Siam Tea Blog

Darjeeling Tea – Between Colonial Roots and New Identity

1. Colonial Roots of Tea Cultivation in Darjeeling

1.1. England as a Colonial Power in India

From 1858 to 1947, India was under British colonial rule. That was not so long ago, and the structures created at that time are still recognizable in Indian society – and economy – to this day. An example of this is the social and economic organization of tea cultivation in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling Tea - Tea Picker in India

1.2. Tea as a Part of British Culture in the 19th Century

Thanks to a long history of British trade with China, tea had made it’s entry into the British society already long before England’s colonial rule in India. Accordingly, the habit of drinking tea had already established as an integral part of British culture at that time, especially at the British court and within Britain’s nobility. All the greater was the pressure resulting from trade conflicts with China, because tea back then… was available from China only. For a long time already, England had been thinking about how to make its tea imports independent of China’s goodwill. Hence, it was no coincidence that the tea plant found its way to India right at that time.

East India Company

1.3. Robert Fortune – Historical “Theft“ of Tea Plants from China

In May 1848, the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune traveled to China, which he had visited for botanical studies several times before. This particular trip, however, was by special by order of the East India Trade Company. With his publications documenting his previous trips, Robert Fortune had already gained a reputation. This was once as a passionate plant collector, but also for being familiar with the Chinese culture and language. On top of of that, he knew his ways in some of the core tea cultivation regions of China. Allegedly, Robert Fortune was the first European who knew that black tea and green tea are made from the same plant.

All this qualified him for his current assignment. For once, this was to gather more knowledge about growing and processing tea on location in China… Then, there was a second part of Mr. Fortune’s order, which was to send tea seeds and cuttings from there to India! During the following years, Robert Fortune secretly sent several shiploads of seeds, cuttings and seedlings of tea plants to India. In addition, he persuaded some Chinese tea farmers to follow him to India and help establish tea plantations and tea production there.

Robert Fortune - A Journey to the Tea Countries of China

1.4. Beginnings of Tea Cultivation in India – Assam and Darjeeling

Soon after, British scientists in the Botanical Garden of Calcutta succeeded in propagating the tea plants sent by Robert Fortune to India. In the meantime, another Briton, Robert Bruce, had discovered native tea trees in the northeastern Indian region of Assam. While Robert Bruce, and after his early death his brother Charles Alexander Bruce, began to develop organized tea cultivation in Assam, Darjeeling, a fertile highland region southeast of Assam, was selected as a growing area for the new China cultivars.

Tea Cultivation Region Darjeeling

2. Social and Economical Structure of Colonial Tea Production in Darjeeling

2.1. Organisation of Tea Cultivation in the Form of Large “Estates”

Accordingly, large estates were planted with tea plants in Darjeeling under the direction of British noblemen and aristocrats as well as some wealthy Indian minions of the British crown. This is how the large, colonial-style “Darjeeling Tea Estates” came about, which still characterize Darjeeling’s tea industry today.

Darjeeling Tea - Map of Darjeeling with tea estates marked

2.2. The Factor Work in the Colonial Style Darjeeling Tea Estate

Now, what exactly does “colonial style” mean here? First, it meant the absence of competition, thanks to an all-embracing monopoly of the cartel-like tea estates. Secondly, it also meant the unholy liaison of the highly hierarchical Indian caste society with the “master race” mentality of the British colonial rulers. Accordingly, the working conditions of tea pickers and workers in Darjeeling’s tea-estates at the time are most adequately described by terms such as “exploitation” and “bordering slavery”.

Tea Pickers in India

2.3. The Factor Quality in the Colonial Darjeeling Tea Estate

Another victim of the colonial mentality was the quality of the tea. This is because with the availability of the much cheaper tea from India (compared to China), in England – followed by the rest of Europe – the mass market for tea started developing. In this context, one must consider that tea from India still had to be brought to Europe by ship or via endless caravan routes. This still took months – albeit less months. Now, green tea is subject to a “life cycle” that is incompatible with months of moist storage in ship bellies. As a consequence, tea had to be black – and CHEAP!

