Will There Be Darjeeling Tea in the Future?

Darjeeling first-flush Steanthal
Darjeeling first-flush Steinthal

Darjeeling tea may go extinct!

Apocalyptic hype? Total overreaction to a regional strike? Sensationalism?

Or, could we actually lose this beloved tea?

With its economic importance and the worldwide love for Darjeeling tea, it seems unlikely that it would no longer be grown.

However, the reality is pretty dire at the moment, with all 87 tea gardens in the region currently shut down.

The chairman of Chamong Group, which has tea gardens in Darjeeling, said that:

The present problem is political in nature and nothing relating to the industry. However, the industry will have to bear the long standing consequences which even poses serious questions regarding the future of the cuppa which could even face extinction (Shandilya 2017).

The Tea

Darjeeling, in the lower Himalayas, is renown for its tea. In fact, Darjeeling tea is so prized that—like Champagne—its very name is protected!

Darjeeling tea is grown at 1,968 to 6,562 feet above sea level, in a region that gets around 120 inches of rain annually. (For perspective, the rainiest spot in the continental U.S. is Portland, with a relatively paltry 43 inches of rain per year.)

Steinthal tea leaves
Darjeeling FTGFOP1 Steinthal tea leaves (first flush)

The tea bushes are pruned in December—which encourages new growth and is timed so that the new leaves begin to open in March. This first flush of leaves comprises the highly valued first harvest, which is done by hand in early spring. The bud and first two leaves are carefully plucked.

Rarity tea leaves
Darjeeling TGFOP Rarity tea leaves (second flush)

The second flush is harvested in June and July, after the plants have vigorously grown. This tea is also highly regarded, and many people prefer it over the more delicate first-flush tea.

There is also a lower-quality summer monsoon flush, followed by an autumn flush (which is more similar to the second flush).

Last year, 8.45 million kilograms of tea were produced. With Darjeeling being among the most expensive teas, the profits from the first- and second-flush teas alone generally support the gardens for the entire year (Shandilya 2017).

What’s Been Brewing in Darjeeling

Steinthal leaves after brewing
Steinthal leaves after brewing.

The Darjeeling tea industry employs over 100,000, most of whom are Gorkhalis, who are native to Nepal. Darjeeling—a district within West Bengal, India—borders Nepal.

Evidently, tensions erupted when the government instructed schools to use Bengali rather than the Gorkhalis’ native Nepali language (The New Paper 2017). Consequently, the Gorkhalis are demanding their own homeland, using strikes and demonstrations as leverage.

Today is the 56th day of the strike, which has brought the tea industry to a standstill.

Consequences So Far

It doesn’t look good for Darjeeling tea. As with Champagne, Darjeeling can be produced only in Darjeeling. But:

  • With only 30% of the annual harvest completed before the strikes began, the rest of this year’s harvest—including the premium second flush—is a total loss,
  • which means there is not much Darjeeling tea available,
  • which means that prices are escalating
  • and that Darjeeling stands to lose its market as cheaper teas fill the gap.

Further problems:

  • With huge financial losses looming, will the tea producers be able to recover?
  • Without care, the tea bushes have already grown into trees and the gardens are becoming weed ridden.
  • Former tea industry employees are finding other jobs elsewhere.
  • How long will it take to bring the tea gardens back into prime condition?
  • Will the stressed tea plants recover?

And these are only compounding already existing problems including:

  • High production costs
  • Environmental degradation
  • Aging of the tea bushes (it takes 7 years before a new plant can be harvested)
  • And, of course, the very real tension between the West Bengal government and the Gorkhalis.

So Will This Be Only a Memory?

first flush and second flush Darjeeling teas
Darjeeling second-flush Rarity (left) and first-flush Steinthal (right)

At least at the moment, Darjeeling teas are available at teahaus.com, including first-flush Steinthal, premium first-flush Lingia, second-flush Rarity, and premium second-flush Risheehat.


Sources:
–Bedi, R. “‘Champagne of teas’ under threat as protests hit Darjeeling,” The Telegraph, August 7, 2017.
–The New Paper. “Darjeeling unrest threatens shortages prized tea,” August 5, 2017.
–Shandilya, B. “Darjeeling tea sector reels under existential crisis as Gorkhaland protests make cuppa dearer, rarer,” Firstpost, August 5, 2017.

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