KURSEONG VALLEY, West Bengal – Makaibari Estates, the oldest and most celebrated of the 87 gardens along the long and winding road to Darjeeling was acquired by the Luxmi Group last week, ending family ownership dating to 1859.
Swaraj K. “Rajah” Banerjee will remain chairman and the family retains 10% share in the award-winning garden. A price was not disclosed.
“The Luxmi Group will expand Makaibari’s distribution and visibility as well as provide managerial and accounting expertise while Rajah will provide his invaluable expertise in organic and biodynamic agriculture and leadership through his pre-eminent position in the tea industry,” said Anupa Mueller, founder of the Silver Tips Tearoom and Eco-Prima Tea importers, the primary North American distributor of Makaibari’s teas. Mueller is Banerjee’s sister-in-law. She grew up in Darjeeling.
Founded 1912 in Tripura, Luxmi Group produces 15 million kilos of tea annually on 17 estates in Assam, North Bengal and Tripura. It is a vertically integrated firm that markets its Narayanpur brand nationally. The firm has developed manufacturing, warehouse, retail distribution and packaging capability.
Company Chairman Dipankar Chatterjee, is himself a tea planter for 40 years. Dipankar partnered with Makaibari in the past launching several innovative promotions including the first tea branding co-venture with the Kolkata-based East Bengal Club and Munich-based Football Club Bayern in 2010. Makaibari sent 300 kilos of its tea to the China Olympics in 2008 and recently shipped several hundred kilos to Brazil to be served at breakfast during the FIFA World Cup.
“It was important to partner with a company that recognized Makaibari’s true commitment to the land, its forests and to its people. Although several companies had been interested in the last 10 years, none was a suitable match until the Luxmi Group,” said Mueller.
The 677-hectare estate in the Eastern Himalayas “is the jewel in what is called the golden mile of the most important grow region in the world,” according to Luxmi Group, “If Darjeeling is the champagne of teas, Makaibari is the Krug or Henri Giraud.”
Makaibari, which translates as “cornfield” encompasses 270 hectares under tea at elevations above 4,500 feet. Luxmi notes that Makaibari not only produces “the finest of Darjeeling’s aromatic amber brews” it is “tea as a way of life.”
“These two iconic brands fitted into our scheme of things and our thought process and they came our way. Of course, these were business decisions, but more than that these were decisions to partner with organizations where a passion for quality, social accountability and environmental stewardship are key attributes,” Luxmi Group Director Rudra Chatterjee told MyDigitalFC. Rudra is the son of Dipankar Chatterjee.
In 1970 Makaibari became a pioneer in the tea industry when it first embraced biodynamic principles of farming becoming the first organic tea garden in the Darjeeling District. Banerjee returned two-thirds of the land to sub-tropical forest, which improved the health of the soil, brought back teeming wildlife and improved the lives of the people who shared this ecological system. The garden was also a leader in developing tea tourism beginning in 2000 with home stays for scholars and tourists in its bungalows.
In the 1990s when Darjeeling tea was selling for $75 per kilo, tea from this garden brought $400/kilo at wholesale.
The Banerjees have lectured on biodynamic farming throughout the world. Their many awards and accomplishments inspired other farmers to emulate Makaibari’s methods.
Premium tea vendors like England’s Hampstead Tea sell Makaibari’s Silver Tips Imperial for $40 for 100 grams. Makaibari’s specially harvested biodynamic white and green Darjeeling set record prices and garnered praise from discerning tea drinkers including the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan.
“The dedicated advocacy of Rajah Banerjee over the past four decades built the brand into what it is today. He will continue to manage the brand as long as he wishes,” said Mueller.
“Since neither of Rajah’s sons is currently in a position to take over the reins, this is a natural, logical and successful next step in the lifecycle of a single-property tea company,” she said.
“Luxmi provides capitalization and management expertise while Rajah will continue to provide the vision and expertise. I view this as similar to Steve Smith selling Tazo to Starbucks or Seth Goldman selling Honest Tea to Coca-Cola,” said Mueller, “The brand stays autonomous and authentic but gains much wider distribution.”