Unsurprisingly, cheap-price-oriented mass production of tea in Darjeeling had a deluge of negative consequences. As an example might serve the consequences of intensive, large-scale monoculture on soils and product. Or the health consequences of unrestricted pesticide use. And, of course, a concept of quality, in which “orange pekoe”, ultimately meaning no more than “whole leaf”, became the luxury class among available qualities. At the same time, the tea powder yielded from CTC (“crash-tear-curl” ) technique established as the “little man’s tea”, marking the lower end of the quality scale.

2.4. Resulting Poor Image and Loss of Identity

As a result, the situation towards the end of the 20th century delivered a rather bizarre picture. On the one hand, tea from Darjeeling filled the cups of Europe. On the other hand, the public perception of European tea drinkers of tea from Darjeeling was by no means that of a special value. Much rather, tea became a daily trivial and a matter of course. Of course, cheap, of course, from India, of course, in a tea bag, of course in every kitchen cupboard. And of course, with milk and sugar.

The tea bag - the ultimate fate of most mass teas

3. Tea from Darjeeling on the Way to a New Identity

3.1. Tea in the Age of Globalization

Today, modern transport and communication channels provide for global structures also on the tea market. Great Britain has long ceased to be the only major consumer of tea in Europe. At the same time, tea in Europe no longer comes form India and Sri Lanka only. For example, there is good tea from China available on the western market today. Also, green teas from Japan have meanwhile found their way to European countries and the US. And the classic countries of origin for tea are increasingly joined by – quite authentic – exotics. As examples for this might serve Tea from Vietnam, Tea from Laos or Tea from North Thailand.

3.2. Awakening of a New Quality Appreciation

The fact that tea from Darjeeling actually is – or could be – something very special, on the very location is still a relatively new insight. Nonetheless, the sustained trend towards more quality tea on the western market over the past years has yielded sweet fruit in India, too. In this regard, the quality of the traditional teas from Darjeeling has become more differentiated and identifiable during recent years. This is reflected in the well-known grading system for tea from Darjeeling. More about the traditional system of Indian leaf grades provides my article

Leaf Grade, Picking Standard, Processing Standard – Objective Tea Quality Evaluation Criteria

Jungpana Darjeeling Tea Estate

3.3. Diversification of the Darjeeling Tea Portfolio

But not only quality comes at a high level from India today, but also a much more diversified tea portfolio. So, the classic of Indian tea, the black tea, suddenly comes in a variety of new robes. At this, the spectrum ranges from the modern, floral-light First Flush teas to full-bodied, dark-roasted Second Flushes to the mild, earthy and malty Darjeeling “Autumnals”.

Goomtee Spring Spring Oolong - A "modern" Darjeeling First Flush Tea

Goomtee Spring “Oolong”, First Flush 2018

Now, there’s still the classic black Darjeeling tea, mostly produced from late first and second flushes picking. Then, the modern, oolong-style-processed or even almost green first flush teas add something completely new to the world of tea. And the same applies to the malty-mild and relatively low caffeine “Autumnals”. But such new developments are not only enriching the world of tea with new varieties. They also give a strong impetus in favor of a new perception and identity for tea from Darjeeling.

Giddapahar Second Flush 2017

Second Flush of Giddapahar Darjeeling Tea Estate

In parallel to the development of new processing varieties, we also see increasing attempts to copy Chinese tea classics in Darjjeling. Thus, green teas from Darjeeling are no longer a rarity. And ever more often, we read “White Peony”, “Silver Needle” or “Oolong tea” on Darjeeling tea packages. However, the results of such experiments so far are – carefully put – rather “mixed”. It seems that either the local China and Assam hybrids or the sun of Darjeeling are not really conducive to green or white teas. Finally, this raises the question of whether copying Chinese classics might be a dead end in diversifying the Indian tea portfolio.

