Darjeeling Tea: Beloved, Prized, and at Risk

Darjeeling teas are among the world’s most prized—and pricy—teas. Imagine if they were in short supply.leaves_4148-web

Oh wait, they are! According to the secretary of the Calcutta Tea Traders Association:

There are no Darjeeling teas for auctions in October. This is an unprecedented situation. . . . there is no tea that can be put up [for] sale. This has never happened.

brew_4154-webWell, it’s happened now!

As I wrote earlier (see Will There Be Darjeeling Tea in the Future?), the tea gardens were shut down during a months-long strike in the region.

Every garden. Shut down.

This was a huge problem because:

  • Darjeeling tea can be produced only in Darjeeling—so now, here they are with no Darjeeling tea for the rest of 2017. Most of the year’s harvest was lost.
  • The tea gardens were the area’s largest employer so the costs to the employees have been immense. Many were forced to seek work elsewhere and they are not returning to the tea gardens.
  • With the tea plants overgrown and the gardens weedy (most of these gardens are organically grown, without pesticides), the forecast for 2018–2019 is pretty bleak.

wet-leaves_4156-webClearly things are never black-and-white, and very real issues precipitated the strike and brought complex problems into the open. But while tea workers did win a bonus, at least one of the foundational issues—that of a separate state for the Gurkhas living in Darjeeling—has not been resolved.

So the social/political/economic issues continue. For tea workers, those problems are compounded with the very serious disruption of the tea industry.

Yes, bringing it to a standstill forced people to confront issues. But the fallout will impact the tea industry—and the lives of the tea workers—for possibly years.

Besides the loss of this year’s tea:

  • The untended gardens will compromise future harvests because the plants are stressed and ill-prepared for the winter’s dormancy. This in turn will impair spring growth (that prized first flush, which, along with the second flush, underwrites the rest of the year).
  • With Darjeeling tea unavailable or too expensive, suppliers and consumers are already turning to other sources, such as tea from Nepal.
  • Tourists too are traveling elsewhere, delivering yet another blow to the region.

Come spring, will there be a first-flush Darjeeling?

It’s anyone’s guess.

Tea pictured is first-flush FTGFOP1 Steinthal, from one of Darjeeling’s oldest gardens. Many of the original plants still grow here, making them some 165 years old! Steinthal, along with other Darjeeling teas, is available at TeaHaus.

Source: “Four months post Gorkhaland agitation, Darjeeling’s tea gardens still reeling from trouble,” by I. Duttagupta, The Economic Times, October 17, 2017.

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