Kochi: Darjeeling tea, globally known for its flavour and high quality, is becoming popular in China, which is a predominantly green tea market.
In the first nine months of this fiscal, more than 500 tonnes of Darjeeling tea has been exported to China. The lone Indian exporter, Lochan Tea Ltd, in Siliguri, West Bengal, is confident of doubling it to 1,000 tonnes by the end of this fiscal.
Green tea leaves are dried and preserved without being fermented, giving it a light flavour. Darjeeling tea is black. It is fermented, dried and has a slight sweetness and distinct flavour, alien to the Chinese taste.
China has been a leader in tea production, accounting for 1 billion kg annually. About 40% of this is exported. But India has never seriously looked at selling tea to China. Last year, Lochan Tea had exported 250 tonnes to China.
“We have been trying to get into the Chinese market for five years now and finally, the results have started showing. Other exporters will look at this market soon,” said Lochan Tea chairman Rajiv Lochan.
First pick: Women pluck tea leaves in a field outside Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. While other Indian teas sell for $1-1.5 a kg, Darjeeling tea is sold at a price between $4 and $9 a kg, depending on the quality.
According to him, a substantial portion of the annual Darjeeling tea production of 9 million kg can make it to the Chinese market. Currently, around 55-60% of these teas are exported to the US, the UK and a few other countries in Europe. About 2-2.5 million kg can easily be sold in China at an attractive price, Lochan said.
“The Darjeeling tea has won recognition of discerning consumers all over the world for well over a century,” said Sanjay Bansal, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association.
The cultivation of tea in Darjeeling, a northern district in West Bengal, dates back to the 1830s and is now spread over 17,800 ha in 87 designated gardens. It was registered as ‘geographical indication’ globally in 2004. The geographical indication status is based on identifying a product from a particular area with a given quality, reputation and special characteristics essentially attributable to its geographical origin that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
This status protects it from unauthorized production, duplication, abuse or misuse. This helps enhance the brand image of Darjeeling tea, both in the national and global markets, Bansal said.
According to Lochan, Darjeeling tea gets its particular flavour from being grown at an altitude of more than 3,000ft above sea level and the peculiar geographical conditions of Darjeeling, such as the hot winds that hit the peak of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. The peak acts as a wall returning the winds to the tea gardens across the district. At a high altitude, the atmosphere has less oxygen and this adds to the oxidants in Darjeeling tea leaves, making it a healthy drink.
Its aroma and flavour fetch a premium in the market. While other Indian teas sell for $1-1.5 (Rs39.7-59.6) a kg, Darjeeling tea is sold at a price between $4 and $9 a kg, depending on the quality.
The tea plantations in Darjeeling started nearly 200 years ago when the British brought tea cultivation from China. “Now it is going back to the country of its origin. Darjeeling tea meets the standards of what the Chinese call ‘oolong’ tea, which is somewhere between green and black. If it has the quality, price is not a factor,” said Lochan.