Elephant-friendly Tea? Yes, It Is a Thing!

You’ve planted the smallest of gardens. But now, to keep it alive. Too much rain, too little, insects, trampling by rambunctious kids or dogs—and of course the bunnies that are ever-so-adorable in someone else’s yard!

So imagine how much damage an elephant could do!

Tea plantations, no matter where they are located, of course displace wildlife. And this isn’t to pick on tea growers: no matter what you plant or where you plant it, you are displacing whatever normally lives in that space.

Sometimes the animals just move on to less-disturbed areas. Other times, they try to remain, generally with bad outcomes.

In India, elephants are endangered, and as they lose their habitat, clashes between them and humans grow more common.

Around tea plantations, elephants:

  • fall into irrigation ditches (especially the babies)
  • may be electrocuted by fences
  • are poisoned by chemicals
  • cannot access their normal corridors
  • trample the tea gardens

Last year in India’s Udalguri district of Assam alone, nearly two dozen people and five elephants died .

Seeking to improve elephant-human relations and establish elephant-friendly standards, the

University of Montana’s Broader Impacts Group has partnered with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network [WFEN] to launch the world’s first tea certification program designed to protect the endangered Asian elephant. (Erickson 2017)

And a grower in Udalguri—Tenzing Bodosa—became the first in the world to have Elephant Friendly Certified Tea (Mitral 2017)!

According to the WFEN executive director Julie Stein (Mitral 2017):

There is interest in the certification program in Sri Lanka and Kenya, and in fact wherever tea and wild elephants overlap there is potential for tea and coffee plantations to work towards certification as Elephant Friendly.”

Hopefully all tea from these areas will be elephant friendly in the near future!

iced tea

–Erickson, D. “University of Montana partners with local businesses to launch elephant-friendly tea certification program,” Missoulian, July 19, 2017.
–Mitral, N. “Udalguri tea plantation gets jumbo-friendly certification,” The Times of India, July 21, 2017.

Will There Be Darjeeling Tea in the Future?

Second-flush Rarity
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.

–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.

Ozone-Friendly Teas? Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Teas Stand Alone

Ceylon Nuwara Eliya icedAt a time when our time on this planet seems limited—Stephen Hawking warns that we “should prepare for a cosmic exodus”* within the next couple hundred years—it is really really nice to know that somebody is working on the problems here at home!

An Island of Responsible Sensibilities

As recently reported in World Tea News,† Sri Lanka—of Ceylon tea fame—was honored for

showing by example its pedigree of social, economic, and environmental responsibility.

This mountainous island, formerly known as Ceylon, exports more black orthodox tea than anyone else, with the tea industry employing 1.5 million people.

But it apparently doesn’t do this by cutting corners.

Ceylon Nuwara Eliya leavesRather, most of the country’s tea gardens are organic, and “all greatly limit the use of pesticides.”† Quite awhile ago they phased out the use of methyl bromide, a fumigant and pesticide that was one of the chemicals targeted by the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer,‡‡ and they implemented environmentally friendly practices.

Consequently Sri Lankan tea has been designated an “ozone friendly tea” and was given the Montreal Protocol implementer’s award. According to the World Tea News, they are the only teas to receive this status!

And an Actual Island, Well Suited for Tea

Tea can be harvested in Sri Lanka year-round; the tea districts in the central highlands include Uva, Dimbula, and Nuwara Eliya, which is situated between Uva and Dimbula, in a small planting area that is 6° north of the equator but over 6,000 feet in altitude.

Ceylon Nuwara Eliya brewThe island’s topography has allowed tea producers to manipulate the plants to produce a range of teas with distinct qualities:

  • low-grown tea (< 2,000 ft in altitude), strong and usually drunk with milk
  • mid-grown tea (2,000–4,000 ft), with a rich flavor
  • high-grown tea (> 4,000 ft), the premium teas

High-quality, exceptional teas, such as Ceylon Nuwara Eliya (pictured in this post, available from TeaHaus), yield incredible flavor! They are outstanding both hot and iced.

The full-bodied Ceylon black teas also serve as the base for many popular blends, including breakfast and Earl Grey teas.

So I will take a stand for our earth and drink an ozone-friendly Ceylon tea today!

*Guarino, B. “Stephen Hawking calls for a return to the moon as Earth’s clock runs out,” The Washington Post, Speaking of Science. June 21, 2017.
Bolton, D. “Sri Lanka shined at World Tea Expo,” World Tea News, June 19, 2017.
‡‡Gunawardene, N. “Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea,” Business Today, July 2011.

Tons of Tea Produced in 2016! Who Drinks It All?


There are about 7.4 billion people on earth right now. Most of those people drink water—and TEA.

Which means we have to grow a lot of tea!

