Golden Leaf
‘Champagne of Teas’, the brew from Darjeeling, rules the market with astronomically high prices and innovative organic variants

It was an August afternoon almost five decades ago. A young man in his early twenties, who had just finished his undergraduate course at a leading British college, was vacationing at his ancestral tea estate in the picturesque Darjeeling district of West Bengal, often called the ‘queen of hills’. The fun-loving youth, whose legacy included one of the world’s largest and oldest single-owner tea estates along with hunting skills from his father, was riding back home on his prized horse, called ‘Invitation’. The horse suddenly reared up as a wild boar ran across his path and the young man was thrown off it. In the split second before he hit the ground, he perceived a brilliant band of white light, connecting him to the trees in the forests around him.

The woods appeared to sing out melancholically in an incredible concerto – ‘Save us! Save us!’ That moment altered the course of his life forever. That moment also altered the course of the chronicles of Darjeeling tea. Well, that is Rajah Banerjee (Swaraj K Banerjee), the fourth generation scion of the family that runs the world’s oldest single-owner tea estate and now the world’s most expensive tea.

Banerjees’ T'Classic (Darjeeling) Pvt Ltd, which earlier owned the famous Makaibari Tea Estate – now owned by more than century-old planters family, Luxmi Tea – had sold a 55 kg lot of Makaibari Silver Tips at an astronomical Rs 18,000 per kg at an international tea auction in Indianapolis, US in 2004. That was a world record. Nearly ten years down the road, Makaibari Tea broke its own record. In 2014, when Makaibari Tea Estate was 155 year old, it made history by selling a special lot of handcrafted tea, Silver Tips Imperial, to three buyers from the UK, the US and Japan for $1,850 (around Rs 1.11 lakh) a kg. It was the most expensive tea ever sold. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on Queen Elizabeth at the Buckingham Palace in 2016, he gifted her a packet of Makaibari tea. The brew from Makaibari, which produces around 1 lakh kg of tea annually, was also served to participants and staff of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Royalty and celebrity buyers

The high price wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Makaibari regularly sells small lots of organic tea at Rs 10,000-Rs 18,000 per kg. The buyers: high-end stores in the West, pop stars, leading industrialists and royalty. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, Emperor Akihito of Japan and pop icon Elton John are among the host of celebrities who are driving this trend worldwide. Makaibari tea is a symbol of luxury, which jells perfectly well with the man who owned it till the other day.

Banerjee has a different explanation for the astronomically high prices that Makaibari tea fetched. “A rare planetary conjunction, which has come at an interval of 108 years in the planetary calendar, helped us grow this mystical tea and fetched this magical price as well. It is a result of biodynamic agriculture, that is not just an innovative method of farming, but its thoughtful practices are a reflection of its philosophical approach to well-being.”

There are others who think that at Makaibari, the mulch – a protective covering of leaves placed around tea bushes to prevent the evaporation of moisture – created wonderful topsoil, but millions of useful organisms were getting destroyed by a single dose of fertiliser. Once the planter stopped using those, the result was there for anyone to see. Makaibari, incidentally, is the world’s first certified biodynamic estate where 66 per cent of the acreage is undisturbed rainforest where tea grows in harmony with the area’s natural ecological system.

Meanwhile, the tradition of speciality and premium tea fetching very high prices continues. As recently as in April, the state-owned Andrew Yule and Co. said that it had sold early harvest, or first flush tea from its Mim estate in Darjeeling district at Rs 15,750 per kg, a record price for the garden.

Andrew Yule’s Mim White Dew tea was sold at a record price to Teabox, India’s foremost e-commerce site for teas. It ranks No. 2 in the World Tea Portal site. An official of Teabox said the limited edition Mim White Dew, an upper elevation tea, was launched on the company’s online platform five days ago, and it is being sold at $49.99 for 50 grams, or Rs 65,222 a kg at current exchange rates. Incidentally, MIM Tea Estate has been given the Certificate of Appreciation this year as an esteemed and valued partner of Teabox in recognition of the quality of production, specially this year’s exceptional Mim White Dew Tea.

Andrew Yule has been associated with Teabox for the last three years by providing some excellent customised tea during the premium quality tea growing period. In its effort to meet the requirements of European buyers, Teabox wanted exclusive tea from very selective sections of Mim Tea Estate. This was done and a premium price was consequently paid, which was a record price for any tea sold by Andrew Yule & Company this season, said Teabox officials.

