Darjeeling Rebounds: What’s Next

Darjeeling overgrown

DARJEELING, West Bengal

Darjeeling, at 175 years of age, once again demonstrated its resilience this year.

Yield plummeted in the months after several hundred thousand workers took a 104-day break beginning in mid-June. The walkout, never officially declared a strike, drained the profitability from India’s most lucrative producing region.

Street violence following the uprising closed shops, disrupted the tourism sector, emptied boarding schools favored by foreigners, and forced the central government to send in thousands of national police. Several deaths were reported. Soon there was no tea to auction. Wholesale stocks were depleted worldwide, and price s climbed six-fold.

Gardens lay idle through the important second flush and the weeds climbed high during the monsoon season that followed. Cessation of pruning let millions of carefully groomed bushes to go wild. Finally, although the autumn harvest was largely abandoned, workers in October and November returned to the gardens to begin a massive cleanup that will take until March to complete.

Now what?

Here are three things to watch for in the new year.

Improved Quality

While a setback financially, the region’s tea bushes, venerable but less productive than younger cultivars, are expected to produce their best tea in years. This is because the plants have rested for the longest time in decades. The lack of harvest rounds and a respite from pruning enabled bushes to expend all their energy on rejuvenation and the production of new leaf. In countries such as China, tea is plucked only once a year to give plants the maximum opportunity to recover. In the Darjeeling hills tea gardens are plucked every few days up to nine months a year. Resting results in healthier plants that are more resistant to disease and pests—and better-tasting tea.

A Switch to CTC

Cut tear and curl (CTC) processing enables growers to be less picky about the leaves they pluck. Plucking larger sustenance leaves that cover the entire bush (as opposed to tiny buds and new leaves) increases volume, so much so that the total export loss may be only 4 percent to 6 percent, according to Darjeeling tea exporter M.K. Jokai.

Parimal Shah, M.K. Jokai’s vice president, told The Times of India that “the 104-day strike resulted in complete shutdown of plantations in Darjeeling, affecting the plucking of the second flush, considered the most premium in the domestic market.

“The loss of 80 percent of the second flush amounted to about 6 million kilos valued at $5.5-6.25 million of premium orthodox tea,” he said. “Therefore, even as the exports of Indian tea (in terms of volume) may be higher compared to last year, in terms of value it seems that by the end of the year, total shipments may be behind by up to 4 percent to 6 percent compared to last year,” Shah added.

Rising Demand for Orthodox Tea

Tea retailers, faced with no Darjeeling in the supply chain, turned to Nepal, Sikkim and the high-mountain teas from Sri Lanka for relief. This eroded Darjeeling’s broad customer base globally but did little to stymie die-hard enthusiasts. Stocks of first-flush tea, the most desirable and valuable leaf for export, went to those willing to pay the price.

Noting that willingness, Darjeeling gardens continued to produce handmade teas in small quantities sold direct to export partners.

“This has boosted (to an extent) the demand for the orthodox teas, especially in places where blenders have allowed themselves to replace their Darjeeling offerings with (blended teas) that contain multi-origin components,” reports Parimal Shah.

Thus, the demand for premium, good quality orthodox has definitely gone up compared to last year, he explained, with much of the tea that would have been consumed domestically destined for the US, Japan, European Union and Russia.

“We are seeing an increase of between 15 and 30 percent in prices for the premium quality Indian orthodox teas. As for the average orthodox teas, we are seeing an increase of 6-12 percent,” he added.

Source: The Times of India