Assam Tea Workers and Industry Still Beleaguered

Would you be willing to pay 15% more for your cup of tea so that a tea worker could receive a 25% wage increase?

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Assam Mokalbari

 

Well, if you’ve heard how many workers in the tea industry struggle to subsist on low wages, it’s a no-brainer.

Consider Assam, where strikes are possibilities (Bolton 2018) and salary negotiations are ongoing (Ghosal 2018)—and tea producers are weighing the balance between wages and profits.

The vice president of Corporate Sector Ratings notes that if wages go up 25% in Assam:

organized bulk tea players based in North India would witness a considerable deterioration in operating margins, unless there is a commensurate rise in prices of tea on a sustainable basis. . . . a minimum price increase of around 15% would be required to cushion the impact of higher wages. (Ghosal 2018)
Important decisions, with consequential results.
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Assam Mangalam
 According to an in-depth analysis of Assam’s tea industry (Arya 2013):
  • tea is “the most important crop in Assam”
  • Assam tea ranks among the world’s best
  • over half of the tea produced in India is from Assam
  • one-sixth of the world’s tea is from Assam
  • the largest CTC tea auction center, and the “second largest in terms of total tea,” in the world is in Assam
  • 17% of Assam’s work force works in the tea industry
  • Assam has more than 2500 tea gardens and 850 tea estates
160 leaves
Assam Marangi tea leaves before and after brewing

So it seems an easy fix to simply raise wages and tea prices, but we all know that things are never ever that simple.

Assam, in northeast India, is bisected by the Brahmaputra River. The unique environment—humid and hot—contributes to the malty flavor that is characteristic of Assam teas.

This unique environment also means that:

  • the lowland grown-tea is on the boundary of tea-growing regions, making it quickly affected by any temperature increase (Kahn 2015),
  • the river has too much silt, so is susceptible to erosion—and flooding—during heavy rains, and
  • because tea is sensitive to precipitation levels, vacillations in rainfall are devastating—and in the past several years, Assam has been beset with periods of drought alternating with heavy rains.

There are many factors to weigh when calculating wages vs profits. The entire enterprise must be sustainable in the face of climate change, which will directly impact the tea industry.

And the problems that plague the industry of course directly impact the lives of millions of people in Assam.

Something to keep in mind if the price of your favorite Assam does indeed go up. . . .

989 all three crop copy


Sources:
–Arya, N. “Growth and development of tea industry in Assam,” International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research 4(7):226–73. 2013.
–Bolton, D. “Assam tea workers consider strike for higher minimum wage,” World Tea News, March 27, 2018.
–Ghosal, S. “Profit margins of tea producers to improve: ICRA,” The Economic Times, April 3, 2018.
–Kahn, B. “Global warming changes the future for tea leaves,” Scientific American, June 4, 2015.

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Springtime Buds include Darjeeling First-Flush Tea

Every spring bud holds a promise.

And this is true of tea plants as well, for the tea-budfirst buds that begin to open in spring constitute the first flush or “spring” harvest—especially vital in places like Darjeeling, where the first-flush teas command the highest prices.

Tea plucking in Darjeeling began a couple weeks ago with “only reluctant support from workers” (Bolton 2018).

Many had not yet received the 19.75% bonus for 2016–2017 that they had been promised back in September (Gazmer 2018), following a months-long strike that shut down the tea gardens. The Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labourers’ Union, which had been threatening to stop the harvest, eventually said that plucking could take place in those gardens “that will give written assurance to pay the remaining bonus within a time frame” (Gazmer 2018).

leaves-webThis is not trivial—to the workers whose livelihood this is, or to the tea industry in Darjeeling, as this first plucking brings in 35% of the year’s profits; last year’s strike meant a loss of around $61.6 million (Bolton 2018).

Plus, Nepal growers are only too ready to step in, offering comparable tea at a far lower cost (see my earlier post on Nepali teas).

