It was wonderful to see Nepal tea given a lavish spread in New York Times food section recently. We have been selling Nepal tea since spring of 2014. Our customers and us know that these teas are special and have been enjoying every cup of it for all these years. Happy to be ahead of the curve!
As noted in the article Nepal tea has been around for many years. It is but only in the past two decades that specialty high-mountain tea has been developed. I remember Nepali tea gardens across the border from Darjeeling district in the terai area (the flat lands right at the foot of the Himalayas) as a child. These gardens manufactured then, as they still do now, primarily CTC-grade tea. This inexpensive tea comes in a granular form and feeds the vast chai habit in homes and tea stalls across the Indian sub-continent.
We used to pass these gardens on our way to the Nepalese border town of Dhulabari - a shopping destination for foreign goods. India until 1990 was closed to most foreign consumer goods. My first Nike and Levis came from this first dusty outpost of economic globalization in the region. Sorry for the digression.
But if you will please indulge me a bit more, let me tell you the story of how I first encountered specialty Nepal tea. You see, borders those days between India and Nepal were truly open and our lives sort of weaved in and out of these two worlds. The Maoist rebellion of the 1990s in Nepal changed all that. Armed border guards were introduced by India.
Madan Tamang, many people in Darjeeling will remember him as a martyr, was the one who introduced to me this tea. A successful businessman of fine tastes, he was also a fearless and outspoken opposition leader. He was a thorn on the side of the oppressive and corrupt ruling party. Intimidating as he could be, he would sit me down and offer a cup of a "hand-made oolong" from his tea garden located just across the border in the Singalila ridge. This was around 2004. It was one of the best teas I ever had! Tamang who roared and ranted from the public square would wax eloquent about his fine teas. Tragically, he was killed in broad daylight during a public rally in the middle of Darjeeling town in 2010.
During 1990s new tea plantations were being raised in Nepal across the border in high elevations. Some of the tea produced there was being "smuggled" into Darjeeling by few unscrupulous Darjeeling tea companies and being mixed into their production. Ironically, around the same time Darjeeling had received a geo-appellation from WTO meant to protect it from primarily overseas blenders who were passing off a huge amount of tea as Darjeeling which was actually sourced elsewhere.
The early encounter with high-mountain artisan Nepal tea with Tamang ended like what was flash in the pan. He had wanted me to market his tea in the US, but after his passing away it all fell to the way side. Until years later, a customer from California reminded me once again about Nepal teas. He strongly recommend we keep some. As I made queries with my Nepal contacts, Jun Chiyabari, a tea garden located in Dhankuta district, around 6 hours drive from the Indian border, kept popping up.
Jun Chiyabari was established in 2000 by two brothers Bachan and Lochan Gyawali. Residents of Kathmandu, the brothers had gone to a well known boarding school in Darjeeling. I found quite a few people in Darjeeling who knew them. This was helpful because it always helps doing business in the east if you know someone who knows the someone you need to work with.
That and the quality of the first samples we received from them was enough to convince us that Jun Chiyabari would be perfect partners to work with. A huge plus was that this was a certified Organic garden.
I eventually visited the garden in the fall of 2015. A nation-wide fuel crisis wracked the area but the indomitable mountain people retained their cheery spirits and work at the garden continued despite the threat. You can read about the visit here. By this time we were certain that specialty Nepal tea, although just arrived, could stand on its own right and we said so when interviewed by a far east publication in 2016.
Jun Chiyabari has been the flag bearer of quality in the region. It is great to see that they were prominently featured in the NYT article. Their penchant for quality, innovation - particularly planting tea cultivars from new areas - and professionalism is something that others in the area can learn from.
At 2018 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas I met a group of Nepal tea growers and traders who were jointly exhibiting their teas. It was an impressive effort. Looks like their efforts have paid off and they have rather deftly summitted a major peak in their journey. However, as Bachan Gyawali says they need to look 50 years ahead to consolidate this hold. Keep up the quality, keep up the professionalism, embrace technology and plan ahead - especially the global climate change.
As for Darjeeling, they cannot rest on their laurels from the past. They too need to keep their products at a premium level which follows from treating all that goes into its making with a high degree of care. Most care and attention at this time is demanded by the land upon which the tea grows and the people who work in it. The garden owners need to stand up to this challenge.