Golden Tea Strikes Gold

OYAN, ARUNACHAL PRADESH, India

Artisan teas for refined palates have long earned boutique gardens outsized reputations and profits.

It is a model pioneered in China and adapted in Darjeeling, West Bengal that spread to the Nilgiris in Southern India and now extends to Arunachal Pradesh where the Donyi Polo Tea Estate has established a reputation that may one day rival the most celebrated gardens of India.

Last month, a small lot of handmade golden needle from Donyi Polo sold for INRs18,801 ($291) per kilo, breaking all previous records at tea auctions across India. The 2.5 kilos of tea offered by Contemporary Brokers at the Guwahati Tea Auction Center was a first, but it represents a resurgence of investment in single-origin, small-lot teas that rival Darjeeling for quality and price.

Makaibari, founded in the Darjeeling hills in 1859, built India’s first tea factory and has continued to innovate for more than a century. The garden, under the direction of Rajah Banerjee, produces the most awarded and highest priced silver tips oolong and treasured black teas. These teas sell for hundreds of dollars per kilo. Makaibari held the previous record of $279 for the most expensive tea sold at auction, in 2003 at Calcutta Auction Center.

Banerjee writes that “if farmers are artists, their palette is the earth, where they create their paintings with various seeds and animals, to produce food that sustains mankind. An enormous responsibility that needs unequivocal support from all. Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic method has evolved a uniquely healthy soil, that houses a healthy society.” In private sales these rare, handmade organic, biodynamic certified teas have brought prices exceeding $1,800 per kilo.

Manoj Kumar, senior manager of Donyi Polo

Manoj Kumar, senior manager of Donyi Polo, told World Tea News that the leaves used to make the high-priced golden needle were plucked from select clones from Yunnan. The tea has a sweet, fruity note and caramelized taste, denoting rich autumnal character. “These teas are hand-rolled and allowed to oxidize for two to three hours and then dried in a tray,” he said. The exceptional tea is not a one-off. In September, a white pekoe from Donyi fetched $186 (INRs12,001) per kilogram and handcrafted tippy varietals regularly earn $39 (INRs2,565) per kilo at auction.

The white tea liquor “is very light with a note of mellowness and rich in antioxidants.” The golden needle is exclusive enough to meet the standard of Paris-based retailer Mariage Freres. The company purchased 60 kilos, describing in its catalog a tea that produces a “brilliant red liquor, slightly lighter than Assam, yet highly aromatic. Its long fragrance fills the palate.”

“This is the first time we are selling our tea directly to foreign buyers…earlier it was through agents,” Kumar says proudly.

Oyan is a village of 1,500 people in 270 households in the East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Assam. The state is landlocked and largely inhabited by a tribal population.

“We are more into making handcrafted special teas now…if we have to attract global attention we have to go for these special teas,” says Kumar, who has worked at the garden for more than 20 years.

White, silver needle, golden needle, golden tippy, emerald needle, yellow tea, oolong…you name it and the Donyi Polo has made it all. In fact, the tea estate converted the earlier factory exclusively for handcrafted special teas. To prepare these teas, the estate has also made its own unique machines.

“We are also taking help from tea experts from Japan, Nepal, and Darjeeling to prepare these special teas. These experts visit us from time to time,” Kumar said.

The 421-hectare tea estate produces about 1.45 million kilos of tea annually, out of which about 10 percent is orthodox and special tea, the rest is cut, tear, curl (CTC). “We are shifting to total organic in a phased manner,” Kumar said. The tea estate has about 100 hectares under organic cultivation.

The estate has also come up with unique ideas to keep the flow of organic fertilizers to the garden. “We have set up public cattle sheds in nearly villages where we provide free fodder to cattle. The villagers keep their cattle in these sheds and we use the defecates for our organic plantations,” Kumar said.

The selection of teas produced at Donyi include white, silver needle, golden needle, golden tippy, emerald needle, yellow tea, and oolong.

Donyi Polo is considered the pioneer for tea growers in Arunachal Pradesh, where tea growing is emerging as a new passion for the people in the land of dawn-lit mountains, as Arunachal Pradesh is also referred to. In fact, the Tea Board of India set up an office in Arunachal Pradesh a few years ago to help these new tea growers, and it’s seeming likely that the Tea Research Association of India will open a satellite office in Arunachal Pradesh.

The seed of Donyi Polo was planted about four decades ago by Yatap Apang, the wife of a former chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh. The name means, literally, “sun-moon” where the sun is the female energy and the moon the male. Back then, only a few people in the region had knowledge of growing tea in an organized manner, though the tea plant grew wild in some parts of the state.

“We received tremendous help from our friends in Assam and with their help we were able to set up this tea estate,” the grand lady said.

Yatap, now in her eighties, still lives on the tea estate and, despite a fracture on her hip bone, makes it a point to interact with the workers of the tea garden almost daily. “I have raised these tea bushes with my own hands,” she said.

Donyi Polo is a resource for nearby villagers, many of whom have taken up tea cultivation in this remote hilly terrain.

In fact, the tea estate has enrolled two executives specially to train these small growers in the nearby areas. “We hold regular interaction with these new tea growers and always encourage them,” said Kumar.

Yatap Apang, wife of a former chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh.

He said that the estate has identified some of the remote areas in East and Upper Siang where teas are grown by local dwellers who have had skills handed down to them through generations. They grow tea and brew it for their own consumption only.

“Our mission is to upgrade the socio-economic livelihood of the rural tribal villagers imparting them knowledge on advanced practices of growing and propagating tea. Our team assists these villagers to preserve and propagate tea in a scientific way,” Kumar said.

Scientists at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI) in Jorhat, Assam have high hopes for Arunachal Pradesh. “With the hilly terrain and climatic condition like Darjeeling, Arunachal Pradesh has the potential to produce aromatic tea on the lines of Darjeeling. We firmly believe that Arunachal Pradesh tea would one day attract international attention,” said N. Muraleedharan, former director of the Tocklai Tea Research Institute. Tocklai conducts regular training for new planters from Arunachal Pradesh.

There are about 50 registered big gardens (more than 10.12 hectares) in Arunachal Pradesh and 50 registered small tea gardens at present, in addition to around 5000 unregistered small tea gardens.