The first harvest runs through April, with generally over 18 million pounds of tea produced! Two to three weeks after the first-flush harvest has ended, the second-flush plucking will begin.
brewing-web
Shown above is first-flush Steinthal, with dark green and brownish leaves. (Steinthal is one of the oldest tea gardens in Darjeeling.)leaves-in-basket-web

While black teas are usually brewed for several minutes, a first-flush Darjeeling is brewed for a shorter time because its leaves are more delicate, being the bud and tender new leaves.

The green of the leaves becomes more pronounced during brewing, with the brewed leaves ranging from celery to dark green, and definitely looking more like green tea than black.

With a crisp and slightly grassy aroma, the liquor of Steinthal Darjeeling is a bit nutty but more astringent—as any good first flush should be. spring-montage-web

Springtime buds . . .
the promise of blossoms,
the promise of beauty,
the promise of harvest. 


Sources:
–Bolton, D. “Darjeeling first flush experiencing jittery start,” World Tea News, March 13, 2018.
–Gazmer, D. “Union threatens to stop Darjeeling tea first flush pluck,” The Times of India, March 13, 2018.
Darjeeling Steinthal is available at TeaHaus.com.

Cambodia’s Lotus Tea

Magnificent temple complexes, some nearly engulfed by huge trees, captivate.

tea-pkg-webThis is Cambodia, once part of the China-India-Southeast Asia trade route.

It is also home to a Cambodian subspecies of tea, Camellia assamica subspecies lasiocalyx, although an article published in 2016 maintains it is more accurately a variety and not a subspecies.

Either way, lasiocalyx grows as a tree, around 15 feet high, as opposed to Camellia sinensis, which is considered a bush, although it too can reach 15 feet high. (C. sinensis is native to China whereas C. assamica is native to India.)

Also found in Cambodia is lotus tea.

The lotus “symbolizes purity, beauty, majesty, grace, fertility, wealth, richness, knowledge and serenity” (The Flower Expert) and is entwined in the artwork, culture, and religions of Asia.

All parts of the lotus plant are edible, and the light pink petals interspersed with tea leaves make a pretty composition.

Although the package of this lotus tea (Product of Cambodia for Artisans Angkor by Senteurs d’Angkor), brought back from Cambodia by my daughter and son-in-law, says it is a “black tea delicately flavored with lotus from Cambodia,” the loosely rolled leaves look far more like green, or a green oolong, tea.

leaves-web

The brewed cup is an antique gold color, with an aroma lightly floral, reminiscent of jasmine.tea-teapot-4-web

With a subtle floral flavor—more on the vegetal bright side than oxidized—this tea agrees with its aroma and reminds of jasmine green tea. It is not sweet, and is overall a very delicate (and delightful) tea.

Sipping lotus tea conjures up images of Cambodia for my daughter and her husband:

seeing lotus flowers across from the rice fields while traveling a red dirt road on a tuk tuk,

or

strolling through a temple with the pleasant wafting of incense.

Tea can take you across the world. . . .

water-lilies-web


Sources:
–Das, A. P. and C. Ghosh. “New combination name for the Cambod variety of tea,” Pleione 10(1):167–68. 2016.
–The Flower Expert. “Lotus flowers,” www.theflowerexpert.com/content/aboutflowers/exoticflowers/lotus.
–Pettigrew, J. The Tea Companion, Running Press, Philadelphia, 2004.

“Storm in a Teacup”?

Yeah, yeah, “don’t judge a book by its cover”—but in reality, that cover and that title are exactly what make us pick up and open said book!

So when confronted with the Irish tea blend “Storm in a Teacup,” well of course I had to pick it up and buy it.

storm-leaves-web

I expected a rather rousing brew, especially as the package promises “a stormy, spicy herbal blend with a breeze of anise taste.”

The tea itself, a Special House Blend by Cupán Tae in Galway, is a very pretty blend of blackberry leaves, fennel, mullein flowers, balm, aniseed, ribwort leaves, apple bits, rosehip peels, marigold petals, elder flowers, elderberries, peony petals, and peppermint.

storm-brew-2-web

The brew is a dark brick color, with an herbal aroma of fennel and mint.

