Darjeeling Tea Shortage of 2017 and Gorkha Struggle

Are you a lover of Darjeeling tea? Or perhaps just curious about the region? Unfortunately, it appears that the struggle for recognition by the Ghorkha has led to the harvest of a tiny fraction of the expected tea crop in Darjeeling. In fact, indications are that Darjeeling tea on auction in Kolkata is way way down and trending toward zero with upcoming auctions. The relatively short, yet ultimately complex history of the region set the stage for a months long uprising triggered by a ruling about language taught in schools.

Darjeeling, India

Darjeeling is in the Northeast of India surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh (Public Domain)

The Ghorkha and Ghorkhaland Region

If you haven’t taken a close look at a map of India and West Bengal recently, now is a great time to do so. West Bengal is an oddly shaped state in Eastern India. Almost serpent like in shape, West Bengal extends from the Bay of Bengal in the south up to the high mountains between Nepal and Bhutan. It then extends east, sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh. India extends further to the east into Assam where the country opens up, yet Darjeeling itself is seemingly squished from all sides with a greater geographic touch to neighboring countries than to India.

Important Darjeeling Facts:

  • Darjeeling, once part of Nepal, was ceded to the British and East India Company in 1815 in the Treaty of Sugauli.
  • Modern India was created in 1947 when it became independent from Great Britain. It’s only 70 years old!
  • Bengal was separated along religious lines into West Bengal (India) and East Bengal (Pakistan) during Indian independence.
  • Bangladesh, formerly East Bengal, succeeded from Pakistan in 1971.

The Ghorkha are Indian citizens of Nepali descent. They speak a different language and have different customs from those to the south, the majority Bengali Indian population. They have been advocating since 1907 – 40 years before India’s independence – for recognition and their own independent state. The desire for more autonomy, and recognition as different from Bengali’s of the south, has contributed to significant friction that has occasionally spilled over to violence since that time. This desire for its own state led to the creation of the push for Ghorkhaland to include the northern most portions of West Bengal – a region from Darjeeling east to the border with Assam.

Within the Gorkhaland region you will find that the population actually includes Nepali (which is actually 15 different ethnic groups), Lepcha (some of the earliest settlers), Bhutia (people migrating from Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet), Tibetan (refugees from Tibet during the Sino-Indian War of 1961), Bengali (settlers and migrants from South Bengal and refugees from Bangladesh), and many others not otherwise classified1.

During the past 100+ year desire for recognition and its own state, the Gorkha have come together and formed various political parties and violence has flared from time to time, notably in the 1980’s and again in 2013. This has led to various concessions from West Bengal with the current major political party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) advocating for recognition and the Gorkha Territorial Administration, providing semi-autonomous self-governing in the region.

The Spark for 2017 Turmoil

In May 2017, the West Bengal government of Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee issued a ruling that Bengali must be taught in all schools in West Bengal through the 10th grade. In a region that has struggled for over 100 years for recognition, in an area more closely aligned to Nepal than to Bengal, this was the spark needed to revive the push for an independent Gorkhaland state.

Immediately after the announcement from the West Bengal government the GJM and other related parties renewed the long simmering push for an independent state with Darjeeling as the epicenter for protests. On June 12th, the GJM called for an indefinite bandh – a Hindi word for general strike – while at the same time a group of 26 trade unions lent support by calling for a strike by tea workers as well.  Many people in the region took to the street to protest causing disruptions in local government services and transportation, making it difficult for tourists and residents of boarding schools of the region to leave. In response, the West Bengal government sent in police and military to try and quell the unrest. To date at least three people have died and multiple buildings and vehicles have been burned.

As August 2017 approaches the region continues to protest with tea production and tourism, two of the largest industries of Darjeeling and the greater Gorkhaland area, mostly at a standstill. The GJM has refused talks with the West Bengal Government, instead pushing for talks at a national level to push for the creation of their state. And, if the West Bengal Government is to be believed the GJM may now be bringing in outside help to train protesters for a long drawn out struggle2.

Summing Up

The season for 2nd Flush Darjeeling is now past, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Narendra Modi thus far has not engaged in the discussion for a Gorkhaland state, and the GJM remains unwilling to work with the West Bengal Government. So the 2017 Darjeeling crop is a bust and early indications aren’t looking good for a resolution anytime soon potentially threatening the 2018 Darjeeling crop as well.

