Darjeeling in the lower Himalayas is one of the country’s primary tea growing regions. It is a town in the Indian state of West Bengal at an average elevation above sea level of 6,710 ft. The area produces a small, but significant volume of India’s total tea production.
The central problem is that the entire year’s profitability depends on a small percentage of the production, produced between March and June every year. Every tea estate in the region is competing for this narrow volume.
And yet, look at the prices Darjeeling teas command. In 2015, it was the Namring estate whose First Flush was prized at the London auction where 90 kgs. sold for a whopping US$83,000!
The producers of Darjeeling tea are not new to challenges, especially those related to weather and soil. In time, they have learned to deal with them. When the British planters departed India in the 1950s, there was a crisis, but growers managed to resolve it. When the Russian markets collapsed, the producers picked themselves up. Time and again, there has been a need for a new start in Darjeeling, and the growers have always succeeded in doing so.
The mistake growers have made is they have failed to promote Darjeeling tea within India, a huge market waiting to be tapped. As long as producers can ensure the quality of Darjeeling’s teas, and on marketing it well to a domestic market and overseas, they can succeed in profitability.
The future of Darjeeling has much to look forward to. A majority of the stake lies with four of the largest producers who are there to stay. The Geographical Indication (GI) tag that Darjeeling tea was given three years ago came into play in early 2016. With this, all teas sold as “Darjeeling” must be 100% Darjeeling (not a blend of 51% Darjeeling with other teas like we are seeing now).
These are significant and positive steps for Darjeeling. Yes, there are things that need fixing and while unlikely to happen overnight, will certainly see change in the years to come.
Darjeeling’s tea gardens are over 150 years old. They have survived two world wars, colonial rule, the Indian freedom movement, the establishment of a new country, several landslides, severe drought, high monsoons, the green revolution and much more. And yet, they are still standing, producing some of the finest teas in the world.
By ITMA Certified Tea Master Chas Kroll