For its part, Teabox sells its products globally and has shipped to more than 110 countries so far. It sources and selects tea from gardens across India and Nepal. The tea is then vacuum-packed and stored at a temperature-and-humidity-controlled facility, from where it is shipped to customers.

Organic plantations

“Mim at Darjeeling has over 50 hectares of organic plantation. Quality tea from here attracts premium value, and there are niche markets for it in Japan, West Asia, Europe, the US and Canada. Harrods of London merchandises such tea. Mim also manufactures green teas and speciality teas like White Tea, Oolong, Pearl and Moon-drop Ball. This year it has been a great feather in our cap to have Mim White Dew being sold at such a premium rate,” said Debasis Jana, chairman and managing director, Andrew Yule & Company.

The distinguishing features of White Dew tea’s liquor is that it is light and velvety smooth, is medium bodied and tipped with delicate floral flavours. Soft floral notes similar to geranium and jasmine greet the palate and stay until the middle, interrupted briefly by undertones of sweet vegetables which emerge at the edges. There is a pleasant and lingering floral aftertaste. The second steep done at 5 minutes is mellower and has a pronounced flavour of green apple in it. It is highly recommended with ice for a truly majestic and enjoyable experience.

Although only a small consignment of five kg was sold to Teabox, at that price, it is being widely seen as an indication that tea bushes in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts have benefited from the forced rest they got last year due to the general strike, and that the current year could be promising for the industry despite rising costs.

This has to be seen in the light of the overall developments in the tea industry in India. India’s tea production suffered a jolt in the first two months of calendar year 2018, compared to 2017. Fortunately, however, the production figures started heading northward from March, at least in the northern parts of the country. In March, North India produced 46.72 million kg (mkg) against 41.49 mkg in March 2017, marking an increase of 5.23 mkg or 12.61 per cent, while South India produced 14.32 mkg (14.67 mkg), a 2 per cent drop due to prolonged winter conditions.

These figures will have to be seen in the face of the fact that the Indian tea industry had registered the highest ever production as well as exports in FY 2017-18. The total tea production was 1325.05 mkg, an increase of 74.56 mkg, as compared to 2016-17. In percentage terms the increase is nearly 6 per cent.  The total quantity of tea exported during the financial year 2017-18 stood at 256.57 mkg and the export value of Indian tea was $785.92 million. Tea exports from India went up by 12.71 per cent to 28.94 mkg during 2017-18 as compared to the corresponding period last year, while the exports revenue moved up 13.78 per cent to stand at $95.19 million.

Interestingly, according to official estimates, in FY17, India recorded the highest tea exports in 36 years, at 240.68 million kg, with a year-on-year (YoY) increase of 8.2 per cent. Earlier, in 1981, the country had exported 241.25 mkg of tea. The total value of tea exports from India in 2017 stood at Rs 4,731.66 crore, up 5.9 per cent or Rs 263.55 crore in a year.

During the financial year 1976-77 the total quantity exported was 242.42 mkg. In fact, in the calendar year 2017, the total quantity of exports stood at 251.91 mkg, a jump of 29.46 mkg, that is 13.24 per cent over 2016, with value realisation at $766.06 million, a rise of $100.90 million or 15.17 per cent. Indian tea was exported mainly to Iran, Iraq, Egypt, China, Russia and Pakistan. Tea exports to Egypt increased by 7.49 mkg, to Iran increased by 6.95 mkg, to Pakistan by 4.96 mkg, to China by 2.91 mkg and to Russia by 2.89 mkg, according to official figures. Mind you that a significant rise in the prices of Sri Lankan and Kenyan tea had made Indian tea more competitive in the global market.

Coming back to Darjeeling tea, in some parts of the district, the crop is slow at the beginning of the harvesting season because of a shortage of rainfall, according to two estate managers. The bushes started to flush late last month. Prices are expected to remain firm this year for two reasons, the managers said. There is almost no Darjeeling tea in stock from the previous year. And the flush this year is of a better quality.

