there is no machine that could only choose these plucks, so they can only pluck 400 pounds of tea a year,” he explained.

Once the tea is ready. every batch is tasted. “Tasting tea is far more complex than tasting wine,” he added.


Those attending the talk were invited to sample teas from the Ahmad Tea range

In his research Koehler discovered tea was not “naturally” from Darjeeling; it was originally grown there by the British during the British Raj. “The town was not built to grow tea – it was one of the great hill stations,” he said. “The British East India Company imported 25 million pounds of tea for a population of what was, several hundreds of years ago, just 10 million people in the UK. But the tea was being imported from China (rather than a British overseas colony) and the Chinese only wanted silver in return for it, not Wedgwood, which was draining the Treasury coffers. So then the UK sent opium from India to China in return for Chinese tea leaves,” he explained. That led to the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) when China unsuccessfully attempted to close its borders to trade.

The British realised they needed to find somewhere within their Empire to grow tea as they were worried about losing their source, so the British East India Company started to look for places to grow tea in India, he said. They found the perfect place in 1834 when they discovered a wild indigenous tea growing in Assam.

Half of all India’s tea today is from Assam which produces more than a billion pounds of tea (about 500 million kg) a year. “But the Assam tea gave them quantity but not quality,” he explained.

In search of quality, the first tea was planted in Darjeeling in 1841 by Dr A. Campbell using seeds and information stolen from China. “The British brought in Gorkhas from Nepal to plant the tea and the industry took off but it never reached the quantity and amounts of Assam,” he said.

Whilst most Indians drink Assam tea mixed with milk, sugar and spices, Darjeeling tea is only popular among some urban middle-class Indian households in Kolkata and Delhi. “There is no need to add anything. It’s about that pure flavour,” he said.

Nevertheless the tea industry dominates Darjeeling. 1.8 million people live there and 70 per cent are related to industry. The industry directly employs 55,000 permanent workers and 18,000 temporary ones. The workers get approximately Rs 122.50 (£1.20) a day. In addition they get to live in village communities on the estates and receive food rations, education, childcare and medical care. The average estate has 800 workers producing 100,000 kg of tea but 6,000 to 10,000 people live on these estates as often just one family member is working. “Their life is on the estate. The family has one position that is passed on down the family,” he said.

“Women do the sorting and plucking and men do the pruning. It’s overall a very female-dominated industry,” he explained.

Seventy per cent of Darjeeling tea is exported abroad, with Germany importing the most, Koehler said.

“The only way the Darjeeling tea industry is going to survive now is if it finds a domestic market,” he said. “They want the local market.”

Koehler said the region’s best hope was to market the ‘romance of the hills’ and the ‘experience’ of drinking Darjeeling tea to Indians – in the same way the coffee industry in India had sold itself on ‘selling a moment or an experience’ to Indians, rather than on the actual product.

Koehler also sees potential in Darjeeling’s green, oolong and white teas, growing in popularity in some Indian metros and he pointed out that its green tea was currently very popular among residents of Darjeeling.


To listen to the full audio of  the session with Jeff Koehler speaking about Darjeeling tea click below:


To read the other stories on the 2015 Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.

To find out about more exciting arts and cultural events happening at Asia House click here.