Although few knew it at the time, a seismic shift took place when botanist Robert Fortune spirited high-quality tea plants out of China in the mid-1800s.
Transplanting them into Himalayan soil, he opined that “a boon will have been conferred upon the people of India” if that country’s poor could be provided with an affordable tea, which is healthy and has “great value in the market” (Fortune 1853).
His sentiments dressed up Great Britain’s calculated aim to break China’s tea trade monopoly.
As Titan, A Monthly Magazine, speculated in 1857:
The Himalayan plantations have consequently every chance of success. It remains to be seen whether their productions will materially affect the market prices. Two things are necessary to this: their productions, besides being abundant in quantity, must be excellent in quality. These conditions being fulfilled, we may expect the monopoly of the tea trade to fall.
Not only did the monopoly fall, but the subsequent Darjeeling teas of India became known as the “Champagne of tea”—prized and fetching high prices yet today.
But just across India’s border, in those same mountains, tea plants were also being cultivated. With a similar environment, this Nepali tea could pass for Darjeeling, and was often passed off as Darjeeling, and is still sometimes passed off as Darjeeling—
Today, the amount of tea sold as Darjeeling is roughly four times the maximum yield of the region’s 87 origin-protected estates. (Falkowitz 2019)
In addition, a free trade agreement between Nepal and India ensures that it’s easy for blenders to combine Nepali and Darjeeling tea, especially when some of the Nepali gardens are actually owned by Indian companies.
Finally, after years of struggling to move out of Darjeeling’s shadow, Nepal is garnering some recognition of its own.
Granted, Darjeeling has had some real problems in the past couple of years—with strikes sending some workers over to Nepali gardens, aging plants, and little room for expansion—opening the door for Nepal. And while tea estates in eastern Nepal have also experienced their own strikes this past spring as workers demanded better pay and benefits, most Nepali tea is grown by small independent farmers.
Because these farmers own their own land, they are personally invested in the outcome. And, given current global interest in high-quality, organically grown tea, they are more easily able to meet that demand. Unlike the long-established Darjeeling estates, their plants are generally on the young side, and these more robust plants grow in soil that hasn’t been over-farmed, meaning better natural resistance to pests.
But like in Darjeeling, the mountain environment is conducive to high-quality tea. Organically grown “hill tea” from the higher altitudes (3000–7000 feet) is mostly orthodox tea, intended for the export market, whereas CTC tea is produced in the lower altitudes, primarily for domestic consumption.
But this doesn’t mean that the goal is to continue to grow hill tea that is a viable Darjeeling substitute!
Rather, very fine teas—with characteristics all their own—are now coming from some Nepali gardens.
Lisa, European-educated tea sommelier and owner of TeaHaus, enthusiastically promotes teas from Nepal, believing that they are far too often overlooked, and naming Nepal Mystic as one of her favorite teas.
Here she shares some brief tasting notes, demonstrating the range and depth of today’s Nepali teas. All of these have been independently tested for purity and quality in Germany, so meet or exceed U.S. organic standards.
Second-flush black classic Nepal Mystic (above) consists of classic smaller cut leaves, a perfect mixture of browns ranging from light to cocoa to dark. The aroma of the lighter coppery red infusion has a slight floral note balanced with the scent of a classic black tea. This premium tea is reminiscent of a Darjeeling picked between flushes, and is therefore crisp yet nutty. Terrific accompanied by a nice meat and cheese tray—yet it’s rich enough to be paired with dessert.
The Jun Chiyabari estate in the Dhankuta district produces an amazing oolong, Finest Nepal Hand Rolled Jun Chiyabari (above). The dark, reddish-brown hand-rolled leaves are sprinkled with a few silver tips. As they unfurl, they yield a light copper brown cup with a woody aroma that has a slight edge. The liquor is very woody, with an astringent note and an apricot finish. This tea pairs well with savory dishes.
The green classic Nepal Everest (above) boosts rolled dark green to brown leaves, with some silver tips. The very pale, slightly greenish-beige infusion gives an earthy aroma that has a slight grassiness. Lisa describes the liquor as earthy, with a slight astringency on the back of your tongue, while TeaHaus employee Manuel declares this to be:
absolutely the cleanest, most inoffensive green tea ever. I show this to people who say “I don’t like green tea!” because this is just so pure and delicious.
This tea is excellent with light meals such as rice or vegetable dishes, fish, and salads.
White teas have “become a signature of Nepali innovation,” according to Max Falkowitz (2019), and the premium Nepal Shangi La (above) attests to this. The hand rolled dark gray to brown leaves, sprinkled with plush silver tips, result in a very pale pinkish-beige infusion and a delicate, floral liquor that demands attention. This is a tea to be savored!
So yes, Robert Fortune’s calculated experiment forever changed the tea industry, in more ways than he may have anticipated, and many of us are thrilled to see Nepali tea gardens now create their own signature teas!
–Falkowitz, Max, “Nepali tea on the rise,” New York Times 5/29/19.
–Fortune, Robert, Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya, 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1853.
–Gurung, Tsering D., “Nepal’s tea estate employees say enough is enough, begin indefinite strike,” Asian News Network, 5/14/19.
–”Our tea table,” Titan, A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XXIV. Edinburgh: James Hogg; London: R. Groombridge and Sons, 1857.