The Teas of Nepal
Nepal — too long overshadowed by the presence of its world famous neighbor Darjeeling — is at last becoming famous for its teas.
The region developed as a tea growing region in the 1860s, just as Darjeeling was also beginning to establish its tea gardens. The first tea seeds were given to Nepal’s Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana by the Chinese emperor and were planted in Ilam in eastern Nepal in 1863. A second garden was laid out at Soktim in 1865, and the first factory was built in 1873. But because of the political situation in the country, which isolated it from the rest of the world until 1951, the industry failed to develop as it did in India.
In 1951, the old ruling dynasty collapsed and the country had a chance to develop, but most of Ilam’s fresh leaf was sold into the Darjeeling factories rather than being processed as Nepali tea, and so, few people recognized the country as a tea-growing region.
Then, in 1982, the king designated five districts — Jhapa, Ilam, Panchthar, Dhankuta, and Terhathum — as Tea Zones and encouraged smallholders to grow tea. Investment, new plants, more land planted, the construction of new factories, training, a marketing program, and the development of all the essential services led to an expansion of the industry.
Today, tea (चिया, pronounced chee-ah) is grown on around 140 estates by more than 18,000 smallholder farmers, and the leaf is processed in some 40 factories. In the lower lying Nepali region of Terai, the teas are almost all CTC (crush, tear, curl) black, while a few producers make small quantities of orthodox (which results in more whole-leaf tea).
In the Eastern Development Regions of Ilam, Dhankuta, and Panchthar, close to the Darjeeling border, the climate and seasonal changes are similar to those on the Indian side of the frontier. So, First-Flush Nepali teas are harvested in late March and early April, Second Flush in May and June, and the quality Autumnals in October and November, before the chilly mountain air sends the plants to sleep for the winter. Often more full of flavor than run-of-the-mill Darjeelings, First-Flush Nepali teas are delicate and refined and carry hints of citrus fruits, peaches, and apricots. Second-Flush teas are often very fruity with layers of the famous Himalayan muscatel grape character. Even through the summer monsoon, the best teas are sweet and honeyed, and in autumn liquors are tangy, sweet and spicy. (Read more about what a “flush” is in The Tea Culture of India.)
But not all factories follow the same patterns of tea production. High up, beyond Ilam town, at an altitude of 6,500 feet, stands Sandakphu tea factory, which was built to process the teas grown by the nearby villagers in their gardens. The tea bushes at Sandakphu Tea Plantation (named after the famous Sandakphu Peak, which is the highest point in Ilam) were established here in the 1990s using cuttings from the old plants grown here many many years before by ancient farmers who settled in the district. The villagers are shareholders of Sandakphu Tea Processors (P) Ltd., and the teas they make are anything but ordinary.
The First-Flush tea looks very much like a green tea, because of the short period of oxidation after rolling, and has a delicate flowery profile. The more robust Ruby Black, which is made by the women in their homes, has curled russet brown leaves that yield a deep amber liquor with hints of roasted malt and caramel. The Himalayan Hand-Rolled Black has a floral aroma of orchids and wild flowers, and a very fruity flavor. Himalayan Gold is made during monsoon season when wild honey bees settle in the Sandakphu forest and the tea’s copper red liquor has a distinct honey character.
Khumbu Black, which took three years to perfect, has black leaves with a dark rich green luster and a lemony pine character with a sweet aftertaste. Sandakphu Gold is a black tea rolled into little half-moon pearls that, when brewed, give an elegant mild liquor with subtle suggestions of honey. Lastly, White Orange is an unusual oolong with leaves that show a beautiful mix of brown, gold, and silver and brew a golden red liquor that is fruity and sweet.
These beautiful teas, as well as Nepal’s more traditional First-Flush, Second-Flush and Autumnal teas, are of such high quality that they are now finding their way into tea stores and tea rooms around the world. The country no longer needs to feel itself overwhelmed by its famous neighbor but can take its rightful place in the world as a tea origin of real importance and standing.
Guest contributor Jane Pettigrew is a tea historian, writer, consultant, specialist working in the UK and around the world explaining and offering insight into the world of tea. She’s written 15 books and hosts regular master classes and tea tastings. You can find her at www.janepettigrew.com.
Originally published at teforia.com on February 11, 2016.