Nepal is experiencing the benefits of a renewed commitment by government and trade associations to upgrade and market high-grown tea in this former kingdom of 26 million people.
“Nepal’s tea community is in the budding stages of a loose-leaf revolution,” writes the New York Times. “Growers are planting tea bushes in the same kind of steep, high-elevation fields that granted Darjeeling its unmatched reputation. Entrepreneurial farmers and factory owners, unburdened by Darjeeling’s colonial-era baggage, are developing remarkable styles of tea all their own at a fraction of the price, often with younger, more vigorous bushes thriving in comparatively richer soil,” according to the newspaper.
The widely circulated article quotes Maggie Le Beau at Nepali Tea Traders in Massachusetts, Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis in Montreal, Nischal Banskota, founder of Nepal Tea, brothers Bachan and Lochan Gyawali at Jun Chiyabari in Nepal and Jeni Dodd, a United States tea buyer who lives part of the year in Kathmandu.
At the World Tea Expo Suresh Vaidya, managing director at Guranse Tea Estate and Mai Tea Company in Nepal, and Chandra Angbo, director of Discover Nepal Tea, were upbeat. Angbo represents the Specialty Tea Association of Nepal (STAN-USA), located in Derby, Kansas. Guranse, located in the foothills of the Mahabarat Mountains, is one of the oldest organic tea gardens with elevations of up to 7,300 feet above sea level.
Darjeeling suffered a significant setback in 2017 when striking workers abandoned gardens at the onset of the lucrative second flush. During the four-month walkout Nepalese teas started entering India in good volumes (estimates are as high as 2.5 million kilograms). Darjeeling’s 87 gardens normally produce about 8.5 million kilograms annually but were down at least 25%, disrupting inventory and retail sales promotions. A shortage of quantity and higher prices due to scarcity led buyers to abandon Darjeeling.
The practice continues with Nepalese tea sellers seeking agents with a local Indian GST number. Nepal growers reimburse the tax as they get much better prices for their tea in India. Indian retailers then sell the tea as Darjeeling.
A Distinct Terroir
The reason Vaidya and Angbo are optimistic is not that Darjeeling is experiencing difficulties, it is the fact that Nepal growers have learned to express the distinct terroir of the region and abandon a model based on mimicking the flavor of the Darjeeling hills.
Bachan Gyawali told the New York Times, “Nepal has always been classified as a poor cousin of Darjeeling and when we spoke with tea buyers, it became clear there’d be no reason for them to buy a similar tea from Nepal when Darjeeling will always be Darjeeling.”
Jun Chiyabari instead produces white tea, eastern-style oolong and first flush teas with floral notes unlike Darjeeling.
“This is my third year at World Tea Expo, and I was happy to find so many aware of Nepal and buying and carrying the tea,” Angbo told World Tea News.
The most popular teas on offer are loose-leaf, he said. “People are seeking silver needle, golden needle, and white tea with some interest in oolong,” said Angbo.
Pricing is a factor. “Our prices are little bit lower still,” explained Angbo, but specialty teas, unless they are from standout gardens, are the hardest to get out of the country. “India has put another ban against importing and air freight is very expensive, not many customers can take that route,” he said.
DHL Express adds a NPR1200 ($10) remote area charge and NPR17500 ($160) charge for non stackable pallets, plus an elevated risk charge of NPR2300 ($20) and charges NPR499 ($4.55) per shipment for customs services. The base rate for flying 3 kilograms of tea to the U.S. (Zone 6) is NPR11,300 ($102.97), shipping 30 kilograms would cost $625, adding more than $20 per kilogram to the retail cost of the tea.
The other major roadblock is certification. “Farmers that make the best teas sell it in small lots and cannot sell it over here,” he said. They are growing clean teas but have a hard time getting certified because of the cost, he explained.
In Darjeeling’s Shadow
Despite its elevation, Nepal has long been in the shadow of India. Nepal is landlocked with tea-drenched China to the north, India to the south and nearly impassable routes to Pakistan. Airfreight is very expensive, so tea is transported by truck and rail car to India. Nepali teas are banned from the Indian auction market where they would compete head-to-head on price and quality. Instead they are imported largely for blending where the emphasis was on their similarity to the famed Darjeeling teas from the adjacent state of West Bengal.
Fortunes have shifted for Darjeeling in recent years. A wet and foggy spring has depressed prices of Darjeeling tea from $7.10 (INR487.3) per kilogram last year to $4.65 (INR319.3), a drop of 34%.
The June crop may be lower by 10-15% because of weather conditions, Darjeeling planter SS Bagaria told the Economic Times. Benod Mohan, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association, said he hopes for better weather in the second flush, but fears prices will not meet the ever-increasing cost of production.
Illam, the primary region for specialty production consists of hundreds of small plots. Many residents there grow tea on two hectares or less.
See Purnima Rai’s Nepal Garden for an example of a day in the life of a typical small grower,
The commitment to improve tea quality has been bumpy. Workers were infuriated Sunday when the Illam Tea Producers of Panchakanya rejected more than 500 kilograms of green tea leaves, citing sub-standard quality. The stipulated minimum price of $0.36 (NPR40) per kilogram enforced by the local municipality was too high to make a profit according to growers.
Factories were idled June 28 in protest of the fixed price. Workers supplying 52 tea factories affiliated with the Suryodaya Tea Association threw tons of green leaves on the Mechi Highway near Pashupatinagar in eastern Nepal in protest.
The government convened a committee of stakeholders to discuss a long-term solution.
The Nepalese are a persistent people who possess uncanny stamina. Their tea can be exceptional and unique processors must now achieve consistency at volume. They are more likely to prevail by forging ahead on a trail of their own.