Quality Winter Tea Emerges After Darjeeling Crisis

DARJEELING, West Bengal

Makaibari, photo by Pullock Dutta

Makaibari tea estate reported the first signs that the teas of this famed region benefited from last summer’s unprecedented three-month rest.

The first 10 kilos of organic and sustainably produced teas from 50 kilos of leaves plucked in late December revealed a “very good” tea according to Rudra Chatterjee, director at Luxmi tea, owners of the garden. The Makaibari tea, which was labeled a Yule Flush, was sold for a “respectable” price to a Japanese buyer, according to Chatterjee, who confidently predicted to reporters it could be resold at a premium.

Makaibari is at the foot of the Himalayan “hill” on which Darjeeling is perched. It was founded in 1859, the first Darjeeling garden to be certified organic in 1988, and remains a trendsetter to this day. Makaibari teas set several records for pricing and the company recently became the first garden to open its own retail outlets.

Makaibari is a household name among Bengalis, explains Soumitra Roy, head, marketing and sales. “So we wanted to bring people closer to Makaibari. Depending on how this [City Centre] store fares, we will open a couple of more stores in the city before targeting the districts and then other parts of the country,” he said.

Normally, harvesting is not done in winter months in either Darjeeling or Assam because of frosty conditions at higher elevations that affect the number and size of sprouting leaves. The result is generally a nondescript flavor. This is the first year Makaibari plucked in December.

Krishan Katyal, chairman of J Thomas and Co., and an expert on tea estates, said that temperatures this year were more conducive at lower altitudes than in the past. It remained too cold higher up the mountain for bushes to flush. He said the bushes throughout the tea-growing region benefitted from a lengthy rest, which they haven’t had in the “past 100 years.”

In many parts of the world, tea is harvested only once, early in the spring, after which the plants enjoy a long, restful summer and fall.

Katyal predicts the spring flush to be of very good quality, although the initial yield―harvested in March―may be thin because of the deep pruning required to restore the overgrown bushes following a 104-day walkout by tea workers. April onwards, the bushes will start to flush fully, he said.

Sanjay Das, manager at Makaibari, said that at the end of December, long after the rains ceased, there was moisture remaining in the soil. The bushes were found to be well nourished, he said. Garden workers began removing weeds from the bushes as soon as the walkout ended in October. “It helped to have started early,” said Das, who is expecting a “bumper crop” next year.

Makaibari Yule Flush, photo courtesy Makaibari Tea Estate

Will a winter harvest become the norm?

Every year, in early winter, some estates at lower elevations produce small quantities of tea, explained D.P. Maheshwari, managing director at Jay Shree Tea and Industries Ltd. His company produces about 1.5 per cent of its total annual yield during the winter months. This year, because of the disruption in supply of Darjeeling tea, prices were “much firmer,” making a winter harvest more practical, Maheshwari said.

However, most estates chose not to undertake a winter harvest, instead concentrating on repairing the damage to the carefully manicured “plucking table” that enables workers to quickly identify new shoots.

S.S. Bagaria, chairman of the Bagaria group, which owns at least three estates in Darjeeling, told Livemint that he could have produced around 15 kg of tea, but opted not to harvest so that the workers could be fully deployed in maintenance of the bushes.

Sources: Livemint, The Telegraph