All that is sold is not Darjeeling Tea

Did you ever bother to spare a thought for your bed tea? If not, it’s time you check out the brand of tea you consume every day. And, if you find it to be ‘Darjeeling Tea’ be cautious. Chances of it being a mix of a small quantity of ‘Darjeeling Tea’ and blends made from inferior tea from other regions are very high.

In fact, four times more tea than was actually being grown in the region was being sold as ‘Darjeeling’ in blends bulked out with inferior tea from other regions, causing a major dip in consumer confidence.

Fears of ‘Darjeeling Tea’ losing its charm have been growing for quite sometime now. Another factor added to the worries of ‘Darjeeling Tea’ producers was the plantations’ heavy dependence on fertilisers and pesticides that were being hawked by foreign corporations.

In the recent days, there is a wind of optimism blowing through the Darjeeling hills, and a growing sense that Darjeeling Tea is on its way to reclaiming its legendary status.

The first obvious step in the right direction was to protect the Darjeeling name. The Darjeeling Planters’ Association and the Central government have negotiated a geographical-origin trademark, approved by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Now any tea that calls itself ‘Darjeeling’ must be 100 per cent from the region.

In another move, several of the top-rated tea gardens — Selimbong, Seeyok, Samabeong, Singell, Makaibari and Ambootia — have converted to organic production.

Self-interest may be influencing the newer organic recruits. A surge in consumer concern about chemicals in food and drink has caused Darjeeling’s best customers — Japan, Germany, the UK and, increasingly, France and the US — to impose stricter pesticide-residue limits.

In Germany, where there is a profusion of specialist teashops, certain chains now have in-house laboratories to test for residues. Some packers of conventionally grown Darjeeling have had to blend it with organic tea to bring down the residues to an acceptable level. Whatever the motivation, organic tea is really taking off.

Even the labour force welcomed the move. They said before, chemicals were hampering their health. It was like poison. They used to fall sick quite often with coughs, headaches and chest pains. The chemicals were so strong and they didn't have masks. Now they can breathe fresh air again.

In all the organic gardens that are owned by Tea Promoters India, the once-serried tea bushes have now been inter planted with trees like wild cherry and plants such as lemon grass and sunflower that feed the soil with nitrogen and also stabilize it so it cannot be washed away during monsoons.

Chemical fertilizers have been replaced by natural worm composts, manures and bio-dynamic preparations made from plants such as yarrow and nettle, with impressive results. When there is any sign of the dreaded tea mosquito, the patch affected is sprayed with a natural insecticide, which is derived from the neem tree.

Darjeeling is one of the few remaining tea-growing regions in the world that still remains faithful to the higher-cost ‘orthodox’ tea production method which begins with the labor-intensive, hand-plucked 'two leaves and a bud' of new growth. It takes a painstaking 20,000 individually plucked shoots to produce just one kilo of tea.

It’s mind-boggling how, when gently withered, rolled, oxidized and dried under the vigilant eye of an experienced tea maker, the same bushes can produce such a diverse sequence of teas. It starts with the fresh, slightly astringent first flushes from the most succulent new spring leaves with their floral scents that tickle the German palate.

Then come the second flushes, munched by summer greenfly, which gives them the characteristic 'muscatel' scent unique to Darjeeling, which so excites Japanese buyers. Quality dips with monsoon teas, which are too damp to produce great results, but returns in the form of the stronger, smokier autumnal teas.

Within these seasonal categories there are further variations; pure, refined ‘China’ teas made from the original bushes imported from China 150 years ago, more vigorous ‘clonal’ teas bred for specific growing situations from the best-performing bushes, and semi-fermented Oolongs, still made in the time-honored way where the leaves are sun-dried and turned every 45 minutes.

These teas from top Darjeeling estates have always found a market among connoisseurs. But now the organic Fairtrade tea revolution is spreading like wildfire among independent farmers, previously marginalized by the traditional plantation system.

Whether it's the family farmer or a big tea estate, the new wave of organic and Fairtrade tea production sweeping through the region is breathing a new life into Darjeeling. But as one of the few regions in the world still producing labor-intensive, classic tea, Darjeeling will always be vulnerable to cheaper, commercial teas from countries where production costs are lower. Unless, that is, consumers are able to appreciate the difference in quality.

Tea was originally introduced to Darjeeling region in 1841 by a Scottish surgeon, Dr Campbell. The British grew tea more as a supply for the army than as a commercial crop, producing it in a traditional way, without chemicals. After India became independent in 1947, they sold up to wealthy Indians, imbued with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of rapid industrialization.

The push was on to make the tea gardens as ‘productive’ as possible. The new owners dismantled the carefully constructed terraces that had stabilized the soil, cut down trees to pack in more tea bushes, and turned with great enthusiasm to the miraculous new generation of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that were being hawked by foreign corporations.

This break from natural tea production proved disastrous and the effects started taking a heavy toll on the industry in the recent past.

Alarmed over this, the planters are now desperately trying to revive the old methods of tea production once again. Hope they succeed in their mission.

Source: Commodity online