And the flavor? Mild, muted, definitely not what I’d consider “stormy spicy.” It’s pleasant, with a flavor less fennel-y than the aroma suggests. A bit floral but not like flowers. It’s herbal sweet.

This would be a great tea at bedtime, soothing and calming. But storm? Not so much.

However, storm in a teacup? Well, that’s a different thing.

So What Is a Storm in a Teacup?

This idiom—meaning something that has been exaggerated out of proportion—goes back centuries. Around 52 BC, Roman statesman Cicero wrote Excitabat fluctus in simpulo meaning “He was stirring up billows in a ladle” (The Phrase Finder) or Excitabat enim fluctus in simpulo ut dicitur Gratidius, translated as “For Gratidius raised a tempest in a ladle, as the saying is” (Wikipedia).

Various sources offer differing timelines of the sentiment as used in English. According to The Phrase Finder, the first English version is found in a 1678 letter from the Duke of Ormond to the Earl of Arlington:

“Our skirmish . . .  is but a storm in a cream bowl,”

and the first English “tempest in a teapot” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in 1825:

What is the ‘tempest raging o’er the realms of ice’? A tempest in a teapot!

followed a few years later by Catherine Sinclair writing:

“As for your father’s good-humoured jests being ever taken up as a serious affair, it really is like raising a storm in a teacup.” (Modern Accomplishments 1838)

Wikipedia, however, says that Lord Chancellor Thurlow of England used “tempest in a teapot” in the late 1700s, and that the Prime Minister

is credited for popularizing this phrase as characterizing the outbreak of American colonists against the tax on tea.

Irish landscapeAlthough Thurlow was quite wrong about those colonists, this phrase could actually fit the Irish tea blend—trumpeting “storm,” but actually brewing up into a soothing and understated balm.


Sources:
–Martin, G. “The meaning and origin of the expression: tempest in a teapot,” The Phrase Finder, 2018.
–Wikipedia. “Tempest in a teapot,” October 21, 2017.

Misty Morning Dew, an Irish Herbal Tea

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, Ireland may well be on our minds. Or beer. But it’s still morning so I’m going with tea.

Like this quintessentially Irish tea (at least by name), Misty Morning Dew, blended by an Irish tea shop.

misty-cliffsWhile the poetic name evokes softness, the tea itself is actually quite bright.
mmdew-bag-web
Purchased at Cupán Tae in Galway, the package describes this Special House Blend simply as a “naturally flavored blend of herbs and fruit melange,” forcing me to go to their website for more complete information.

The ingredient list: lemon grass, hibiscus, peppermint, and natural flavor.

Not sure where the “fruit” is, but this caffeine-free blend consists of sage-green lemon grass  interspersed with green peppermint leaves and bright hibiscus.

mmd-leaves-web

The tisane is a strong red color with a hint of brown, and yields an aroma that is dominated by lemon grass.mmd-brew-2-webThe flavor, as expected, was also strongly lemon grass, but in a pleasant way. A slight citrusy fruity note peeks through. There was also a feeling of mint—a sort of cooling in the back of your throat—more than a flavor of mint.k-w-mmd-web

This light and refreshing tea doesn’t really say misty morning dew to either my daughter (shown here) or me.

 

Rather, its brightness more clears the mist, which is, after all, a very pleasant way to greet the day.

(And although we didn’t intend it, our choice of a “bright eyed and bushy tailed” mug was entirely fitting!)


Misty Morning Dew is available for purchase at cupantae.eu.

To read a bit about why the Irish are known for their teas, see my March 2017 blog: Tea in Ireland: Mainstay—to Moral Decay—to Mainstay

Herbal Japanese Mulberry Leaves Tea, an Antidote to a Lousy Morning

The weather sucks with the lousy rain turning into heavy wet snow and I have a migraine and my car is making a loud scraping sound whenever I turn left.

Yeah.

I totally get that these are very minor complaints in light of, well, pretty much everything else that’s happening pretty much all around us pretty much every day these days.

Still. Sometimes you just need small pleasures to mitigate the irritations.

mulb-leaves-web

Therefore, I pull out my Japanese Mulberry Leaves.

