Agriculture / Biodiversity / Deforestation / Expert Perspectives / Impacts / Pesticides and Agrochemicals / tea / Women / Worker Rights

The Champagne of Teas

Maya Albanese, sustainable agriculture associate, in a Darjeeling factory.

Maya Albanese, sustainable agriculture associate, in a Darjeeling factory.

Back from a trip to India, Rainforest Alliance sustainable agriculture associate Maya Albanese writes…

The mighty snow-capped Himalayas provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to the bright green slopes of Darjeeling, blanketed with rows upon rows of meticulously pruned tea bushes. Here, women in colorful clothes scale the slopes carrying woven baskets overflowing with bountiful autumnal harvests.  Located at the northernmost tip of the state of West Bengal, the Golden Valley of Darjeeling is famous for its high-quality, high-altitude orthodox teas. With just 80 gardens planted in Darjeeling, the harvest is small and special in comparison to other tea growing regions of the world. Production of this “champagne of teas” is high cost and low output, and it commands a premium price on the international market.

Journey to Tumsong

In November of 2012, I had the pleasure of staying on Tumsong Tea Estate, a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ tea garden approximately 5,000 feet above sea level in Darjeeling. Tumsong was planted in 1867 around a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Tamsa Devi, who is worshipped by the indigenous people of the Golden Valley.  It is said that when you drink the delicate brew of Tumsong — known as “the garden of happy hearts” — you receive the blessing of the goddess herself.

I arrived in Tumsong by plane from Bagdogra airport followed by three hours on a precarious, winding road. As I traveled closer to the heart of Darjeeling, the lines

The Tumsong Tea Estate.

The Tumsong Tea Estate.

on the faces of the people around me changed dramatically. The majority of the local population is Gorkha (of ethnic Nepali background), and the tea pluckers are almost exclusively Nepali women. You will often see the word “Gorkhaland” above signs in Darjeeling, representative of the desire of some locals to see the region become an independent state.  There are a number of other indigenous ethnic groups in the area, including Sherpas, Bengalis, Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Biharis and Tibetans.

On a clear day, you can see an exceptional view of Kangchenjunga – the tallest mountain in India and the third highest in the world — from Tumsong. It’s proximity to the Himalayas generates a constant, cool breeze, making the tea buds grow gradually and saturating their leaves with a “muscatel” flavor.  This unique flavor, the result of small insects sucking juices from the stems of tea plants, is one of the reasons Darjeeling tea is so prized.

 Harvest Seasons of Darjeeling

In order to understand tea tasting and production better, one must become attuned to a garden’s “flushes” — harvest periods throughout the year which produce varying qualities of tea. Tea is plucked from the same tea bushes and processed with the same methods during each flush, but seasonal climate variations produce distinct flavors.

The first flush takes place in mid-March, after the spring rains have arrived and the tea bushes are a vibrant green color. A cup of first flush Darjeeling tea is light green in color and has a soft floral aroma with a mildly astringent taste.

Tea pluckers bring the autumnal flush to be weighed at Tumsong.

Tea pluckers bring the autumnal flush to be weighed at Tumsong.

Just before the monsoon season begins in June, the second flush is harvested. A personal favorite of mine, the second flush tea is a bit darker in color with a stronger flavor and a mild fruit taste.

The final harvest, which had occurred just before my arrival at Tumsong, is called the autumnal flush and offers a rounded cup of scents and flavors. Because this flush occurs during the monsoon, the tea leaves are extra-large and make a brew that is coppery in color with the most full-bodied taste of all the flushes.

Protecting Biodiversity

Darjeeling is located in the Eastern Himalayan zoo-geographic zone, home to endemic rare plants like high elevation orchids and endangered animals such as one-horned rhinoceroses and snow leopards. Deforestation is a serious issue in the area, largely due to increasing demand for wood fuel and timber, and air pollution from traffic congestion in the towns.

The Tumsong Tea Factory.

The Tumsong Tea Factory.

Fortunately, Chamong Ltd — the company that owns Tumsong Estate – is an environmental champion with a strong commitment to sustainability and a number of certifications for environmental and social stewardship.  All of its gardens are managed with minimal to no pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and several are Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Earning Rainforest Alliance Certification

In order to become Rainforest Alliance Certified, Tumsong went through a rigorous process to meet the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) Standard, which covers waste and water management, integrated crop and pest management, and workers services and rights. It’s a challenging process in Darjeeling, particularly because erosion, pests and blights regularly affect the steep and variable terrain on which the tea is planted. Through collaborative work with the Rainforest Alliance, tea companies like Chamong are working to address these issues in a manner than is environmentally and economically sustainable.

Kanchenjunga Mountain, the third highest mountain in the world.

Kanchenjunga Mountain, the third highest mountain in the world.

Enjoying Impeccable Hospitality

One of the best parts of the experience of staying at Tumsong Tea Estate is the hospitality. I stayed in the main tea house or ‘Chiabari,’ a gorgeous colonial mansion with porches facing the Himalayas, cozy fireplaces and a full-service kitchen. Particularly delightful is the tradition of bringing a tray of “bed tea” to your room each morning at the hour of your preference. The hospitality only added to an already remarkable experience in an exceptional setting.

Tourists who are interested in a first-hand experience of Rainforest Alliance Certified tea production in beautiful Darjeeling can reserve rooms at the Chiabari. Tumsong is a three-hour drive from Bagdogra airport in West Bengal and 18 miles from the town of Darjeeling, where visitors can enjoy a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 and one of the only steam powered trains still operating in the world. 

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