Teas from the Hills of Nepal
Two women hand-plucking leaves to make a Nepal green tea.
For too long Nepal has been overshadowed as an important tea region by neighboring Darjeeling. In the past few years more and more tea lovers have praised the exquisite character and quality of the orthodox artisan teas produced in the country’s high mountains.
By Jane Pettigrew
The origins of the tea industry in Nepal ran parallel with those of Darjeeling.
While the British were busy planting stolen seeds that grew into today’s Darjeeling bushes, the Chinese emperor gifted seeds to Nepal’s Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana. The Nepal seeds went into the ground in Ilam in the east of the country. More land was planted out and a factory was built in 1873. But due to the country’s political system under the Rana dynasty, isolation from the rest of the world, and economic uncertainty, the industry came to a halt.
In 1959, Rana domination came to an end and Nepal was able to move forward. Private and government investment helped establish new gardens, the original Ilam garden was expanded into 7 estates and, in 1966, these were collectively named the Nepal Tea Development Corporation (NTDC).
In 1982, the King designated 5 tea zones – Jhapa, Ilam, Dhankuta, Terhathum, and Pachthar – and encouraged smalholders to grow tea. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the focus was on improving processing and quality, developing essential ancillary services, making more land available for tea, and privatizing the NTDC.
In 1998, the Himalayan Orthodox Tea Producers Association (HOTPA) was set up, and in 2003, the Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative Ltd (HIMCOOP) was established by HOTPA to help producers of specialty orthodox teas find a foothold in international markets. Today there are some 140 registered estates, 18,000 smallholders, 40 bought leaf factories, and a growing number of village cooperatives. But in the past a large quantity of the fresh leaf and the made teas were exported over the nearby border into India and sold as Darjeeling teas.
That continues today and a number of factories in Ilam are owned by Indian companies. Not surprising then, and a great shame, that few people have had the chance to sample Nepal’s high mountain orthodox leafy teas.
1 of 3
Teas from the Hills of Nepal
Jasbirey Village at the foot of the Himilaya mountains.
2 of 3
Teas from the Hills of Nepal
Nepal is blessed with high altitude sun providing intense UV radiation.
3 of 3
Teas from the Hills of Nepal
Tea is terraced in the Ilam tea hills where misty micro climates closely resemble conditions in nearby Darjeeling, India.
Nepal’s tea regions and teas
While Nepal’s CTC teas, grown in the low-lying Terai plains running along the southern side of the country, are sold into the domestic market or to Russia (CIS), India, and Pakistan, the leafy orthodox teas from the hill country are now finding their way into niche specialty markets in the US, Europe, the UK, Australia, and Japan.
The main tea areas in the Eastern development region are Ilam, Dhankuta, Panchthar, and Terthathum, where the bushes grow at around 1,000 feet (305 meters) up to elevations as high as 7,500 feet (2,286 meters). Ilam, with its thick pine and birch forests, mountain streams and waterfalls, borders with Darjeeling and is home to the best known of Nepal’s tea gardens, including the original Ilam Tea Estate planted in 1863; Kanyam Tea; Sunderpani, an organic cooperative of 300 smallholders who process their leaf at the Gorkha Tea Factory; Maloom Estate, which was opened in 1993 and buys leaf from smallholders and Sandakphu, the first and only factory to employ women in positions of responsibility. These factories all manufacture high quality black orthodox teas and hand-rolled black teas, as well as white, green and oolong varieties. Ilam accounts for 85% of the country’s orthodox teas.
Dhankuta’s three most famous gardens are Guranse, Jun Chiyabari, and Kuwapani. All grow their own teas as well as buying and processing fresh leaf grown by nearby smallholder farmers, who also grow maize, citrus fruits, ginger, and vegetables. Panchthar shares a border with Darjeeling and Sikkim, and farmers there grow cardamom, medicinal plants and tea.
Pathivara Tea Estate enjoys stunning views of snow-capped Mount Kumbhakarna, the world’s 32nd highest mountain at 25,295 feet (7,710 meters). The Kanchanjangha Tea Estate and Research Centre was founded here in 1980 by a group of 100 smallholders who pooled their land and now produce high quality organic teas. And in Terthathum, approximately 616 smallholder farmers grow tea on 231 hectares and process their leaf in their own two mini tea-processing factories.
Weather patterns in Eastern Nepal are similar to those in Darjeeling and the tea seasons correspond accordingly. First flush teas are harvested in late March and early April and give black teas that are light and refined, slightly grassy with suggestions of lemon, apricot and peaches.
Second flush teas, picked from mid May to mid July, give liquors that are rounded, fruity and mellow, with muscatel notes; late summer teas that grow while the rain tumbles persistently down are stronger and more full-bodied, with a honeyed sweetness. Teas gathered in the autumn months of October and November are tangy, spicy, and sweet.
Other specialty black teas from the region are smooth, rich, and sweet with malty notes and hints of caramel. Greens have a bright, mild freshness, oolongs can be sweet, mellow and complex with slight suggestions of earthiness, and whites are crisp and elegant with nutty and citrus notes. The teas are harvested only four times a year and the plants are less stressed than in other regions, and this has a positive impact on flavor and nutrient levels. In studies conducted on black and white teas, Dr Wendell, pharmacology professor at Shenandoah University, US, has found that the altitude, the soil and the youth of Nepal’s tea bushes give the teas higher levels of antioxidants and L-theanine.
Development of the tea industry
Nepali farmers have a deep respect for nature and their fellow man and this has helped to build a successful sustainable tea industry here. The farmers follow a strict code of conduct for orthodox tea production, processing and market promotion, and this aims to ensure that the quality of Nepali teas matches international standards, that farmers work for the conservation of bio-diversity and soil fertility, that they respect the production system and maintain their commitment to high standards.
