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
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.
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.