A competition, friendly but serious, has arisen in the past few years between the growers and producers of Darjeeling teas and Nepalese teas. It’s an important one as the Darjeeling gardens face some tough challenges and as Nepal continues to recover from an earthquake that hit last year with devasting results. Tea has become an important part of both regions’ economies as well as to us devotees of that flavor quality so long touted as being the “Champagne of Teas.” As all this goes on, we thought we’d stop and take some time to see just how teas from these two areas compare and present some more details about the lesser-known teas of Nepal.
Mountains of Tea – Nepal and West Bengal
The Himalayan mountains were formed by the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Eurasian plate and now abut or cross six countries: Bhutan, China, Nepal, India and Pakistan. The name “Himalaya” means house (or abode) of snow. Very fitting since the range has some of the highest peaks in the world, including Mt. Everest, and most peaks sport a top hat of snow through much of the year. The Himalayan mountains play a key role in both Darjeeling teas and Nepalese teas. A quick look at why seems a necessary part of this comparison, therefore.
Some of the best teas ever come from gardens in or near the majestic Himalayas, mainly because they have a huge impact on climate and terroir in those gardens, such as:
- Mists shroud the mountains, creating shade from the sun as well as a cooler, moister climate. This tends to slow down growth a little (like those tea fields in Japan that are shaded for making gyokuro and matcha) and affects the chemistry in the leaves. (More about mist and tea flavor in our article here.)
- Sloping terrain keeps excess water from building up at the plant roots and in effect “drowning” them (shutting off oxygen flow). Too much water can be as harmful as too little.
Which garden is where? Click on an image to find out.
Sadly, the Himalayan mountains can also work against these tea gardens by:
- Keeping away the rains from the Darjeeling tea gardens so badly needed at the right time and in the right amounts or dumping too much on them and drowning the tea plant roots (in spite of the sloping terrain).
- Shaking and rattling, since these mountains sit on a fault line, and causing destruction, as they did recently in Nepal but fortunately not where the tea gardens are in the Western half of the country.
Nepalese teas are from gardens in the nation of Nepal (which is mostly in the peaks of the Himalayas). The Darjeeling gardens are in the state of West Bengal, India, in mainly the foothills of the Himalayas but still have those mists and steep slopes. While Darjeeling teas are enjoying a reputation among tea connoisseurs, those from Nepal are lagging a bit in the Public Relations department.
The Darjeeling gardens struggle to maintain their gardens, many originally planted during the 1860s, and keep the jats (tea plant varietals) productive. It’s getting harder, though, and some gardens are cloning plants, trying to keep that signature flavor, while others are switching to other cultivars, hoping that other terroir factors will compensate. Their special designation was granted in October 2011 by the The European Commission, on behalf of the Tea Board of India, the Darjeeling Tea Association and all of the tea growers in Darjeeling, India, but it is now being challenged by the Nepalese tea growers and producers since it was based in part on a unique flavor profile that is turning out not to be so unique. We’ll see how it all plays out.
Tea Gardens in Nepal
Nepalese tea gardens aren’t nearly as numerous as those Darjeeling gardens (West Bengal boasts about 87, and Nepal has less than half of that number).
The Ilam district boasts two main tea gardens: the Ilam Tea Garden near the Ilam Bazaar, and the Kanyam Tea Garden, halfway between Ilam Bazaar and the plains of the Terai. There are smaller gardens such as Tinjure. Other major tea producing districts are Dhankuta, Sankuwashabha, Terathum, and Bhojpur districts.
Jun Chiyabari Tea Garden is relatively new, established around 2000-2001, and is located in the hills around Hile in Dhankuta district in the eastern Himalayan region of Nepal. It is at an elevation of about 1600-2000 meters. Like many of the gardens in Nepal, this one is relatively small (about 75 hectares, with 50 hectares planted in tea). The plants are young compared to those in Darjeeling and China and are cultivars from not only Nepal but Darjeeling, Taiwan, and Japan.
Mist Valley Tea, founded by the late Asal Bahadur Limbu, is in Jitpur in eastern Nepal. The small rural village is frequently enveloped by mist and fog, giving it the nickname used for the company. The garden is known as one of the best manicured around and has a factory for processing and packaging the teas (currently about 100,000 kgs per year of premium tea). Other tea gardeners also bring their leaves to the factory for processing.
The Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative Ltd. (HIMCOOP) was established in 2003 and provides these tea producers who focus on more high-quality teas a common platform for selling to an international market. They currently represent 20 different factories and estates that produce a variety of teas (white, green, black, and oolong).
Some Quick Facts About Nepalese Teas
Here’s a quick rundown:
- Two general categories: Orthodox and CTC
- Four flushes: 1st (4th week of March thru end of April); 2nd (2nd week of May thru end of July); Monsoon (last week of July thru September); and Autumn (October thru November).
- While flavors of the the flushes for Orthodox teas varies, the CTC teas are fairly consistent in their flavors.
- Flavors between Darjeeling and Nepalese teas are very similar.
Teas from Nepal and Darjeeling are processed in a variety of ways:
- Black Tea — Fully oxidized, turning the leaves mostly dark. A good muscatel flavor and a leaf appearance that is mottled brownish and greenish caused by different mother bushes, the older age of the bushes, and the leaves oxidizing differently.
- Green Tea — Fresh, clean flavor. Soft, sweet aroma, pristine floral notes and gentle sweetness. The cup is lighter in color and flavor than Darjeeling tea, but more rich than normal for a green tea.
- White Tea — The purest, least processed tea available. Savory aroma, rich body, and smooth delicate cup. A smooth, sweet taste.
- Oolong Tea — The leaves have been rolled so that they start to oxidize. A very delicate color and flavor. Combines the characteristics of a high-grown Darjeeling and a soulful Oolong.
Telling the Difference Between Himalayan Grown Teas
Can you tell which is Darjeeling and which is Nepalese?
Tea growing in the Himalaya area has been underway for about 167 years. And now the battle is on to see if people can tell the difference in the flavor of the teas grown in one part of that region versus another. Only side-by-side tastings will tell the truth. So far, our own experience shows little difference between some teas from Nepal and those from Darjeeling. The European Union is certainly claiming there is no difference and using that claim to justify a move to affect pricing. And so it goes in the world of tea, a beverage said to calm and invigorate all at once.
Not to make light of the situation, but the debate over which is better is in large part about marketing. The Darjeeling gardens would like to keep that separate designation, but others have proposed a more general designation called “Himalayan grown.” Either way it works out, we hope both locations can overcome the other challenges they face from weather, planetary forces, economics, politics, etc.