 

1) GTA Profile, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, http://www.gta-darjeeling.org/node/285

2) GJM Preparing for Underground Armed Movement with Maoists, CNN News 18, http://www.news18.com/news/india/gjm-preparing-for-underground-armed-movement-with-maoists-1470011.html

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First Flush Tea – A Presentation of Spring

Beautiful pink blossoms of a tree at Lake Reston.

Its Spring in the mid-Atlantic but also in prime picking regions around the world.

Spring has sprung in the mid-Atlantic and in addition to flowers in our area this past week saw the first of what will be several first pluckings (first flushes) of the 2016 season. Whether in China, Japan or India, the first flush tea is always considered the most special and typically sells for more money at the tea auctions.

First Flush – Why is it so special?

As we have talked about in the past, terroir effects the tea plant, and the first flush arrives after the plant has been dormant for some time, usually over winter, or during the peak time of year for the plant’s growth leading up to flowering. Of course it is not to the farmer’s benefit to allow the tea plant to blossom as all the growing energy will go into the flower and not into the leaves. Due to that energy, these first pluckings have the most nuanced flavors and usually demand the highest prices, like Pre-Qing Ming Dragonwell or Bai Hao Silver Needle. Both teas carry a taste of light spring grass or flowers.

China First Flush

In China, the first flush comes during the period before Qing-Ming, a big national holiday that is dedicated to the cleaning of the family tomb, to show respect for past relatives and the importance of family, as well as other spring activities like flying a kite. This holiday also falls right around the start of the spring rains. While the rains bring much needed water for the tea plant, they will cause the leaves to loose flavor.

Loose leaf 1st flush Darjeeling from Goomtee Estate

1st Flush Darjeeling from Goomtee Estate in India.

Darjeeling First Flush

In Darjeeling, India, the first pluck will come in late March to early April. A first flush Darjeeling, is practically a green tea with a very light and floral smell, even though it is manufactured as a black. It is truly a reflection of the freshness of spring. While most people are familiar with Second Flush Darjeelings, as that is the Darjeeling that has traveled the globe and has introduced the world to the champagne of teas, it is very different from a First Flush Darjeeling and typically picked in June before the summer monsoons.

Japan First Flush

The first flush in Japan comes in late April to early May. These first flushes go into Ceremonial Grade Matcha, Shincha (not be confused with Sencha), and very top grade Gyokuro. These teas are again lighter and more nuanced flavor adding a sweetness that is not typically found in Japanese greens.

Enjoy a first flush tea next time you get a chance and enjoy a cup of spring.

 

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Darjeeling – The Champagne of Tea

Darjeeling is often called the champagne of teas.

New Year’s is associated with Champagne, but for tea drinkers this also means its time for Darjeeling, the champagne of tea. (Photo by flicker user Bill Masson – https://www.flickr.com/photos/maxblogbits/ ).

A New Year is traditionally toasted with champagne, for tea drinkers that means bringing out Darjeeling, the champagne of teas. Darjeeling tea got this nickname because of the complex fruit and floral aromas this tea is known for and the limit quantities that are available due to the shorter growing season and high demand. A traditional Darjeeling tea is a black tea, however, the tea leaves are also used to make white and oolong Darjeelings, which are rare outside of West Bengal.

Darjeeling Terroir

The Darjeeling region borders Nepal in the state of West Bengal, India. It is the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and carries of perfect terroir of high altitude, moderate to cool climate, and rain. Darjeeling tea is from Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis, not from Cameliia Sinensis Assamica, which is thought of as the traditional Indian tea cultivar. The high altitudes are what allow the Chinese varietal to thrive in India.

On top of being in a distinct region, the Tea Board of India requires registration and monitoring of tea estates in Darjeeling in order to enforce the Geographic Protection given to the region in 2011. Knowing the name of the estate that grew and manufactured the Darjeeling is critical in knowing that the Darjeeling you are drinking is authentic. It is estimated that there are 30,000 more pounds of Darjeeling on the market annually than is produced in the region. This has dropped dramatically, but counterfeit Darjeeling has not been fully eliminated.

Growing Season

Darjeeling tea is picked in March to April during the first picking, or first flush. This occurs during the spring rains. The second flush is typically picked in June. There can be a picking during the monsoons from late June through the fall, but generally these are less flavorful teas and are often only sold locally and are blended into masala chai in the West Bengal region. A fall plucking of tea can also occur, but again not quite as flavorful as the 1st and 2nd flush.