Global tea production going up and up

As you might expect, there is an entity that keeps track of these things, and so the International Tea Committee (ITC) reports that for this past year:*

  • tea production has doubled in the past two decades!
  • in 2016, 5,462,718 tons of tea were produced
  • China, India, and Kenya produced 75% of the world’s tea (China alone harvested 43%)

More tea was produced in 2016 than in 2015, even though Sri Lanka is suffering an ongoing drought that really hit their tea production (and which will likely impact this year’s harvest as well). Kenya picked up the slack, sharply increasing its output of CTC black tea (although India still produces most of the world’s black tea).†

Yet, all of this tea isn’t coming to the U.S.

Rather, the tea is largely staying in the countries where it was produced, especially since our last Great Recession.

Ten years ago, 41% of tea was exported.

In 2016, only 32% was exported—meaning that 68% of the tea is being consumed in the country that produced it.*

Will this trend continue?

According to the ITC, less tea is being drunk in the developed world because (1) the number of people in these countries is not growing and (2) their disposable income is declining.

In China, however, tea consumption is going up 15% yearly. So the country is increasing tea production but then keeping more of it for their own citizens.

Likewise, most of the tea produced in Japan remains in the country.

So, although less tea is being exported, tea consumption is increasing—just in different places than in years past.

The forecast for tea production in 2017?

Not great, with weather problems continuing to plague many countries. Besides the drought in Sri Lanka, Assam is being slammed by weather-related issues, and China had its coldest spring in decades. It is thought that exports out of Kenya and Vietnam will  continue to increase, however.

But meanwhile, costs continue to rise. Combined with a strong U.S. dollar, this portends less investment, according to the ITC.

All of this could mean less tea for all tea lovers, no matter where we call home. Let’s hope that the tea pictured here—Darjeeling Rarity—is not a predictor of tea in general!

*Bolton, D. “Tea production continues steady climb as exports slide,” World Tea News. May 22, 2017.
Sundar, P. S. “Global black tea production up in 2016,” The Hindu Business Line. January 2, 2017.
Note: Darjeeling Rarity shown above is available from TeaHaus.


Tea News Snippets

On the home front, TABELog featured some of the great places to visit in Ann Arbor—including our own TeaHaus!—in their recent article, Culinary and Cultural Finds in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Whether you live here or are planning to visit, be sure to check out these great places. Although I still need to get to Slurping Turtle myself, I can certainly attest to the terrific quality of all the other restaurants listed here!

Farther afield, this week the World Tea News featured an article about Sri Lanka’s upcoming tea industry sesquicentennial (in 2017), highlighting all that’s positive—how the tea industry employs around around a million people, paying them “significantly higher wages than nearby India,” and how it “enforces mandates on herbicides and pesticides that conform to export standards.”

In light of earlier news about the decline of tea consumption in Sri Lanka (see my October post), I imagine that the sesquicentennial will be vital to reigniting the Sri Lankans’ interest in their own tea. (Sort of how we take something for granted—until someone else shows an interest and then we examine it with fresh eyes.) The country of Sri Lanka, those in the tea industry, and tourism boards are planning plenty of events to take full advantage of this milestone. For more information and a few photos, see Royston Ellis’ post as well.

Assam Tea At Risk? Climate Change Threatens

I am seriously cold all the time.

All. The. Time.

My husband will attest to this. And tell you how I wear a sweater on all but the very hottest Michigan summer day. Which means that winters are particularly challenging. And that I reveled in last month’s record-breaking warm temps!

But Michigan is not supposed to be that warm in December!

Climate change is here. And it’s having very real effects on crops worldwide, including in Assam.

Planting Tea Plantations—But Not with Tea?

In an earlier post I wrote about NASA’s initiative that seeks to help farmers in the Assam region maximize irrigation efforts and the Tocklai Tea Research Institute’s ongoing studies to smartly use resources while sustaining tea production.

That all sounds very academic and science-y, but a recent article in the Economic Times drives home some very real ramifications of climate issues, with the Indian Tea Association calling for alternative crops to be grown on currently vacant land within tea plantations.

What? Not grow tea on the tea plantations?

Why Would They Do This?

With its tropical monsoon rainforest climate and production of lowland tea, Assam is particularly susceptible to temperature increases. However, new studies are showing that precipitation has a greater impact on tea than does temperature—and Assam has been experiencing changes in the monsoon as well as periods of drought. The tea industry’s viability, then, is intertwined with increasingly unpredictable rainfall.

Tea plantations are a long-term investment, with tea plants taking several years to mature and then producing for decades. Further, because tea production is done by hand and is not mechanized, many people are involved—around two million in Assam alone. Therefore, when the effects of climate change result in less tea, and/or lower-quality tea, the economy suffers. The economies of both Assam and India, as Assam produces 50% of India’s tea.

Predictions are dire:

empty teapot_low res“Broad-scale climate-landscape modelling indicates that tea yields in north-east India are expected to decline by up to 40 per cent by 2050. As yield is directly associated with revenue, changing climate is also likely to impact economic structures of those reliant on tea” (teaclimate.com).


