Darjeeling: Flushed with Concern

In the world of tea, Darjeeling is unique – and so are its troubles.

The high mountain terrain kissed with mist and bathed in strong ultraviolet light has produced remarkable, aromatic teas since 1850. The season begins in March when first-flush leaves are plucked. This small harvest accounts for 35% of an estimated $69 million (4.7 billion Indian rupees) in annual sales.

This year, the region faces an unusual number of challenges.

“I don’t think that Darjeeling tea production will come crashing suddenly, but every year its production is deteriorating, given the climatic and other challenges,” Kaustuv Roy told Reuters News Agency. Roy heads the tea division of Andrew Yule and Company in Kolkata.

Arun Singh, who manages 10 estates for the Goodricke Group Ltd., is more pessimistic. He told the Daily Mail: “Darjeeling tea is facing a big disaster.”

Terrible weather

The Indian Meteorology Department reports precipitation in the region is 86% lower than the long-term average following the late summer monsoon. Humidity is 40% below average and temperatures have risen significantly – around 4 degrees Celsius on average with peak temperatures as high as 16 degrees above normal.

Yields averaged about 10,000 metric tons for the first decade of the millennium but since 2012, a persistent drought punctuated with erratic rains has proven disastrous. Yields at the 87 gardens in Darjeeling fell to an estimated 8,100 metric tons last year due to increased damage from downpours that led to mudslides that sometimes claimed entire hillsides. The tea mosquito bug and red-spider mite, pests advancing uphill as the weather warms, along with widespread blister-blight added to the woe.

Aging stock

Tea trees line steeply terraced hills, a practice that makes them difficult to remove when their best days are done. Production holds steady through the first 30 or 40 years but declines rapidly. In Darjeeling, many trees are 75 to 100 years old and need replacing, increasing labor costs. Doing so via infill is practical when the bushes are widely separated, but closely planted trees prevent the new saplings from quickly reaching maturity. Worse still is the fact that newly planted trees need frequent watering. Usually there is no practical reason to irrigate because old trees have deep roots that enable them to survive dry spells.

Marketing shift

Darjeeling is the first tea-producing region to be awarded the European Union geographical indicator, a form of protection that recognizes the terroir and techniques used in making this famous tea.Known for a century as the “champagne” of tea, such marketing claims do not comply with the same legal and trade conventions that protect the Champagne wine-growing region in France.. France objected when marketers used the phrase to describe tea as “champagne” as the term can only be used in connection with the bubbly delight made in France.

The mild pleasing taste reminiscent of muscatel grape still greets millions of tea drinkers worldwide but demand is falling. Superior Darjeeling sells for hundreds of dollars a pound in Tokyo, Moscow, London, and New York; especially prized is the first flush which draws rapturous praise in good years.

The tea is by far the most wine-like in its price and marketing, making its reputation a valuable form of intellectual property.

That is where its marketing troubles begin.

When marketers first realized that royalty from the Queen of England to Czar Nicholas preferred Darjeeling, they marketed the tea so successfully that unscrupulous blenders began passing off all the high mountain tea that could be grown as Darjeeling. While the mountainous region produced as much as 10 million kilos at its peak, the unknowing public annually purchased an estimated 40 million kilos of teas from Indonesia and Africa and especially Nepal that was marketed as authentic Darjeeling.

Not all was counterfeit. German traders blended the tea under a convention that permitted them to label the tea Darjeeling if 51% of the blend by volume contained Darjeeling.

Lucrative as the name might be, many of the 87 gardens that legitimately claim to be Darjeeling are today poorly managed. Some purchased tea leaves grown outside the traditional political boundaries, others simply plucked inferior leaves from their own plants to increase volume.

Legitimate growers cried foul for years and with the help of the Darjeeling Tea Association, aided by government support, applied for global protection of their brand. In 2011 this resulted in the first GI Protected Geographical Indication (GI) for tea with a provision granting tea companies a five-year period ending Nov. 10, 2016 to sell their existing inventory.

The trade name Darjeeling appeared on more than 1,000 agricultural products sold in the EU at the time, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. Only products containing 100 percent Darjeeling tea can be marketed as Darjeeling or risk fines, confiscation at border crossings and recalls.

That period has now passed, and Darjeeling tea earns more per kilo than ever, but demand has lessened in recent years, suggesting a need for a larger marketing spend.

What lies ahead?

Worker absenteeism is up 40% at Darjeeling’s gardens, according to union officials. Production is down 30% and only a few gardens are working earnestly, according to P.T. Sherpa, president of the Tilak Chandra Roka, a labor union representing tea workers in Darjeeling and the Dooars. The switch from a cash economy to electronic banking has discouraged workers, who make only $1.90 per day, many of whom have left the gardens for better-paying jobs, he said.

“No one cares about the tea estates, all the three players, the owners, the workers and the government are running in different directions. If nothing is done soon the industry will collapse,” Sherpa told CNN News 18.

In Darjeeling, seasoned growers make the point that gentle rainfall in the coming two weeks will make all the difference. December production rose 9% against the previous year’s total.

Tea is resilient and Darjeeling’s hardy “China bush” has survived 167 years of variable weather. New trees are replacing old and the more successful gardens are erecting barricades and check dams to prevent topsoil from eroding.

As to the brand, clearing counterfeit, inferior, and dilute Darjeeling gives hope that the true nature of the tea will once again be revealed.

Source: Economic Times, CNN News 18, Reuters