For the past two centuries, hand-picked brews from the rolling hills of India’s Darjeeling area have been tantalising tea connoisseurs around the world, but the aromatic “champagne of teas” is slowly losing its steam as it faces the brunt of climate change.
At an elevation ranging between 600m and 2,000m near the third tallest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga, India grows the world’s most premium tea in the steep hills of Darjeeling, in the eastern state of West Bengal.
The panoramic view is dotted with cotton clouds, pine trees and hordes of tea workers – mostly women, carrying huge cane baskets on their backs, meticulously hand-picking tender shoots – just two leaves and a bud.
These painstakingly picked tender shoots give Darjeeling tea its distinctive champagne-like colour, pleasant aroma and delicate flavour, which in 2004 earned the brew a Geographical Identification tag – unique protected status under the World Trade Organisation.
But in recent years, erratic climatic conditions have been affecting production of teas in the region, leading to challenges for tea owners. Tea is a rain-fed crop that requires a distinct temperature range, between 15ºC and 23ºC, relative humidity, well-dispersed rainfall and sunshine hours to work in harmony for a good product, experts say.
But of late the region has recorded increased temperatures, drought and hailstorms. Water sources are limited and the heat means trees wilt quickly.
Darjeeling thrives between 18ºC and 29ºC and with annual rainfall of between 150cm and 500cm. But in May the average temperature was hovering at 39ºC – more than 10ºC to 15ºC higher than usual in the month.
“In the summer season, we are seeing hailstorms, during the monsoon season, we are seeing too much sunlight. The drought seasons have become longer," says Sparsh Agarwal, co-founder of Dorje Teas, adding that the changing traditional weather patterns are affecting "our yield and quality of harvest”.
“Since growing tea is a symphony of the sun and the soil, it requires certain conditions to grow, a certain amount of sunshine, a certain amount of rainfall and winds, but no longer is that in a uniform quantity throughout the year.”
Dorje Teas grows organic green teas, special moonlight harvest white tea and a range of Japanese-inspired teas at a nearly 150 year old estate in Darjeeling and sells them through www.dorjeteas.com.
Old trees and organic cultivation
Darjeeling was a tiny hamlet used by British officials and their families as a summer resort when stationed in Kolkata, until 1841.
As an experiment to source tea outside China, Archibald Campbell, a doctor and botanist, sowed a few seeds of tea around his bungalow in Darjeeling, about 2,100m above sea level.
The original planting succeeded and in 1846 the first commercial tea gardens were established. Within two decades there were 39 tea gardens nestled in Darjeeling, together producing a total of 21,000 kilograms of tea.
The region at one point was producing more than 10 million kilograms of tea a year, but the changing climatic patterns along with factors such as shifting to organic harvesting have adversely affected the quantity and quality of tea production.
The yield reduced to 6.87 million kilograms in 2021, according to the Indian Tea Association, the apex chamber of the tea industry in India.
Darjeeling produces teas throughout the year.
The first flush, or the spring tea, is the premium tea. It is pale and light and is harvested in March. The second flush is more oxidised – exposed to air after picking – which strengthens flavour. The leaves are bright and are harvested in summer three weeks after the first flush. The third flush is the monsoon harvest in June and the last flush is autumn, done by mid-November.
Rajat Thapa, manager of the Happy Valley Tea Estate, Darjeeling’s second oldest tea plantation, said that rising temperatures and longer hot spells causes plants to be less productive.
“More sunshine causes plants to close down stomata and hampers the process of photosynthesis,” Mr Thapa told The National.
He said that the high temperatures increase the chances of pest infestation, which is exacerbated by organic farming, where the plantation owners don’t use pesticides and depend on cow manure.
Mr Thapa also pointed out that most of the plants are more than 100 years old and were planted by the British.
“Over the past few years, the bushes are dying. They are more than 110 years old. The plants have become older; they don’t get nourishment and nutrients.
“We shifted to organic farming in 2007. We use cow manure, but it is not sufficient for these trees. This has drastically brought down the quality and quantity,” he said.
Industry experts say that the decline in production is due to several factors, but concur that climate has a bearing on declining tea yields and changes in flavour.
“We are noticing a marginal increase in the mean temperature. The duration of the hot spells has increased. The rainfall pattern has gone awry and the quantum of rainfall has been reduced,” Arijit Raha, chief executive of the Indian Tea Association, told The National.
Mr Raha emphasised that while there is no immediate threat to the production of tea, because the product is not perishing, steps such as collaboration on projects that can bring modern techniques, more efficient irrigation, including drip irrigation, are being looked at.
“It is extremely important to set up a robust, workable irrigation infrastructure which is a big challenge given the terrain and the availability of water. People are exploring steps for rainwater harvesting so some kind of nourishment can be given to the tea bushes and restoring the loss of biodiversity by planting trees,” he said.
He also said that the scientists are working on "drought-resistant clones", but that planting them will be a challenge given the mountainous terrain.
“This is at a work-in-progress research state, where we are looking at drought-resistant clones. But it will take time because it takes about six to seven years for a new plant to come to bear.
“The option of refurbishing the estate is not practical as there would be a huge income and revenue gap if production is stopped. Darjeeling has not been able to replant because of its terrain.”