What To Do?

The University of Southampton and the Tea Research Association have teamed up to study Assam’s environment, regional climate, and agricultural practices. Their aim is to learn how these factors can be handled to ensure the well-being of those who currently depend on the tea industry for their livelihoods. Or as the project puts it: “Determining the role of tea in a climate-smart landscape to facilitate sustainable, food-secure and climate-resilient livelihoods” (Teaclimate.com).

They are asking questions:

Are tea plants resilient in the face of a changing environment? Is tea the best crop in light of the vulnerability of the people involved in the tea industry? Is tea sustainable, and are there “best practice strategies [that can be transferred] to new-world commercial and smallholder tea ventures” (Teaclimate.com)?

Other researchers are using different but related tactics to  find solutions. Propagating tea plants by cloning is faster than conventional methods, so if drought tolerant strains could be identified, those could be selected. A team of scientists have done groundwork on deciphering the genetic linkage map of Indian tea and the drought tolerance locus. Eventually they hope to understand the genetics well enough to molecularly breed drought tolerant plants (Bali et al, 2015). 

Ultimately, the solution will probably be a combination of tactics: identifying those tea plants that are more drought resistant, using smarter techniques such as better-targeted irrigation, diversifying crops in the Assam region so that risk is spread out, among others.

And although Assam tea is beloved worldwide—and is certainly one of my own favorites—the goal must be first to ensure the sustainability of the people who live in Assam. Hopefully, Assam’s distinct tea will continue to be part of that solution.

Sources (for further reading, see in particular the informative Tea and Climate website):
—”Indian Tea Industry Faces Major Challenge due to Climate Change,” by Sutanuka Ghosal, Economic Times, December 23, 2015, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/50295609.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
—”Precipitation Key to Tea Yield: Study,” by Roopak Goswami, Telegraph, November 12, 2015, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151112/jsp/northeast/story_52658.jsp#.Vov4eiQiWbK
—”Global Warming Changes the Future for Tea Leaves,” by Brian Kahn, Climate Central, June 4, 2015, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/global-warming-changes-the-future-for-tea-leaves/
—Tea and Climate, project funded by the UK-India Education Research Initiative, http://teaclimate.com
—”Construction of a Genetic Linkage Map and Mapping of Drought Tolerance Trait in Indian Beveragial Tea,” by Sapinder Bali et al., Molecular Breeding 35:112, May 2015.  

Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

“Tea gardens.”  The words evoke lush plantations far removed from the United States. But tea gardens within our borders? Can we grow high-quality tea?

low res_tea in white flowers

They Said We Couldn’t Produce Great Wine ~ Until We Did

Well, until California wineries shocked the world in 1976 by winningin both the red and white categories—a blind tasting by French judges, many thought that only France could produce the best wines. So wrong!

Ideal climates and soils—it turns out—are found in many locales globally. It just took some experimentation and perseverance to produce the winning wines.

So Why Not Tea?

Tea is a pretty durable plant, loving acidic soils, being drought tolerant, and growing well in both sun and shade. In fact, tea was grown in the U.S. as early as the 1700s and was produced commercially in South Carolina from 1888 to 1915 by Charles Shepard. Decades later, Dr. Shepard’s tea plants were again cultivated, eventually becoming the Charleston Tea Plantation, which Bigelow now operates as a working 127-acre tea garden.

Other states have been experimenting with tea gardens as well. In 2013, the World of Tea listed fifteen states that produce tea, although many of these operations remain small or experimental at this point.

Still, there is enough interest and investment to generate formal acknowledgment of the U.S. tea industry—last month saw the inauguration of the Tea of the United States (TOTUS) Award competition.

Thirty tea gardens submitted entries, in both commercial and non-commercial categories. Grower/producers in Hawai’i earned the top spot for black, oolong, green, and white teas produced commercially as well as for white tea in the non-commercial category. In this latter category, a Mississippi company ranked best for black, oolong, and green teas.

The event brought together many who are serious about producing quality teas in the U.S., and who realize that it takes time, research, and a whole lot of work to produce top-quality teas.

No Reason At All!

Are U.S. companies there yet? Well, they definitely are on their way.

As Jane Pettigrew (chair, TOTUS judges) explained: “Tea growing is a very young, very new industry in the United States. Farmers are growing different varietals and cultivars at different altitudes, in varying climates, in shade and under direct sun. A lot of growers are still experimenting, as you don’t make good teas overnight. . . . You have to tweak, redo, monitor and record. . . . [It is] a focused program of research and experimentation” (World Tea News, 11/17/15).

So Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

It certainly looks that way! As the industry grows and matures, the teas optimally will continue to improve in quality and availability. So congrats to the winners of this year’s TOTUS awards—and know that many tea-lovers are watching your progress with great interest!