Drink Darjeeling, Save Darjeeling
by Good & Proper Tea founder, Emilie Holmes
In May this year, Josh (our Ops Director) and I were lucky enough to take a trip out to India to visit our producer partners in Darjeeling.
The region in West Bengal, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, is home to 87 tea estates, some of whom have been producing some of the world’s finest teas since the mid-nineteenth century. With steep slopes, and altitudes ranging from 1000ft above sea level up to as high as over 7000ft, the conditions for cultivating tea bushes here are challenging to say the least. With a cool, temperate climate, hills and valleys, and particular soil conditions, Darjeeling tea has a unique character, which is loved the world over. Every year, the world’s tea enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the first harvest of the season, known as the First Flush, and pay high prices in return for getting their hands on the best batches of these exclusive teas. In 2004 the region was even granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), a recognition intended to protect the authenticity and exclusivity of the tea leaves grown there.
As our jeep bumped its way up a seemingly endless, winding mountain road, we caught glimpses of the valley as it disappeared below us. I knew the magic of Darjeeling wasn’t going to disappoint. Our first stop was Glenburn, a family run tea estate who we have been working with for over 9 years. In fact, it was Glenburn’s Darjeeling 2nd Flush that we served at our first spot with the van, outside Kings Cross train station all those years ago. I often tell the Glenburn team that no cup of Darjeeling has ever tasted as good as the crop that first year - in 2013 - but more likely it was simply the joy of taking those first sips of Darjeeling, with its extraordinary flavour, that holds a special place in my memory.
Our visit was a long overdue chance to check in with this long-standing partner - to get close again to the leaves and the people who work so hard to produce the teas, and to share with them where we are as a business, including our plans for the future and their role within that. It was a chance to strengthen the relationship, and ensure that we can continue to rely on each other - on them to produce the best possible teas for us, and on us in continuing to buy them.
What we came away with, however, was so much more than that. Over the days and evenings we spent together, we were able to discuss at length, the challenges that tea producers are facing in Darjeeling. And they weren’t the challenges that one might necessarily have expected. It goes without saying that taking actions to protect and conserve natural resources, and promoting biodiversity, is critical to the ‘sustainability’ of the tea industry - and we discussed it all. From climate change, the risks it poses and how it is already starting to affect the tea bushes, to carbon emissions and what a reduction of those might look like in tea production. But it was also a good reminder that the catch-all term ‘sustainability’, which is increasingly high on the agenda for our customers, can so easily be confused with purely environment considerations.
The biggest challenge that these tea producers are facing is being economically ‘sustainable’ - and this is something that was top of mind for everyone that we spoke to. Darjeeling is currently facing a host of different challenges, including the effects of the aforementioned climate changes, that together pose a very real threat to the future of tea production in the region, and to the 55,000 workers that the industry there employs.
Firstly, like everywhere else in the world, production costs are at an all time high - up by around 10-12% over the last 6 years, against price increases of just 1.7% over the same period. Cost pressures are then compounded by widespread worker absenteeism, which is upwards of 60% in many estates. Aspirations for a modern lifestyle demand more disposable income, and workers are therefore routinely switching out days in the fields or factory for ad-hoc shifts elsewhere, where they’re paid more and paid cash in hand. And though they won’t be paid for the day’s work they missed, they still benefit from being part of the ‘tea garden system’ - a system that provides workers and their dependents with housing, food supplies, access to healthcare, schools and more. Though the features of this system have evolved over time and there is often much more that can and should be done to improve these facilities, the management now find themselves with a situation whereby, at a time when the numbers already don’t stack up, a large chunk of the workforce that they support (and their biggest overhead) is failing to show up for work. This leaves them with limited choices - either maintain quality levels by reducing the area of the garden they pluck from and therefore reduce their yield, hire agency workers to plug the gap, so increasing their costs further, or simply let quality take a hit by using less people to do the same job and realise lower prices in the process. At the same time, climate change causing inclement weather has also seen the yield of tea gardens in the region fall dramatically over the years. In 2016, Darjeeling produced over 8 million kgs of tea every year, but this has now fallen to around 6.5 million.
Secondly, demand for exports of India’s most prized tea is down from their biggest markets, due to depressed economic conditions across Western Europe and Japan, and the Russia-Ukraine war. Even more significantly, Darjeeling’s exports are being impacted by neighbouring Nepal, who, following political unrest in 2017 when Darjeeling’s gardens were shut down for 104 days, benefited from free imports into India. A number of years later and their import volumes now far surpass the total production of Darjeeling as a whole, and with younger bushes, lower input costs and less quality control, Nepal has been able to produce cheaper teas in large volumes. These teas are then imported into India, and often then re-exported as either ‘Himalayan’ or even ‘Darjeeling’ tea, which has further suppressed prices and demand for teas from authentic Darjeeling tea gardens.
Finally, Darjeeling’s workforce is shrinking. Changing perceptions and aspirations in the young, means that the sons and daughters of the current workforce no longer see their future there. Instead, they are heading to the cities where they see better opportunities, financial stability and a less physically demanding lifestyle. This rural-urban migration means that in less than 10 years, when the 50+ year old pluckers retire, there will be few lined up to take their place. And if no-one is carefully selecting and plucking the leaves from the bushes, there will be no tea to be made…
The issues, as you can see, are complex, multi-faceted and for the most part, interdependent. They are affecting all producers in the region. Yet, despite seeing with my own eyes gardens that have already closed, with bushes overgrown and more lucrative plans for real estate underway, there was also hope. Hope that the best tea producers - those focused on quality, and those willing to change and innovate - will weather the storm and continue to produce exceptional teas for many more years to come. And of course hope that the government will step in to regulate the Nepal imports. But it won’t be easy.
So what does all this mean for you at home, and what can we do to ensure this unique tea not only survives, but thrives in the years to come? Well, in fact, there’s a lot you can do to help. While we continue to support our producer partners with fair pricing, and pushing as much value up the supply chain as possible, we need to you to continue to fill your pots with Darjeeling tea to allow us to buy more of it. The above title is not a slogan I can claim as my own, but ‘Drink Darjeeling, Save Darjeeling’ is, in fact, exactly what is needed.
With that in mind, we're asking you to put the kettle on, spoon these beautiful leaves into your pot, and let a delicious, aromatic cup of Darjeeling transport you to those magical mountains where their journey began….