Last year 40 million kilograms of “Darjeeling tea” was sold worldwide. But here is a fact: Darjeeling’s yearly production is 8 to 9 million kilograms of tea. Something is definitely afoot here. We headed to Darjeeling to investigate.
Why buy tea direct?
While working at the Glenburn Estate in Darjeeling in 2016, Kate Popham explored the ethics behind sourcing tea. Here, she explains why Canton chooses to buy our tea directly from tea gardens.
Kate: Let’s start with a conundrum: last year 40 million kilograms of “Darjeeling tea” was sold worldwide. But here is a fact: Darjeeling’s yearly production is 8 to 9 million kilograms of tea. Something is definitely afoot here.
Anshuman and Husna-Tara Prakash, owners of Glenburn tea estate, explain it to me. You may know that, like Champagne, or Melton Mowbray, Darjeeling Tea can only be so named if it originates from a certain, specified area. Some teas are blended with a minimal amount of actual Darjeeling leaf but still call themselves ‘Darjeeling Tea’, and some, well, we will just have to assume that they are outright stealing the name.
This is the first reason why it is important to buy Darjeeling tea from a known estate. If you know the garden it comes from, you know it is definitely Darjeeling, and you know your tea will…well, do what is says on the tin.
The second reason is just as important as the first, but requires a little more explanation. It’s about people: specifically, the community which enables a tea garden to flourish and which in turn is supported by the growth of this very special plant. Anshuman puts it succinctly to me, over a cup of lightly brewed Glenburn First Flush; “A tea garden is not just about employer and employee, it’s about a community.”
Pluckers on the estate relaxing in their lunch hour on Glenburn’s shady slopes
Glenburn goes beyond the basic standards set in the Plantation Labour act (in which workers are entitled to housing, education, paid leave and free healthcare) in three main ways. The first is schooling. Husna-Tara said she agonized for a long time about whether to take control of the estate schools in order to make sure that the children are getting a good education, but she decided against it, and her reasoning is completely understandable. “In 50 years time,” she says “What if the Prakash family don’t own Glenburn any more? We need to make sure that if this happens, the schools will keep going, and this means they have to be run by the government.” So Glenburn supports the school. It pays for extra teachers, books and food, and enables a Kindergarten class so that the children who cannot afford go to private nursery can be on an even keel with those that do, when they start the prescribed government teaching at age five. There is also a scholarship programme that has secured secondary school places for 41 children from Glenburn.
The tea estate, hotel and school come together. Parveez the tea manager (middle), hotel guest and composer Christine Morrison, and Hotel staff member Ranjan sing songs with the children at Glenburn Primary School.
The second is the Kalakendra, or music academy, where the local talent of the children is nurtured (and showcased at the annual Diwas festival) that happens just before every First Flush season. Thirdly, there are education programmes around healthcare to make sure the community remains healthy and informed.
And it is a community that has been here for a very long time. Ranjan, who works at the Glenburn hotel, tells me that his great-grandfather came to Glenburn from Sikkim in the 1870s, and that his family have lived and worked on the estate ever since. In this amazing photo you can see four generations of his family – all still very much part of Glenburn.
Ranjan (left) with his daughter Shrutika, wife Sabina, parents Sita and Bishnubdr, and grandparents Kalay and Jashoda (seated). They live together in the village nestled in Glenburn tea garden.
When the community is nourished and supported like it is at Glenburn, the tea is equally nourished. Glenburn is committed to keeping their workforce happy and incentivised to make the best tea possible. But there are problems.
Consumers demand good quality Darjeeling – and will pay a good price for it. But where is their money going? Costs of tea production are rising each year, along with inflation, but the prices the gardens can sell their tea for are not rising. Amazingly, tea prices today are the same as in 1994, and due to improvements in communications (i.e. the internet) - everyone in the industry knows what each garden sells their tea for - gardens are having to constantly undercut each other on price to get a sale, and over 70% of their tea is selling below the cost of production. Much of this is down to many tea companies outside of India buying their teas from merchants or middle-men who buy large quantities and varieties. The money for the expertise, time, and passion of a community is not getting where it’s needed. Unless the gardens start getting a better price for their tea, they won’t be able to continue paying their workers and keeping the community alive – and that would be a very, very sad thing indeed. Not to mention the fact that the world would be deprived of top quality Darjeeling tea.
One way around this is for tea companies to buy their tea directly from the estate. At Canton, we buy our teas seasonally direct from the source. This ensures they are authentic, fresh and full of flavor. The best teas are in demand, so we pay the market price. This means that the farmers, the skilled teapickers and the communities around them get a fair deal and can flourish, and our customers are guaranteed quality and the real tea.
So – if you want to drink good Darjeeling – know what you are buying. If the packet says ‘Darjeeling Tea’ – check that it can be traced back to a specific estate or estates – otherwise who knows what you could be drinking? Canton buys its Darjeeling tea direct from Glenburn – so we can be assured of three things:
1. The tea is fresh
2. We know where it comes from and it’s not blended with lower-grade leaf
3. We know that the price we pay gets fed back to the people who made it – and this helps keep the Darjeeling industry and community alive and kicking.
Kate, Husna-Tara and Nibir with Canton’s First Flush tea order, ready to be shipped.