FOOD: TEA, DIS­RUPTED

Af­ter 150 years of phys­i­cal trans­ac­tions in auc­tion houses, the sale of world-renowned Dar­jeel­ing has moved on­line. But will the move save it from its mod­ern woes?

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY VIC­TO­RIA BURROWS

Af­ter 150 years of phys­i­cal trans­ac­tions in auc­tion houses, the sale of world-renowned Dar­jeel­ing has moved on­line. But will the move save it from its mod­ern woes?

For 150 years, men in tai­lored suits or el­e­gant kurta py­ja­mas would take their seats in a hall in Kolkata, In­dia, to out­bid one another for some of the world’s finest tea. This tea – grown in the Hi­malayan foothills of Dar­jeel­ing, an el­e­vated re­gion of lush green forests, wa­ter­falls and moun­tain mists – has, since the days of the Bri­tish Raj, been famed for its ex­quis­ite del­i­cacy. But last year, the fi­nal knock of the gavel rang out at 11 RN Mukher­jee Road, Kolkata, the head­quar­ters of the world’s old­est and big­gest tea auc­tion house. J Thomas & Co’s Dar­jeel­ing tea has em­braced the 21st cen­tury: This world-fa­mous prod­uct is now bought and sold on­line.

Sales of other va­ri­eties of In­dian tea moved on­line al­most a decade ago, but Dar­jeel­ing tea, be­cause of its rel­a­tive rar­ity and cost, re­mained largely avail­able only through the cus­tom­ary auc­tions. While some may mourn the end of a cen­tury-and-a-half of tra­di­tion, many of those in the busi­ness of grow­ing and sell­ing In­dia’s most ex­pen­sive tea be­lieve the time is right for the “cham­pagne of teas” to mod­ernise.

“It’s a wel­come move,” says Anil Jha, su­per­in­ten­dent of Jay Shree Tea, one of In­dia’s big­gest tea com­pa­nies, which owns es­tates across In­dia, in­clud­ing a num­ber of gar­dens in Dar­jeel­ing. “Buy­ers from all cor­ners of the world can now reg­is­ter and bid in the on­line auc­tions. While in the phys­i­cal auc­tions, groups of buy­ers would try to work to­gether to re­duce prices, the com­pe­ti­tion has now im­proved. Some­one

who knows their tea, and is look­ing for tea from one spe­cial gar­den, will bid prop­erly.”

Sev­eral months on from the first on­line auc­tion, it seems that the fu­ture of Dar­jeel­ing tea looks sweet. Prices have gone up, on av­er­age by about US$1.50 (HK$11.70) per kg for the more af­ford­able va­ri­eties of Dar­jeel­ing tea. The most sought-af­ter va­ri­eties can sell for up to US$900 per kg. In 2014, Makaibari sold its es­tate’s tea for a record US$1,850 per kg.

Other fac­tors may also be at play in­flu­enc­ing sales of Dar­jeel­ing tea, and those in the tea in­dus­try say that it’s too early for cer­tainty, but the out­look is up­beat.

“It’s been a bet­ter year for Dar­jeel­ing,” says a spokesman at J Thomas. “E-auc­tions ap­pear to have fared well as they bring into play many more smaller play­ers who would have oth­er­wise been ret­i­cent about com­pet­ing against the ‘big boys’. We were all wor­ried that elec­tronic sales might dampen prices. In my opin­ion, it’s more about de­mand – if a mar­ket is stronger, the pic­ture looks brighter!”

Things have not al­ways seemed so rosy. In fact, Jha de­scribes the state of tea over­all in In­dia as “gloomy”.

“Dar­jeel­ing is strug­gling, even though re­tailer end prices have not gone down,” he says. “The cost of pro­duc­tion has in­creased, wages have in­creased, al­though worker pro­duc­tiv­ity is low and ab­sen­teeism rife. Then there’s the global re­ces­sion and now In­dia’s de­mon­eti­sa­tion woes. We have been wait­ing for a mir­a­cle.”

Be­cause of the hilly ter­rain, the pluck­ing of Dar­jeel­ing tea can­not be mech­a­nised, as it has in other coun­tries, such as Kenya, where huge, flat

gar­dens mea­sur­ing up to 1,400ha are com­mon. The 87 Dar­jeel­ing tea gar­dens are bou­tique in com­par­i­son: the big­gest Dar­jeel­ing tea es­tate is 350ha, with some gar­dens as small as 60ha.