Darjeeling Flavors

Second Flush Darjeeling from Makaibari Estate, West Bengal, India

Makaibari Estate Second Flush Darjeeling

First flush Darjeelings are typically lighter, more floral but will carry a lighter version of the stone fruit flavor than is expected of a second flush. The leaves may appear lighter as these are the first picking and are often not allowed to oxidize as far as a second flush tea.

Second flush Darjeelings are what gave this tea its comparison to champagne. This is a complex tea from a flavor standpoint with a mix of stone fruits from apricot and peach to plum. Some people use the term muscatel, which is a reference to muscatel grapes. This is best described as sweet, fruity, and possibly caramel like in flavor.

The beautiful complex flavor of Darjeeling tea is worth getting to know in the New Year and makes a perfect tea to start the new year with.

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Black Fusion Doke Estate and Bihar Tea

Black Fusion Loose Leaf Tea from Bihar India

Black Fusion, Doke Estate, India

We continue to be fascinated by India and a recent addition of Black Fusion from Doke Estate in the state Bihar only feeds our interest in this dynamic and complicated country. In prior blogs we’ve spent some time discussing Darjeeling, Assam, and even Nilgiri far to the south and west of the country. As we add Black Fusion to our offerings we figured it would be great to provide a bit of background to this region which is far less well known for tea.

Doke Estate

Doke Estate, established in 1998 originally for CTC production, is located on the banks of the Doke River in Pothia within the Kishanganj district of the state of Bihar.  The district technically borders both the Darjeeling District of West Bengal and the country of Nepal, though is actually quite flat, sitting about 800 ft above sea level. This is in dramatic contrast to high grown tea estates of Darjeeling ranging between 4,000 and 6,000 ft in elevation. Owned by the well known Lochan family, this estate was built on land previously thought to be useless for agricultural purposes and is now used for hand made orthodox teas. The nearby Doke River, now with water year round, used to be monsoon fed and is now providing water for irrigation thanks to a nearby hydro-electric power dam and making tea production possible. While their Black Fusion has garnered a lot of attention the estate does produce other hand-made teas as well including green and white teas.

Kishanganj and Pothia

Bodh Gaya - Pilgrimage site for followers of buddhism.

Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya by Man Bartlett, CC BY 2.0

Pothia, where Doke Estate sits, and the broader region of Kishanganj in Bihar isn’t nearly as well known in tea circles as its nearby neighbors of Assam and Darjeeling. While it has had tea plantations since the 1990’s it has struggled to develop it into a large industry and still must rely heavily on processing facilities in West Bengal. However, the industry has continued to grow bringing much needed jobs to the region and slowing migration away from the district.  (Prasad)

Tea aside, this district which at one time was part of Nepal, is about the size of the Hawaiian island of Maui with a population about the size of Idaho. It is one of the poorest regions in India with a 30% literacy rate (~18% among women) and has suffered severe floods and high rates of Polio infection leading UNICEF and other organizations to organize large efforts to immunize large parts of the population.

The state of Bihar is well known in Buddhist circles as it is home to Bodh Gaya, the most holy place on earth for its followers, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Black Fusion, Doke Estate

Doke Estate, Black Fusion leaf and liquor.

A fresh cup of Black Fusion.

We’ll admit to choosing to add Black Fusion before learning a lot about Bihar and now that we have, we hope to learn more. The 2014 Black Fusion is an exceptional black tea. This tea is unique in that it carries qualities of both assam and darjeeling teas yet is grown at a low elevation on flat land. The flavor is fruity with a clean finish expected of assam.

In appearance this is a large, long wiry leaf which is beautiful to admire both prior to steeping and after infusion. The pluck is two leaves and a bud most of which are fully intact and unroll nicely when infused. Steep 3-4 grams slightly cooler than a typical black tea at about 195°F for a more complex buttery flavor profile or hotter with 205°F for a slightly bolder and more malty taste.  

Sources

Tea City status eludes Kishanganj, by Bhuvaneshwar Prasad, Oct 20, 2010, The Times of India, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/patna/Tea-City-status-eludes-Kishanganj/articleshow/6777156.cms

Evaluation of Social Mobilization Network (SMNet)- FINAL REPORT, January 2014, UNICEF, http://www.unicef.org/evaldatabase/files/India_2013-001_Evaluation_of_Social_Mobilization_Network_Final_Report.pdf

Kishanganj District Profile, http://www.kishanganj.bih.nic.in/District%20Profile.htm

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