Darjeeling Tea should come only from Darjeeling

Darjeeling Tea should come only from Darjeeling

Last year 40 million kilos of “Darjeeling tea” was sold worldwide. But, Darjeeling’s yearly production is only 8 to 9 million kilos of tea. 

Something wasn’t right. Investigating why such a huge discrepancy exists, we asked Kate Popham, part of our Canton family (she worked with us for years) and former employee of the Glenburn Estate in Darjeeling. Here, she explains the ethics behind the tea trade and why it’s so important to buy tea directly from tea gardens.

Why should we buy tea direct?

“Let’s start with the fact that last year 40 million kilograms of “Darjeeling tea” was sold worldwide. But Darjeeling’s yearly production is only 8 to 9 million kilograms of tea.  

Anshuman and Husna-Tara Prakash, owners of Glenburn tea estate, explained it to me. You may know that, like Champagne, or Melton Mowbray, Darjeeling Tea can only be so named if it originates from a certain, specified area. Some teas are blended with a minimal amount of actual Darjeeling leaf but still call themselves “Darjeeling Tea”. For some teas, we just have to assume that they are outright stealing the name.

This is the first reason why it’s important to buy Darjeeling tea from a known estate. If you know the garden it comes from, you can certify that it’s definitely Darjeeling – and you know your tea will…well, do what is says on the tin.

The second reason is just as important, if not more important, than the first. It’s about people: specifically, the community which enables a tea garden to flourish and which in turn is supported by the growth of this very special plant. Anshuman puts it succinctly to me, over a cup of lightly brewed Glenburn First Flush; “a tea garden is not just about employer and employee, it’s about a community.”

Pluckers on the estate relaxing in their lunch hour on Glenburn’s shady slopes

Glenburn goes well beyond the basic standards set in the Plantation Labour act (in which workers are entitled to housing, education, paid leave and free healthcare) in three main ways. The first is schooling. Husna-Tara said she agonized for a long time about whether to take control of the estate schools in order to make sure that the children are getting a good education, but she decided against it. “In 50 years time,” she says, “what if the Prakash family don’t own Glenburn any more? We need to make sure that if this happens, the schools will keep going, and this means they need to be run by the government.” So Glenburn supports the school, but doesn’t run it. It pays for extra teachers, books and food, and enables a Kindergarten class so that the children who can’t afford to go to private nursery are on an even keel with those that do, when they start the prescribed government teaching age, five. There is also a scholarship programme that to date, has secured secondary school places for 41 children from Glenburn.

The tea estate, hotel and school come together. Parveez the tea manager (middle), hotel guest and composer Christine Morrison, and Hotel staff member Ranjan sing songs with the children at Glenburn Primary School.

The second is the Kalakendra, or music academy, where the local talent of the children is nurtured and showcased at the annual Diwas festival, which happens just before the First Flush tea season. And thirdly, there are community education programmes around healthcare to make sure everyone remains healthy and informed on public health and sanitation.

It’s a community that has been here for a very long time. Ranjan, who works at the Glenburn hotel, tells me that his great-grandfather came to Glenburn from Sikkim in the 1870s, and that his family have lived and worked on the estate ever since. In the amazing photo below, you can see four generations of his family – all still very much part of the Glenburn community.

Ranjan (left) with his daughter Shrutika, wife Sabina,  parents Sita and Bishnubdr, and grandparents Kalay and Jashoda (seated). They live together in the village nestled in Glenburn tea garden.

When the community is nourished and supported like it is at Glenburn, the tea is equally nourished. Glenburn is committed to keeping their workforce happy and incentivised to make the best tea possible. But there are still many problems in the wider tea-growing industry.

Consumers demand good quality Darjeeling – and will pay a good price for it. But where is their money going? Costs of tea production are rising each year, along with inflation, but the prices the gardens can sell their tea for are not rising. Amazingly, tea prices today are the same as in 1994, and due to improvements in communications (namely, the internet), everyone in the industry knows what each garden sells their tea for. Gardens are having to constantly undercut each other on price to get sales, and over 70% of their tea is selling below the cost of production. Much of this is down to foreign tea companies outside India buying Indian teas from merchants or middle-men, who often buy large quantities and varieties. The money for the expertise, time, and passion of a tea-growing community is getting lost along the supply chain. Unless the gardens start getting a better price for their tea, they won’t be able to continue paying their workers decent wages and keeping the community alive. And the world would be deprived of top quality Darjeeling tea.

One way around this is for tea companies to buy their tea directly from the estate. At Canton, we buy our teas seasonally and directly from the source. This ensures they’re authentic, fresh and full of flavor. The best teas are in demand, so we pay the market price. This means that the farmers, the skilled tea pickers and the communities around them get a fair deal and can flourish – and our customers are guaranteed quality and the real tea.

So – if you want to drink good Darjeeling – know what you are buying. If the packet says ‘Darjeeling Tea’, check that it can be traced back to a specific estate or estates. Otherwise, who knows what you could be drinking? Canton buys its Darjeeling tea direct from Glenburn – so we can be assured of three things:

1. The tea is fresh
2. We know where it comes from and it’s not blended with lower-grade leaf
3. We know that the price we pay gets fed back to the people who made it – and this helps keep the Darjeeling industry and community alive and kicking.

Kate, Husna-Tara and Nibir with Canton’s First Flush tea order, ready to be shipped.

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