History of Nepal Tea

Nepal Tea comes from a country with many different people and traditions.

Faces of Nepal (collage from photos by Flickr Users Sukanto Debnath, ilkerender, and Wonderlane)

To appreciate Nepali tea, one must first understand how its history, geographic location, and terroir have played a major role in the production of tea. Nepal is a small land-locked country, just slightly bigger than North Carolina, situated between China and India. Its location as a crossroads between China into other western countries created a place with a rich and diverse culture (there are over 120 dialects spoken in the country). It is home to Katmandu valley, a place with hundreds of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, most of which are currently protected as an UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Himalayan Mountains and Mt. Everest, and some of the highest quality but unknown teas on the planet.

Short History of Nepal and its Tea

Nepali Tea comes from the edge of the Himalayas in Nepal.

Kathmandu Nepal by Flickr User ilkerender cc-by-2.0

The Katmandu valley was believed to be settled by various tribes as far back 3000 B.C.E. These tribes battled and formed little kingdoms with various kings up until 1200 C.E. when the first of Mallas came to rule. The Mallas ruled Nepal for 550 years. At first as a unified kingdom, but in the late 1400s the three sons to King Yaksha Malla spilt the kingdom upon the death of their father and proceeded to compete with each other through the building of temples and the development of art and culture. Their rivalry is what built Katmandu valley into the cultural icon that we still see today. Nepal was again unified in 1768 by Prithvi Narayan Shah from Gorkha village in the western part of Nepal. The Shah dynasty still rules today even though Nepal has a general assembly and has attempted implementing democracy. This monarch and their isolationist policies managed to keep both the Chinese and British out of Nepal. In doing so, the Nepal tea industry in the country was very small and totally controlled by the government until the 1950s when the monarch started to open up the country to outside trade. So, while the first tea plantations in Nepal came into being during the late 1700s, they were not commercially viable until well into the 1970s. Today, the Nepali tea industry is expanding as Nepal entered into the World Trade Organization and put a concerted effort into allowing for privatization of the industry in the 1990s. The government of Nepal sees the tea industry as a means to providing higher paying jobs to the rural populations and as the drivers of bringing in electricity and roads to the rural communities as tea manufacturing facilities are built on or near the farms.

Nepal Tea Today

The eastern region of Nepal is currently where most of the tea is grown, even though the topography and soil of the entire country could support tea cultivation. This region is directly north of the Darjeeling region of India. It is a high altitude, mountainous area that gets the right mix of sun, mountain fog, cold and warmth to allow tea to flourish in this area. Most of the current Nepal tea farms are at or above 4,000 feet in altitude. Nepal makes all six types of teas. The aromas and flavors of the tea are frequently compared to Darjeeling tea because of the growing conditions. However, they are truly distinct teas with their own unique aromas and complex flavors.

Nepal Tea - Golden Buddha Oolong

Loose Leaf Golden Buddha Tea and Liquor

There are four growing and harvesting seasons in Nepal, which they refer to as flushes:  1st Flush, 2nd Flush, Monsoon Flush, and Autumn Flush. The 1st flush and 2nd flush are in the spring and early summer and, much like the 1st and 2nd flushes of Darjeeling tea, they produce first a delicate tea and then a more robust and fruity tea. What is unique about Nepal tea is its Monsoon and Autumn flushes. The monsoon season brings large amounts of rain to the tea farms allowing the leaves to grow rapidly and develop a much stronger flavor moving from floral and fruity flavors of the first two flushes to more malty flavors. It is typically these monsoon and autumn teas that are used to make oolong and black teas, while the early flushes are white and green teas.

Nepali tea is worth exploring further and this country is worth watching as it allows for more private investment into their tea industry and develops the full infrastructure to allow increased tea production and export from this fascinating country.

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Chagusaba: Sustainable Tea Production

Tea Garden in Chagusaba Region of Shizuoka Japan

Tea in Shizuoka, by Jose Comessu – CC-BY-3.0

Like many in the tea industry we are always interested in environmental trends or practices which impact the production of the camellia sinensis (tea) plant. While there is significant concern about global warming in many parts of the tea growing world, Japan included, the Japanese have become known for the practice of Chagusaba. This sustainable farming method protects the topsoil  and even enhances it while protecting tea plants from cold weather extremes. It also improves the overall taste and quality of Japanese green tea. This method, native to the Kakegawa region of the Shizuoka Prefecture, about 90 minutes by train from Tokyo has been in existence since the 1600′s and provides balance between the land and the farmers who produce some of the finest green tea in the world.

The Broad Strokes of Chagusaba Tea Production

Chagusaba is a farming method which originated in Shizuoka Prefecture nearby Mt. Fuji, whereby farmers grow native grasses for use in mulching between tea bushes. Specifically, these tall grasses, like the silver pampas grass, are grown alongside tea gardens. During the late fall and winter the grass is cut, dried, and spread between the rows of the tea bushes. The addition of this dried grass provides insulation for the root systems of the plants allowing protection and earlier growth in spring. As the season progresses the grass keeps the weeds down and slowly decomposes, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil, improving its quality over time. Where fertilizer is used, the grass helps keep fertilizer in place and lessons the ability of rains to erode the topsoil. For all the added work work, tea farmers believe that the Chagusaba practice produces better color, taste, and aroma for their tea.

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

Chagusaba farming practices make use of cut and dried pampas grass.