This herbal tea consists of small pieces of very dark green flat leaves that have lime-colored veins.

mulb-infusion-web

The tisane’s aroma is slightly sweet, subtly grassy, and the infusion is a clear bright lemon color that has a touch of lime.

mulb-tea-web

The flavor matches the aroma, with unique earthy/grassy and herbal notes. It’s soft and smooth, reminding me of all that’s right with the world.

The Japanese Mulberry and Silk

Growing as a small tree or shrub, the Japanese Mulberry (Moraceae family) is native to Japan’s mountainous areas. For centuries it has been cultivated for its leaves, which are fed to silk worms.

Silk production originated in China, coming to Japan around BC 28. By the Heian period (794–1185 AD), the upper classes wore silk while the rest of the population was relegated to hemp and ramie (JRB Silk Fabrics).

The kimono was the most important Japanese garment. It was worn by fashionable ladies, sometimes as many as twenty kimonos at a time, all made of the thinnest, finest, most transparent silk, giving a rainbow appearance as the coloring of each layer melted into those above and below. (JRB Silk Fabrics)

The hardy mulberry tree handily supported the silk industry, even with repeated harvesting of its leaves.

The Japanese Mulberry and Possible Health Benefits

Further, the mulberry tree’s bark, fruit, leaves, and roots proved useful for more than silk worm food—so much so that “ancient Japanese society held the tree sacred” (Dr. Schar). Its medicinal applications included drinking the tisane made from the leaves.

A famous Japanese medical text oddly entitled, “How to take care of yourself by drinking tea” written by the Japanese Buddist monk Eisai, in 1211 AD, . . . states that mulberry is excellent for the people suffering from thirst. In the contemporary world we know he was referring to the thirst associated with diabetes. (Dr. Schar)

A lot of research on diabetes is currently being conducted with mulberry leaves. For example, one recent study  indicated that 1-Deoxynojirimycin from mulberry leaves lowered blood glucose, triglyceride, and total cholesterol levels of diabetic mice (Diabetes Week 2017).

My Cup of Japanese Mulberry Tea

Regardless whether this tisane has an effect on diabetes, it does have an effect on my mood.

Yes, the weather still is dreary and my car still makes that disconcerting noise, but my migraine is clearing and the tea is delicious.


Sources:
–”The history of silk,” JRB Silk Fabrics, accessed March 1, 2018. http://www.jrbsilks.com/history-of-silk
–”Japanese mulberry,” Dr. Schar, accessed March 1, 2018. http://doctorschar.com/japanese-mulberry-morus-bomcycis
–”Researchers from Hefei University of Technology report new studies and findings in the area of type 2 diabetes (metabolic effect of 1-deoxynojirimycin from mulberry leaves on db/db diabetic mice using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry . . . ),” Diabetes Week, July 17, 2017, p. 84.

Japanese Mulberry Leaves available at TeaHaus.com.

So What Do YOU See Out Your Window When You’re Making Tea?

When I make a cup of tea, usually this happens:

Nothing.

And my usual view out my office window is:

view-window-web

Yeah, lots of excitement out there.

Although I do have to say that the other day, on the other side of our building, there was this view of a hawk enjoying lunch on the side of the road . . . but then again my husband says this is a common view, even in the city:

hawk-web

It was much more interesting for a couple of guys in the UK, however.

While James Hill was brewing tea, his dad found a shark in James’ back garden. And no, James does not have waterfront property!

He evidently found a small-spotted catshark that perhaps had been dropped by a passing cormorant. (Click here to read about this incident!)

small-spotted-catshark

As James put it,

It’s just the silliest thing to try and explain to someone: “Oh yeah, I was making a cup of tea and a shark fell from the sky into my garden.”

Luckily it’s only a smaller species.

And certainly not who I’d be expecting to drop in for tea!


Source: Shipman, Alex. “Man ‘perplexed’ after finding SHARK in son’s back garden as he made cup of tea,” Daily Record, February 18, 2018.