Makaibari Autumn Flush 2017

“Autumnal” (autumn picking) of Makaibari Darjeeling Tea Estate

3.4. Protected Term “Darjeeling Tea”

In order to demarcate tea from Darjeeling from teas that falsely use the big name Darjeeling to advertise themselves, the name “Darjeeling” has been protected since Nov 11, 2016 as a geographical indication. Since then, only tea gardens registered in Darjeeling are allowed to sell their tea as “Darjeeling Tea”. There are currently over 100 such registered tea gardens operating in Darjeeling.

3.5. Break-up of Colonial Structures

Today, it’s been more than 70 years since England withdrew as a colonial power from India and the country regaining independence. Much water has since flown down the river Ganges. Nevertheless, the old structures are still obvious in many places – and at times surprisingly well preserved. An example of this are the large traditional Darjeeling tea estates. In many of them, pickers and workers still complain about less than meager wages and unacceptable living and working conditions.

 

3.6. Growing “Small Growers” Movement

„But the times, they are changing“… Meanwhile, both in Assam and Darjeeling, a “small growers movement” is forming and slowly gaining visibility.  This usually comes comes as associations of small tea farmers, who together establish platforms for the distribution of their teas. And they are learning to capitalize on their biggest advantages over the big estates: health and environment-friendly cultivation and masterful picking and processing excellence. That does not generally mean that teas from small tea farmers are better than those of the big estates. But it does bring the small, but fine sector of “artisan teas” into play. And experience tells us that much: wherever people pick and process tea with their own hands and a true passion for it, there will be good teas!

Assam Spring Tippy Black from Latumoni tea garden (small grower)

Assam Artisan Black Tea of Latumoni Tea Garden (“Small Grower”)

3.7. Rural Exodus of Darjeeling Tea Pickers

Another sign of change is the much-quoted “rural exodus” of tea pickers and plantation workers in India. The reason for this is simply the availability of more attractive livelihood alternatives in the cities. That means better jobs with better working conditions and more money. Plus, a connection to the “big wide world” coming with the urban environment. Now, you might think the problem could be solved by creating better working conditions in the tea estates and paying higher wages to the workers. In Darjeeling’s large tea estates, however, a different take on the problem is evolving … Here, one prefers to rely on the blessings of automation and mechanization of picking and processing processes instead. As I said, that doesn’t mean that no good tea is produced there anymore. The real delicacies, however, could soon come increasingly from small tea gardens.

Assam Spring Tippy Black from Latumoni tea garden (small grower)

Assam Artisan Black Tea of Latumoni Tea Garden

3.8. New Chances for Environment, Health and Tea Quality

Who, as a small tea farmer in Darjeeling, now relies on certified organic farming, is undoubtedly in the lead. Natural cultivation without the use of pesticides is something that only a few of the big estates seem to be able to do. There are exceptions, though… For example, deserving praise in this regard is Makaibari tea estate. Not only has the tea garden been Demeter-certified for many years. Alos, it successfully keeps out of the headlines, when it comes to poor working conditions. And Rajah Banerjee, the estate’s owner for decades and an icon of Darjeeling tea, has just topped his own record once more. At the event of announcing his retirement, he made a considerable part of his shares on Makaibari a gift to the estate’s workers.

Darjeeling Small Growers : Passabong Spring 2018 EX 1-4

EX 1-4 of Passabong Darjeeling Tea Garden’s First Flush 2018 – “Small Grower”

As the Makaibari example shows, there is change on it’s way also in Darjeeling’s large, established tea estates. Overall, it will be exciting to see what tea from Darjeeling in the future will have to offer in terms of new diversity. Because one thing is clear: Darjeeling tea IS unique! And now, after having been indispensable to western kitchen cabinets for decades, it’s time for them to now also conquer the appreciation of those who CONSCIOUSLY ENJOY TEA...

3 Seasons Collage - India First Flush, Second Flush and Autumnal Seasons

To get the best seasonal teas from Darjeeling and all India right into your cup, please visit:

Tea from India at Siam Tea Shop

 

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