All tea is picked by hand, al­most en­tirely by de­scen­dants of the Nepalese work­ers brought to Dar­jeel­ing by the Bri­tish in the 1850s to work in their newly planted tea gar­dens. The work­ers are born, go to school and of­ten live their en­tire lives on the tea es­tates. The treat­ment of tea work­ers, in­clud­ing salary, sub­sidised ra­tions, ma­ter­nity leave, med­i­cal pro­vi­sions, pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, and so on, is gov­erned by the Plan­ta­tion Labour Act of 1951. But to­day, as ed­u­ca­tion lev­els on the es­tates im­prove, fewer work­ers are in­clined to work in tea.

Another ma­jor is­sue in re­cent years is the chal­lenge posed by the tea pro­duced in the neigh­bour­ing Hi­malayan king­dom of Nepal. Tea grown there, at sim­i­lar al­ti­tudes in a sim­i­lar cli­mate, and of­ten us­ing know-how pro­vided by re­tired In­dian tea es­tate man­agers, has lower pro­duc­tiv­ity costs and so a lower price tag.

Dar­jeel­ing tea is pro­tected by Ge­o­graph­i­cal In­di­ca­tion sta­tus, but while only 8 mil­lion kg of Dar­jeel­ing tea is pro­duced ev­ery year, 40 mil­lion kg of tea is sold around the word la­belled as Dar­jeel­ing. The Tea Board of In­dia has promised to be more thor­ough in its polic­ing of Dar­jeel­ing tea in the fu­ture.

Dar­jeel­ing is adapt­ing to these pres­sures. “Tra­di­tion­ally, Dar­jeel­ing is black tea, but now there are many dif­fer­ent kinds of Dar­jeel­ing tea on the mar­ket,” says Parveez Ar­shad Hus­sain, tea es­tate man­ager of the 285ha Glen­burn Tea Es­tate.

“It’s a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket. Har­rods, Fort­num & Ma­son, and Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate in the UK, and Har­ney & Sons in the US, of­ten ap­proach us, tea es­tate man­agers, to come up with new types of de­signer tea. I don’t see it as break­ing tra­di­tion, but com­ple­ment­ing it.”

Glen­burn pro­duces award-win­ning black, green, and white tea, along with a new range of tea flavoured with nat­u­ral spices, flow­ers and fruit. The man­ager’s bun­ga­low on the es­tate dat­ing from colo­nial times was also turned into a ho­tel about 15 years ago. The ho­tel now has eight rooms and is rated as one of In­dia’s top lux­ury bou­tique ho­tels.

Ro­hini Tea Es­tate is also ex­per­i­ment­ing with tea va­ri­eties. It pro­duces tea “pearls”, tea leaves rolled by

hand into balls that un­furl in hot wa­ter, and flower tea – buds that are made into flower shapes. The gar­den is also ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent clones of the tea bush, in­clud­ing some va­ri­eties from Ja­pan.

But while Dar­jeel­ing has al­ways looked be­yond its bor­ders and the on­line auc­tions make the tea even more ac­ces­si­ble to in­ter­na­tional buy­ers than ever, one mar­ket that has al­ways re­mained elu­sive is its own.

“The In­dian mar­ket for Dar­jeel­ing tea is tiny. Tea drinkers here drink mass-pro­duced CTC (cut, tear, curl) tea in masala chai with plenty of milk, su­gar and spices,” says Hus­sain.

“Price is also a big fac­tor here. Dar­jeel­ing tea is a con­nois­seur’s item. But it’s part of our her­itage. I hope more In­di­ans will drink Dar­jeel­ing tea in the years to come.”

“TRA­DI­TION­ALLY, DAR­JEEL­ING IS BLACK TEA, BUT NOW THERE ARE MANY DIF­FER­ENT KINDS OF DAR­JEEL­ING TEA ON THE MAR­KET” -Parveez Ar­shad Hus­sain

01

01 A view of Dar­jeel­ing tea fields from a van­tage point.

02

03 Some of the ma­chines used to make Dar­jeel­ing tea, like this roller, are based on Vic­to­rian de­signs.

02 Women pick 20kg to 30kg of tea daily.

04

05 The amount of tea used per cup is equal to the In­dian 2 paise coin, or 2g.

04 Tea is pre­pared mainly by hand, as it was 150 years ago.

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