The high price that Andrew Yule’s Mim tea fetched did not spring a surprise on tea traders and experts. Vishwa Vijay Singh, co-founder of Salebhai.com, an e-commerce marketplace for regional goods and handicrafts, said, “It is not a sudden price rise. In fact, the price of any Darjeeling white tea varies from Rs 9,000 to Rs 25,000 per kg as the production of white tea is very limited and happens once in a year in the first flush. This year, the production and tea prices are at a fair stage. Apart from Mim White tea, Darjeeling first flush tea and Darjeeling green tea always have high prices and vary from Rs 2,000 to Rs 15,000 per kg.”

Singh is seconded by Atulit Chokhani, founder and CEO, The Tea Shelf. “We don’t see any sudden soar in prices. Darjeeling’s First Flush (March April Harvest) historically has always fetched fancy prices. Every Darjeeling Tea Estate, in spite of having some part of it planting material common to another, gives a unique tea with distinctive aroma and taste which is classically dependent on prevailing weather conditions in different valleys, altitude and the type of treatment given to the bush during winters. Every factory manager has found ways to treat tea differently which makes every tea distinctive in taste. These teas have demand in Japan, Taiwan, Germany and to some extent the UK and is largely subject to the Palette of the Tasters of these regions who have studied consumer behaviour and justify prices based on quality,” said Chokhani.

The makeover

There are clichés around Darjeeling tea. One is that it is the ‘Champagne of Teas’. The story of Darjeeling tea is more than 170 years old. It began when Dr A. Campbell, a British civil surgeon, planted tea seeds in his garden at Beechwood Estate, 7,000 ft above sea level, just for kicks. That simple, and impulsive, act laid the foundation for the world’s most famous tea industry. The makeover that it is now receiving in the form of the push for organic tea is also the result of a similarly unplanned and impulsive act by Rajah Banerjee. The others following his lead are doing so consciously. Because they realise that the path to go organic and produce speciality tea is strewn with gold.

Over and above the luxury factor attached to organic tea, there is compelling economic logic behind this conversion. Contrary to popular perception, organic tea farming does not result in lower yields. In general, the perception is that organic farming leads to crop loss of up to 50 per cent and a 50 per cent rise in production cost. Banerjee and others know that organic tea yields are 15-20 per cent higher than those of regular teas and production costs come down in the long run. The cheapest organic teas sell for Rs 250 per kg compared to Rs 100 per kg for regular varieties. Thus, it presents planters with a win-win option.

The growing global demand for and high realisations from organic tea are obviously fuelling this organic revolution. Since its introduction in the late 80s, organic tea consumption has been growing steadily at a double digit rate annually. There is also a growing demand for organic tea within the country, mainly in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Hyderabad. Organic tea is already extremely popular in the UK and Japan, the two largest export markets for this variety of tea.

It is also gaining acceptance in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and, wonder of wonders, the US. Its reported therapeutic properties are drawing an increasing number of converts in these countries. The way forward, a senior Tea Board official says, “is to set up a few model organic tea estates and then launch a sustained awareness and brand promotion campaign for organic tea across the country and abroad. Planters will have to realise that this is the future and people at large will have to be made aware that organic tea is the safest for human health and the environment.”

Consider how a garden can go organic or what it needs to do. An estate wanting organic status has to stop the use of all chemical fertilisers and inputs and receives an “Organic in Transit” certificate from the Tea Board for the first three years. A regular organic certificate is issued only after this. It’s not easy to get this certification. It’s even more difficult to maintain the status because these certificates are reissued every year after inspections. Organic tea is defined as tea grown on estates that use absolutely no artificial or chemical inputs. Tea bushes get their nutrition from vermiculture – the use of specially-bred earthworms to regenerate soil – and large scale application of composts, neem cakes and castor cakes to the soil. The Tea Board monitors the soil in organic estates at regular intervals throughout the year to ensure strict compliance with organic norms. The post-harvest treatment and curing of tea leaves, however, is identical for both organic and non-organic teas.

For Makaibari, the decision to produce organic tea was a conscious decision, and partly compulsion as well. Banerjee had realised that nature doesn’t require any external help to sustain and evolve the myriad life forms that make up the ecosystem. “How do so many varieties of trees exist cheek-by-jowl in a sub-tropical rain forest and sustain the wide diversity of organisms that exist in them? I, banned all chemical applications. By utilising natural and vegetative waste as fertilisers, as well as herbal preparations as natural insect deterrents, we have created a community which successfully sustains and nourishes itself, eliminating the need for artificial growth stimulants and harmful pesticides,” said Banerjee.

