Stirring up a storm in a Darjeeling cup

Positioned as a luxury brand, Darjeeling tea fetches astounding prices at international auctions
A recent assessment of the country’s tea gardens, threw up a surprise.  Tea gardens in Assam were found to be a notch above the rest, beating even the gardens in Bengal that produce the prestigious Darjeeling tea. Much to the chagrin of tea lovers in the country, none of the 87 Darjeeling tea growing gardens made the A+ grade. While opinion is divided over the extent to which the grade assessments will influence the country’s first ever geographical indicator (GI) tagged brand’s luxury status, there is no doubt that the battle for the brand’s positioning will be fought largely in international markets as close to 85 per cent of the tea is exported. 

From the garden to the store

“The price and sale of the Darjeeling tea depends on its inherent quality. At the end of the day, all a consumer wants is quality which matches the price he is paying,” says Prateek Poddar, director at Darjeeling Impex, which owns the Namring garden. He believes that the assessment will not sway tea drinkers away from the Darjeeling.

“The name of the garden has significant bearing on the buyer. Some gardens are renowned for their quality and delicate method of producing the tea. It has a bearing on the buyer’s perception of the garden,” a senior tea planter, who owns one of the oldest gardens in the area opined. Another industry official added that the price of the tea too is influenced by the garden’s name. 

The Goodricke Group sells some of the most expensive teas in India in the name of its gardens: Castleton, Badamtam, Thurbo. Similarly, Makaibari Tea and Trading Company, which established the world’s first tea factory back in 1859.  In 2014, a premium selection of Silver Tips Imperial from the Makaibari garden in Darjeeling fetched an astounding Rs 1.11 lakh ($1,850) a kilo in a private sale. Recently, the Namring estate sold its tea at Rs 11,000 a kg in private sales.  

A N Singh, managing director and CEO of the Goodricke Group believes that international buyers, who pay the maximum premium, will look beyond the garden grades. “I don’t think the lower grade will have any bearing on international perceptions about Darjeeling tea or its price”, Singh said. International buyers look for parameters like Rainforest Alliance and allied certifications. They also look at whether the garden uses an organic mode of production. “Most gardens have already shifted to organic mode of production,” Santosh Sarangi, chairman of the Tea Board said. He believes that the Darjeeling brand is strong enough to weather the gradings storm.

 The Darjeeling is called the Champagne among teas and its fans are likely to overlook a change in the status of the gardens that grow them, believe the tea companies. However, a lower grade adds a (not so pleasant) twist in the brand’s otherwise romantic back story, which could alter customer perceptions about quality and price. Luxury brands are particularly vulnerable to such matters, say experts. 

Clearing the taste test

The gardens produce 7-8 million kg of tea annually, over 85 per cent of which is exported. India is primarily a market for the Assam CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea and Darjeeling’s fan following in the country is pretty low, mostly concentrated in the eastern region and some affluent segments. If the Darjeeling brand clears the taste test with global tea drinkers, it has little to worry about over the garden grades, say experts. 

Ramesh Thomas, president at Bengaluru-based brand consultancy Equitor says that the Darjeeling is viewed as a different breed of premium tea in the international market, especially the UK.  The grades will not necessarily impact its premium positioning in the global space, he says. The unique ‘muscatel' flavour (obtained during the second flush) is highly sought after and the garden grades are unlikely to change that.

“So long as the grades don’t have anything to do with taste and flavour, it may not have any bearing on the consumer’s purchase decision,” Subhash Kamath, CEO at BBH India said. The tea companies need to keep emphasising that the tea is the same to keep the positioning intact, the experts believe.

Geography matters

Only Darjeeling can grow the Darjeeling tea and that gives the brand the heft and muscle to wear its luxury tag in some of the best-known stores and tea malls across the world. The Harrods in London or Harney & Sons in New York or the century-old luxury tea boutiques like the Kusmi chain in St Petersburg and Berlin stock the Darjeeling tea whose price runs in thousands of rupees for just a kilo. It is India’s only internationally recognised luxury brand which is protected as a GI in India and as Certification Trade Marks in UK, USA, Australia and Taiwan. Besides, it is also a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under European Council Regulation (510/2006) since 2011.

The Tea Board has fought hard to preserve the brand’s unique status and kept imitators at bay by arguing that the place and the taste cannot be separated from the identity of the Darjeeling brand. However, the same logic could now be used to pull Darjeeling off its pedestal, if consumers begin associating the quality of the gardens to that of the tea.

Experts see the Board making a concerted effort at communicating the facts to ensure that the label is not impacted. Also they believe that the Bengal gardens could use this opportunity to tackle the issues that led to their grades being lower than tea gardens in Assam and change their status before the next round of inspections.

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