Food & Beverage

A storm in Darjeeling's teacup: India's famed tea nearing short supply

Key Points
  • Tea plantations in Darjeeling, India's famed tea-producing region, are closed amid ethnic strife between Gorkhas and Bengalis.
  • Major tea brands may stop supplying Darjeeling tea if production remains halted.

Your favorite brew of Darjeeling tea could soon be in short supply.

Political chaos has forced the closure of tea plantations and estates in India's famed Himalayan town, dealing a blow to brands dependent on the area's prestigious teaplant.

Darjeeling, a popular hill station in the state of West Bengal, is currently in shutdown mode, with most businesses, including shops, hotels, ATMs and tea gardens, closed amid ethnic strife between Indians of Nepali origin — known as Gorkhas — and the Indians of West Bengal, or Bengalis.

Indian supporters of the separatist Gorkha Janmukti Morcha group demonstrate during an indefinite strike called in Darjeeling on June 19, 2017. Hundreds of protesters paraded with coffins containing the bodies of two men they were were killed in clashes.

The timing of the political turmoil couldn't be worse — not only is it peak tourist season in Darjeeling, it's also second flush tea season.

The world-renowned Darjeeling tea plant yields new leaves at different stages year-round and the second flush stage, typically from May to June, produces mature leaves known for their full bodied flavor, which are highly sought after by both connoisseurs and consumers.

"Second flush teas are typically picked young and constant plucking is required to get the young leaves. But because all Darjeeling tea plantations are currently closed, nobody is plucking any leaves, so the plants will overgrow and quality will deteriorate," warned Kaushal Dugar, founder of Teabox, an online tea retailer based in Darjeeling.

"Even if tea estates open after a week, constant plucking will be required to get the high quality summer flush tea leaves are known for. That will take at least two to three weeks and by that time, the weather will have shifted and the second flush season will be over."

Teabox says it isn't significantly impacted as it purchased 70 percent of its Darjeeling tea supplies before the political agitation started, but international players could have more trouble.

"Bigger brands may have problems as they are not based in Darjeeling and typically buy in bulk from auctions, but if they can't confirm the level of quality, they may not buy at all," said Dugar.

Thousands of tourists fled the Indian hill resort of Darjeeling on June 12, 2017 after separatists warned that a general strike could degenerate into violence.

Darjeeling tea is India's only geographically-indicated product, meaning a firm can't label its tea product 'Darjeeling' if it's not from the area — just like France's Bordeaux wine.

"Having learned of the political strife and resulting disruption to tea production, naturally we have serious concerns about supply," said Dilhan Fernando, director at Dilmah Tea. The lion's share of Dilmah's business is Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, but a smaller slice of sales comes from other terroirs, including Darjeeling.

"In the event that disruption to operations continues for more than a month, we will not be able to supply Dilmah Darjeeling tea," Fernando continued. "There are no alternatives possible since we believe in the purity of origin and therefore only use pure Darjeeling."

If major tea brands want to continue with their Darjeeling summer flush products, they will have to increase the price or discontinue the product itself, said Dugar.

At the crux of the current political instability is the issue of Gorkha culture.

Nepali is one of the official languages in the hills, but in May, the government added the Bengali language as a compulsory subject for school students, sparking fierce protests from local political faction Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The outlook for tea

The GJM "seized this moment to reignite the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state where the Gorkhas' identity would be protected and not trampled upon by outsiders, namely, Bengalis," explained a recent report by New Delhi-based think tank ObserverResearch Foundation.

"It is Gorkha pride versus Bengali supremacism," the report continued. "Old grievances like state run Nepali-medium schools not getting textbooks in time from the West Bengal government have surfaced all over again."

Protesting Gorkhas have been reportedly teargassed and fired upon by security officials, while riots and arson remain widespread, instilling fear and tension into the area's normally cool mountain atmosphere — a throwback to the Gorkhaland movement that gripped the region between 1986 and 1988.