While going organic or getting into production of speciality and premium tea have paid off in terms of fetching much higher prices, tea industry experts and connoisseurs of good tea pointed out that, generally speaking, first flush teas are always considered more expensive, thanks to its bright liquor and a lively character.

First flush teas are produced in less quantity and hence demand outstrips supply. However, it should be noted that Darjeeling tea connoisseurs generally have a specific preference for either first or second flush and do not mind paying a premium for a good cup of tea. Tea flush refers to the tea growing seasons — certain time periods — in Darjeeling.

Tea growing seasons

Darjeeling has altogether three major flushes: First Flush from mid-March to May; Second Flush from June to mid-August; Third Flush or Autumn Flush from October to November. There are two minor flushes as well. In-Between Flush for two weeks in-between the first and second flushes and Rains/Monsoon Flush between the second and third flushes during the month of September. Having said this, it needs to be added that the time periods are not fixed and it depends on the weather patterns in Darjeeling. Excess rainfall earlier than expected can reduce the timeline of a second flush while increasing the rain flush by a few weeks and vice versa.

The colour of Darjeeling First Flush Teas is light and clear with bright liquor. The leaves have a floral scent, with a lively character. Darjeeling Second Flush Teas have a dark colour and strong flavour in contrast to First Flush Teas. The tea leaves have a purplish bloom and a fruity taste – mostly muscatel grape flavour caused due to the tea plant reacting to small insects that suck juices from the stems. Darjeeling Third Flush Tea, on its part, has dark colour, often coppery. The texture is full bodied but it has a lighter flavour. Autumn Darjeeling has a delicate as well as a sparkling character. Of the annual Darjeeling tea production of 8.5 mkg, nearly 1.7 mkg, that is 20 per cent to 25 per cent, comprises First Flush Teas.

Interestingly, Darjeeling second flush is also unique because it clearly brings the unique muscatel flavour Darjeeling is known. No other tea in the world boasts of this unique flavour. The unique muscatel flavour is caused by the combination of unique weather, topography and plant types. Scientists from Tocklai Experimental Station (TES) of the Tea Research Association (TRA) in Upper Assam and Japan’s Kyoto University have identified the genes in plants that only express themselves after being infested by the insects — that leads to the creation of the unique flavour and the tarpins, geraniol and linalool, enrich the aroma.

Remember that the seasonality of Darjeeling tea, that is the various flushes bring out different flavours from the tea picked from the same plants at different times of the year. Though no season/flushes are the same, while you can get golden coloured liquor during the first flush, the very same leaves would give dark brown liquor during the second flush.

Last year, industry lost as much as 70 per cent of the production plucking and manufacturing operations in Darjeeling’s 87 gardens were suspended for four months from June to September due to an indefinite shutdown called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha demanding a separate Gorkhaland state. Banks have been reluctant to advance credit to Darjeeling planters because of the severe losses they faced last year. Darjeeling tea producers also burnt cash for the revival of gardens and payment to workers without revenue generation. The industry recorded a loss of Rs 350 crore in 2017, according to DTA Secretary General Kaushik Basu. Interestingly, the weather in the hills has been good so far and an already 10 per cent jump in prices of premium first flush teas have raised hopes for a better year for planters in Darjeeling. Besides, the political situation is stable.

Planters are already experiencing, on an average, a 10-15 per cent hike in price for the current first flush compared to last year. Mind you, the cost of production on account of paying wages is also expected to go up by 20 per cent. It appears that there is a substantial demand in overseas markets and price realisation. When it comes to speciality tea, that is fetching much higher prices, it is estimated to be a $4 billion industry and this segment is having its time at the moment, growing very rapidly.

Indian consumers are beginning to develop a palate for rare tea. There is a wide variety of tea for consumers to choose from, with the whites and oolongs being the most expensive ones. Teabox has recently launched Badamtam Spring White Tea, which is so exotic that one batch is all you get every year. This is a white tea that is the least processed. These are the first sprouts of pruned bushes, left to grow undisturbed all winter, at 16 degrees Celsius on the remote slopes of Badamtam. Expect more cuppas that would cheer the planters and the tea lovers too.

Columnist: 
Ritwik Mukherjee