Calcutta, April 3: Bad news for Darjeeling tea lovers. Your favourite brand of tea, the world’s most expensive and exotic beverage in the category, may not be pure Darjeeling crop always.
According to industry insiders, a few varieties of Nepalese tea, which could pass for the coarser grades of the Darjeeling variety, are mixed and sold in the domestic market as Darjeeling tea.
Smuggled Illam (Nepal tea), both orthodox and CTC, enters the tea district through the porous border on mule back.
The first two flushes of the Darjeeling crop in April and June produce the best flavour and command the highest prices. The quality deteriorates from then on.
According to Tea Board statistics, the annual production is about 10 million kg but the annual sales figure is much more.
A major part of the annual production of Darjeeling tea is exported. The key buyers of Darjeeling tea are Germany, Japan, the UK, the US and other EU countries such as the Netherlands and France.
Industry sources said the Nepal crop cost half of the Darjeeling variety and was a favourite with retailers as it helped them sell tea close to that of Darjeeling at a much lower price. But industry sources admit it was difficult to ascertain the amount of Nepal tea entering the Indian market. At a few retail counters in Calcutta, Nepal tea is available at Rs 400-500 per kg, while Darjeeling orthodox of a similar quality would cost around Rs 1,000 per kg.
The Indian Tea Association (ITA) estimates show that almost 6.5 million kg of tea has been imported from Nepal during the January-October period last year. According to a vision 2020 report of the Nepal Tree Crop Global Development Alliance, almost a million tonnes of orthodox Nepal tea enter India.
“It is not new. But the quantity has come down to a great extent in recent times. After Darjeeling tea has been registered as GI (geographical indication), the Tea Board and other industry associations have been monitoring all the Darjeeling tea gardens very carefully, so that buyers get pure Darjeeling tea,” Sujit Patra, joint secretary of ITA, said.
After the GI registration in France and the US, Darjeeling tea is officially placed in the same category as Cognac or Champagne — other famous GIs. The unique geographical conditions of Darjeeling help make its teas such a rarity. Just the way Cognac and Champagne are rare because they can only come from specific regions of France.
Recently, Tea Board chairman Basudeb Banerjee had said Nepal leaves used to come into Darjeeling. “But we have been very strict on this and that has stopped,” he said.
Under an Indo-Nepal treaty, produce from Nepal can legally come into India at zero duty.
While the Tea Board claims it has been successful in stopping the Darjeeling gardens from buying tea from Nepal to maintain the quality of their tea, there is no provision to stop bought-leaf factories from buying tea from Nepal.