The importance of Darjeeling tea

Tea garden worker in Darjeeling
As the coffee culture booms, will Darjeeling tea retain its relevance? A new book chronicles its history and looks at the future.

The end of the year. The daily struggle of getting tea in, processed, and out to customers begins to fade—at least for a few months. Questions bubble to the forefront about the future, about Darjeeling’s precarious future.

Even if it can counter, or at least adapt to, the changes in weather, endure Gorkhaland’s frequently disruptive statehood aspirations, and stem the exodus of workers—that is, navigate environmental, political, and social change—and continue to make exquisite teas, will Darjeeling keep its place among the finest artisanal goods on the globe? Even if more Indians begin to drink Darjeeling’s tea, can it sustain relevancy in India, or its collective cultural heritage? For global consumers, how can Darjeeling’s gardens break from their hilltop isolation and share with an audience beyond a coterie of aficionados what makes their tea so unique—not only in flavor, but history, methods, and culture? How can they demonstrate the importance of its continuing?

Most growers seem content to produce fine teas, but not necessarily to offer the language with them that will seduce buyers. Planters are rarely successful in sharing their deep passion for the leaf or in offering a unique drinking experience to accompany their exquisitely handcrafted products. They have not been able to share what makes their teas so special—so utterly unique, with such a compelling story—that people should spend a significant amount more for Darjeeling tea than just about anything else on the shelf of a tea shop. That remains, more often than not, trapped up in the hills.

“The Indian grower is not interested in a beautiful aroma and how to poetically describe it—which is what a wine taster does. What he’s interested in is the size of the leaf and the strength of the liquor, whether the infusion is coppery or greenish or reddish, whether the liquor is clear or cloudy,” a Mirik Valley–based packager and importer of high-end teas from India grumbled in an interview with a trade journal. “The Indian tea industry is selling a product, a commodity—tea could be anything. What they need to be focused on is selling a dream, an idea, a hope.”

For that, Darjeeling should be looking not at the wine but the coffee industry, because that is precisely what European- and American-style coffee culture in India is doing so successfully right now. Costa Coffee, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Barista Lavazza, and the ubiquitous Café Coffee Day—generally reduced to the initials CCD—with more than sixteen hundred branches across India, are having a huge cultural impact. A CCD outlet even sits smack on Darjeeling’s most iconic spot, the Chowrasta.

In Delhi’s trendy Hauz Khas Village, establishments all sport foreign names: Amour, Amici Café, Maison des Desserts, and Café Out of the Box (OTB), plus the curiously named bar-café He Said, She Said (open “since Adam ‘n’ Eve” and graced with a motto based on Las Vegas’s: “What Happens in There Stays in There”). Amici prepares cappuccinos, ristrettos, lattes, macchiatos, mochas, affogatos, americanos, and its Rs 99 espressos with illy coffee beans using, the menu proudly notes, a Cimbali machine (“an Italian masterpiece”).

In Khan Market, a two-square-block enclave of shops in Delhi with the highest retail rent in India, chain cafés such as CCD and OTB are offset by lovely one-offs such as Café Turtle, reached by climbing up through the well-stocked Full Circle Bookstore and then a final flight of stairs. In Mumbai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Ajmer, Jammu, Hyderabad, and Guwahati, the coffee culture is taking hold. 

The coffee goliath Starbucks recently established a partnership with Tata Global Beverages, a unit of India’s largest business group, to open an untold number of branches in India—at the press conference announcing the joint venture, a Tata executive speculated as many as three thousand. The inaugural location launched in Mumbai in October 2012, and the first Starbucks opened on the inner circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place the following February. With thirty-five hundred square feet of space spread over two floors and a staff of forty, the Delhi branch is neither a small coffee cart, nor another carbon copy of those bland, interchangeable Starbucks branches found from Spokane to Barcelona and Tokyo. Rather, it’s a unique outlet with brutalist-style exposed-concrete interior walls, handwoven jute ropes that hang in a loose webbing below the ceiling, and stools made from hefty lengths of logs right out of a backwoods campsite. In another enviable touch, baristas prepare drinks with coffee beans nationally sourced from the hills of South India. Single-origin Indian estate blends are now among the offerings.

“Best coffee? No way,” the Guardian quoted one skeptic on social media in Mumbai just after the opening. “It’s all about feeling foreign and upper class.” “People come for the ambience,” a young, energetic cashier clad in a baseball cap and still-stiff apron said on a busy spring morning in the Connaught Place branch. Jazz music covered the muffled chatter of customers engulfed by the vast space. “And the coffee, too,” she added as something of an afterthought. “The Java Chip Frappuccino is our most popular.”

And expensive. A venti (large) costs around Rs 210 with tax, or a bit under $4. Even the smallest-size, basic, black, filter coffee costs about Rs 110 ($2)—more than a Darjeeling tea plucker’s daily take-home. That’s steep for most living in Delhi, where the average monthly per capita income is around $250, the highest in India and more than three times the national average. A cup of chai on the street costs just Rs 5; when drunk inside a simple café, it’s perhaps double that.

“It’s a fashion,” said Girish Sarda at Nathmulls in Darjeeling of the country’s current coffee culture, “with style value”—a way to go out and meet friends with a bit of flair. “It is the hip-hop generation swayed by ads,” Sandeep Mukherjee at the DTA puts it, “swayed by the swankiness.”

It’s not about the drink, but the moment, the experience with the drink. CCD, Starbucks, and others are offering the dream that accompanies the beverage. The bottom of the Starbucks receipt reads, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit . . . One person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time!” Even if that’s vague and esoteric, clearly coffee’s role goes beyond that of a simple beverage. The slogan running across the front of every Café Coffee Day branch sums it up more directly: “A lot can happen over coffee.”

…Yet no one in India so far, points out Nathmulls’s Sarda, is preparing coffee at home—at least not quality coffee. If they do, then it’s usually just a spoonful of Nescafé stirred into hot milk or water.

At the moment in India, Starbucks-style café culture dedicated to tea is almost nonexistent. Rare exceptions are Cha Bars located in various Oxford Bookstores, the iconic chain established in 1919 on Kolkata’s Park Street. The first tea bar opened in 2000 and then expanded to other branches. Around the same time Starbucks arrived in New Delhi, the bookshop’s Connaught Place store moved to a new location with a contemporary-edged, overwhelmingly white, and well-lit Cha Bar. It offers more than 150 varieties of tea, including a dozen Darjeeling options. The most popular choice, though, is the classic dhaba (roadside eatery) masala chai served in small, thick glasses. The drink has a zestiness with the flavor of spice dominating that of the tea. The back of the throat gets an even sharper snap from Truck Driver’s 100 Mile Ki Chai, with plenty of black pepper in the masala blend.

The Cha Bar’s menu quotes a verse from Bengal’s most famous poet (and Nobel Prize winner), Rabindranath Tagore, that could be the call for such lush and lusty drinks: “Come oh come ye tea-thirsty restless ones, the kettle boils, bubbles and sings, musically.”

Courtesy: Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury.

The importance of Darjeeling tea, As the coffee culture booms, will Darjeeling tea retain its relevance? A new book chronicles its history and looks at the future.

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