Silver Pampas Grass used in Chagusaba Farming, By 松岡明芳 – CC-BY-3.0

Japan has seen a significant reduction in its native grasslands over the past 100+ years. It’s estimated that today’s grasslands are 1/30th of what they once were. While the chagusaba practice enhances the soil and helps produce superior green tea for the Shizuoka region, the practice provides substantial added value to the environment. It encourages biodiversity by providing nourishment to the soil and supports growth of many other smaller plants. If not for chagusaba these smaller plants would be crowded out by larger plants that would otherwise take over if not for the annual harvesting of grasses. The environment created in chagusaba supports a significant number of rare plants including the “7 herbs of autumn” and numerous animals that live and find food from among the grasslands. Many of these plants are also important to Buddhist traditions and ceremonies. When the Shizuoka region proposed being designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System it stressed the impact of the farming practice on the environment, the economy, and the cultural practices of the region (Kawakatsu). In May 2013 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization officially designated the Chagusaba farming practice of Kakegawa in Shizuoka Prefecture as a GIAHS site.

As sustainable farming practices become increasingly desired both by farmers and by consumers we are interested in seeing where this practice, and those like it, may be copied and adapted in other parts of world. Closer to home the Chesapeake Bay has struggled for years with excessive nitrogen runoff from poor fertilization practices, excessive or inappropriate use of fertilizer on lawns, and overflow from waste water treatment facilities. Many great organizations are working to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay starting hundreds of miles away in the headwaters which lead to the bay. Upstream the emphasis is on forest restoration with native trees and plants. Closer to the bay work is also being done to create buffers to absorb runoff and change destructive human behaviors. We would love to see increased sustainable farming practices take hold along with homeowner education and improved infrastructure to speed this restoration along. We would love to see increased forest buffers and native plants along the edge of the Chesapeake but we also we wonder if there may also be room for adapted chagusaba practices to aid in improved soil fertility and acting as both a buffer to the Chesapeake.

Sources Cited
Traditional Tea-Grass Integrated System: Shizuoka’s Chagusaba, A globally significant agricultural system and landscape, by Dr. Heita Kawakatsu, May 29, 2013, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/giahs_assets/Information_Resources_Annexes/Japan_Forum/Traditional_tea_Chagusaba_of_Shizuoka.pdf

GIAHS Propsal, Traditional Tea-Grass Integrated System in Shizuoka, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/giahs_assets/Sites_annexes/GIAHS-Shizuoka_proposal.pdf

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White Tea – Delicate, Subtle, and Delicious

White tea with downy hairs.

Himalayan White with Downy Hairs from Nepal

White tea can be a real treat, offering delicate and subtle taste, beautiful appearance, and creamy pale yellow liquor. It is produced from the buds and young leaves of the camellia sinensis plant and only lightly processed before steeping in your cup. The sign of a truly fine white tea is the presence of lots of fine white (downy) hairs on the leaf, like the bud-only, Bai Hao Silver Needle. There are also white teas made of bud and one to three of the young leaves. The white hair is where its name comes from. To preserve these hairs, the tea is handled very carefully. The tea is hand plucked. It is withered in the sun to dry and then is further dried in the air, sun, or mechanically to stop oxidation. It is not pan fried, steamed, roasted, or rolled since those methods would destroy the fine hairs.

Delicate Hairs For Self Defense

The camellia sinensis plant typically produces the most hairs on its first buds and new leaves of the season. It is not unusual for plants to have hairy leaves or buds as the hairs serve multiple defense functions for the plant like protecting the buds from sunburn and insects (Evert, 2006). As the leaves get bigger, the hairs fall off. So there is a very small window at the start of the growing season to pick the buds with the most hairs. This means there are very limited quantities of true white tea, and if weather interferes there could be seasons with little to no white tea available.

Origin of White Tea

There is no definitive answer as to when the first white teas were produced. The name silver pekoe starts to appear in the mid-1800′s in English publications referring to a fine black tea with silver hairs. Back in the 1800′s, teas were either black or green. If the tea was steamed, it was green and all other teas were black (Hanson, 1878). Most of these silver pekoe teas came from the Fujian and Zhejang provinces of China. Those provinces are still considered home to the finest of Chinese white tea. China, however, does not have a monopoly on white tea. India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Kenya also produce white teas. As tea farms take hold in Hawaii, they too are making white teas.

White Tea Preparation

White tea normally has a creamy pale yellow liquor like that from the bud-only tea of Bai Hao Silver Needle

White Tea – The bud-only style of Bai Hao Silver Needle and creamy pale yellow liquor.

When preparing white tea, be careful to prepare gently, in the spirit in which it was produced. Boiling water should never be poured on a white tea since it will produce a very bitter brew. It is best to allow the boiling water to cool to between 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit or even cooler before introducing the tea leaves. White tea is also only brewed between 1-3 minutes though it depends on the origin and variety. The flavors of various white teas range from floral to fruity to nutty with all brews being smooth. Most white teas can be infused 3-6 times and not lose their flavor. Since this tea has the lowest amount of oxidation, it brews a very pale yellow cup.

White tea is a variety well worth exploring.

 

Works Cited
Evert, R. F. (2006). Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body: Their Structure, Function, and Development, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Hanson, R. (1878). A Short Account of Tea and the Tea Trade. London: Whitehead, Morris and Lowe.

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