Operations resume, but Darjeeling tea gardens stare at another crisis

The 87 tea gardens in the Darjeeling region have resumed operations after an over 100-day stoppage but their problem is  not over. In fact, it could be deepening.

Production of this flagbearer variety of Indian tea stopped in mid-June due to the political agitation there, in one of the best buying seasons, July-August. So, Darjeeling tea gradually went off the auctions. And, tea from Nepal made headway, gaining popularity with Indian blenders and exporters. 
“Lots of exporters were forced to substitute Darjeeling tea with Nepal tea to maintain flavour and aroma. Since Darjeeling tea was absent over a long period, they had no option,” Anshuman Kanoria, chairman at the Calcutta Tea Traders’ Association, told Business Standard.

Nepal tea, particularly the Illam variant, is the closest substitute for Darjeeling tea in terms of look, flavour and aroma. Even experts and connoisseurs find it hard to differentiate. This export had either carried the label of Nepal tea (as country of origin) blended with Indian orthodox variants or was sold as blended Indian Black Tea to foreign buyers. This import of Nepal tea and its subsequent consumption and export by Indian blenders is not new but gained momentum as Darjeeling tea completely went off the auctions and private sales. Of its annual 37 million kg export, Nepal sends 98 per cent to India. However, in international sales, the price of Nepal tea is 60 per cent lower than Darjeeling tea.

An exporter says international buyers were keen to maintain the same taste and aroma as in prior Darjeeling tea purchases. So, with the buyer’s consent, he had to use Nepal tea. What this means is that global buyers have been exposed to the Nepal blend, similar to the taste of Darjeeling tea and at lower prices. And, uncertainty over normalcy returning to the gardens still prevails. 

S S Bagaria, chairman of Bagaria Group and past chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association, says as Nepal enjoys heavy price competitiveness over Darjeeling tea, international buyers might opt to change the blend permanently, to Nepal and other India orthodox tea variants. Resulting in Darjeeling tea losing its global market.

“The little production which might still happen this year will be mixed flush,” he told this publication. Each of the four distinct regular flushes (tea crop) in Darjeeling – summer, muscatel, rain and autumn — have different leaf and flavour characteristics. These determine their prices. These flushes are harvested over  specific months, as the inherent quality of the tea plant changes in accord with the season.

This year, however, with the muscatel and rain flushes lost, the coming harvest will have mixed flavours. While, unaffected by any incidents, the quality of Nepal tea will be homogenous.

“Given the price advantage of Nepal tea and the uncertainty over future production in the Darjeeling estates, international buyers might be asking for the Nepal blend and Indian blenders and exporters will have to make up for that demand,” a concerned Kanoria added.

Although the tea gardens have resumed operations, lack of workers, clearance and pruning of tea bushes, lack of working capital and rising cost of production concerns the industry. Garden owners are still unsure if they will be able to produce quality tea for the coming first flush in the next year. In this situation, Indian blenders are keeping the option open, to export a Nepal tea blend.

“There is a certain risk that the taste buds of European, Japanese and American consumers will adjust to Nepal tea. If that happens, there is a danger of losing the export market to Nepal,” said an official at one of the oldest Darjeeling gardens. 

Garden owners in Darjeeling are unequivocal in stating that no matter what, this year's Gorkhaland movement, resulting in an over 100-day shutdown, has not only dented their global brand equity but put the gardens in anxiety on their future.

Losing Favour
  • Darjeeling tea gradually went off the auctions after its production stopped in mid-June due to the political agitation there
  • Tea from Nepal made headway, gaining popularity with Indian blenders and exporters
  • Nepal tea, the Illam variant, is the closest substitute for Darjeeling tea
  • In international sales, the price of Nepal tea is 60% lower than Darjeeling tea

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