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.


Olive Tea Anyone?

It was just announced that olive tea will soon be available in the U.K. and Europe. Yep, leaves from the same tree that yields olives and olive oil.

Leaf Branches Plants Leaves Oliva Olive Tree Oval

About ten years ago, Rajasthan, located in northwestern India, began to grow olives, with  technological assistance from Israel.

The climate was suitable, and they devised machinery that processes the leaves in the crush-tear-curl method that is currently used for many black teas.

Billed as an alternate to green tea, olive tea, or tisane, contains antioxidants that may help prevent certain cancers and may help with cardiac disease and mental stress, according to the press release.

In fact, the article promises great things for this tisane:

The olive tea is called a modern day elixir because its health benefits are more than any other tea. Packed with antioxidants, this tea clears the skin of toxins and carcinogens. It energizes even when it has no caffeine. It reduces wrinkles, acne and gives the skin a young glow. It eats away cholesterol and reduces blood pressure. It improves immunity and hence prevents cold and flu.

Yeah, right. I think they are over-reaching a bit here.

Plus, nowhere in this article do they say what the tisane tastes like, and the Olitia Foods website simply says, “With the mild aroma of olive oil, the exotic original olive tea helps you relax.”

That may be true, but I’m still not convinced that the tea tastes good, which is my primary reason for drinking it.

Yet, other leaves, such as the premium Japanese Mulberry Leaves shown here, make superb tea, so maybe in another few months we will all be extolling olive tea!

mulberry tea-web

Source: Olitia Foods Pvt. Ltd. “World’s first processed olive tea from the farms of Rajasthan reaches Europe,” PR Newswire. September 8, 2017.

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.