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 Tea, said.
“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.
Seventy per cent of Darjeeling Tea is exported abroad, with Germany importing the most, Koehler said.
“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. “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.
He spent the entire 2013 harvest there on the tea estates with tea planters. About eight to nine million kg of Darjeeling tea is produced from the region’s 87 estates which are spread across 20,000 hectares.
He discovered the first reason for its uniqueness was 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.
The second reason for Darjeeling ‘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.
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.” Once the tea is ready. every batch is tasted. “Tasting tea is far more complex than tasting wine,” he added.
Darjeeling tea is renowned for its muscatel flavour (musky spice with sweet notes), 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.