The code also aims to guarantee that there is no child labor in the tea industry, no caste system, and no gender and social discrimination, and it supports the empowerment of women and child education. Gradually, despite the problems caused by the remoteness of the tea regions, the lack of reliable roads, the challenges of transporting the teas out of this landlocked country into the international market, and the unexpected devastation caused by the 2015 earthquake (which did not affect the tea areas as much but badly damaged the country’s infrastructure), the specialty teas are now finding their way to new customers.
Three people have played an important part in spreading the word about the impressive teas Nepal is now making. One of them is Maggie Le Beau who founded Nepali Tea Traders in the US in 2012 with a group of Colorado social entrepreneurs. The aim of the company is to sell premium teas from the small tea farms in Nepal’s Ilam region into North America.
The company is helping put Nepal on the map and Le Beau says, “There is growing recognition among the experts that Nepal’s small artisan farms and unique terroir produce some of the best teas in the world. Teas from Nepal have started to earn awards over the past few years, reinforcing the opportunity for the country to benefit through growing its tea economy. We believe that building the tea industry in Nepal will help the people there by creating jobs, infrastructure and sustainable business expertise. We believe in pursuing profitable growth and re-investing to help the people and country of Nepal.” Himalayan Gold, a distinctive black tea from Sandakphu factory sold by Nepali Tea Traders, was named best black tea at the North American Tea Championships in April 2015.
Two other key people who are helping to change the Nepali tea industry are Twistina Subba, an engineer who initiated the idea of producing the purest possible Nepali teas, and her tea professional husband Chandra Bhushan Subba, who is also managing director of Tea Direct, a Kathmandu-based company that sells the best of Nepal’s CTC and orthodox teas. In 2011, the Subbas led a delegation of 7 Nepali tea producers to World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in order to promote the teas to 4,700 tea wholesalers and retailers attending the show. After the show, Subba said, “The 2011 World Tea Expo was a tremendous success for the promotion of Nepali orthodox tea to the specialty tea market in the United States. We had more than 800 attendees visit our booth and we were able to develop contacts with several buyers.”
Since then, despite the disruption caused by last year’s earthquake (the Subbas live with their children in Kathmandu) and their involvement in assisting quake victims, they work tirelessly to encourage and support the small-scale farmers and promote their teas to buyers around the world.
Sandakphu factory and the teas
The Subba’s most notable achievement is to have built a new factory at Jasbirey Village in the foothills of Sandakphu Peak where local residents can process the tea they grow. Sandakphu Peak, whose name means ‘a place where monks meditate’ sits right on the Nepali-Darjeeling border and climbs to heights of 11,941 feet (3,636 meters). Sandakphu Tea Plantation, established in 1990 with high quality tea varietals brought in by farmers who migrated here from other villages in Ilam district, is situated at 6,500 feet (1,981 meters) just above Jasbirey Village. Unlike some of the other Nepali estates, where workers are paid a wage to pick and process the tea, Sandakphu is wholly owned by the farmers, and the self-employed smallholders believe that the only way to achieve top quality teas is for control of the land, cultivation of the bushes, and processing of the tea to remain with them. It is in their interest to harvest the finest leaf for processing and to produce the best teas possible.
The local growers are also shareholders in the processing unit built by the Subbas and it is inside this beautifully designed, small-scale factory that the Sandakphu tea makers craft the rarest of Nepal’s teas. The aim here is to employ more women at all levels and to ensure that they have opportunities to hold positions of authority where relevant. The factory currently has a female finance manager and a female factory manager and Sandakphu Teas are marketed by Subbas marketing company called “Tea Direct” (www.teadirect.org).
The teas vary in style and flavor profile from the country’s traditional seasonal black teas and offer tea lovers aromas and flavors that are unexpected and deeply satisfying. Careful research and experimentation has allowed the Jasbirey Village tea makers to take advantage of the changing seasons and to work hand in hand with nature to encourage the best possible flavors from the leaves. The ruby black, with its dark, reddish-brown curled leaves, is made by the women of Jasbirey Village in their homes and the slow oxidation that takes place at these high misty elevations gives the tea liquor its rich malty aroma and roasted malt and caramel flavor.
The Himalayan hand rolled black yields amber liquors with hints of orchids and wild mountain flowers. Himalayan Gold, the North American Tea Championship black tea winner of 2015, is made during the monsoon when high temperatures and heavy rains usually produce teas that are rather plain. But this Sandakphu tea, picked at the time of year when bees take shelter from the rain in the nearby forest, is oxidized slowly for several hours and then wood fired and, against all expectations of monsoon teas, gives liquors that have a wonderful complex character with wild honey flavors.
Khumbu black took three years to develop and its very unusual black-brown dry leaves have a remarkable dark green luster and yield an orange-red liquor with powerful pine and citrus notes. Sandakphu black pearl is crafted by a process of withering, rolling, long oxidation, rolling and drying in a machine that shapes the leaves into tiny, half-moon pellets, followed by wood firing. The liquors are coppery red, mild and honey sweet. To make white orange, silvery buds with one leaf are gathered during mid-summer or in the depth of autumn and are withered, hand-rolled, rested, machine-rolled, dried over low heat, rested again, then fired to increase the flavor and prolong the shelf life.
The quality of these impressive Sandakphu teas is increasing all the time and they offer tea lovers an array of beautiful leaf shapes and intriguingly tantalizing flavors. They and other beautifully crafted teas from Nepal deserve their growing fame and should be included on tea retail shelves, in website listings and on the menus of tea lounges, tea bars, and tearooms all over the world.