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Tea and Bihar seems like an unusual pairing. But Kishanganj district in north-eastern Bihar, where the state’s tea industry has taken root, enjoys geographical proximity to Darjeeling (less than 200km), with soil and climate that’s closer to Assam. It ought to be the perfect juxtaposition of two outstanding tea terroirs. Yet tea arrived there only in the early 1990s, when the state government was trying to create economic opportunities.

The garden that put Bihar on the country’s tea map is Doke Tea Estate. Named for the river that flows through it, Doke was started in 1998 by Siliguri-based tea veteran Rajiv Lochan. It’s a small estate—around 40 acres, with 35 planted with tea—and initially produced leaves that were sold to tea factories nearby. What brought Doke into the spotlight was the decision to produce hand-rolled teas about eight years ago.

One summer evening, Lochan returned home with a bag of fresh green leaves plucked at Doke. The drive from the garden to his home in Siliguri took 3 hours and the leaves had begun to wither. Lochan refrigerated them for the night. His extensive travels in China had introduced him to the art of hand-rolling. And he felt these leaves lent themselves to it. The technique is simple but calls for a lot of practice: The leaves are wrapped in muslin cloth and the tea maker must apply enough pressure to release the juices, but not so much that it breaks the leaf. It’s artisanal tea making and Lochan’s daughter, Neha, was hooked. She took charge of the experiments and Doke began to make batches of hand-rolled tea, first an oolong and then black and green tea. Neha now manages the garden and the tea production.

The Doke Black Fusion is their flagship tea, prized by connoisseurs. With leaves that are long, dark, wiry, it’s clean and sweet smelling. It makes for a cup that’s malty like an Assam but has a sweetness all its own. The Lochans say this quality has been achieved over the years.

The Tea Statistics 2019 report from Tea Board India shows that about 4,000 hectares are under tea in Bihar, with almost all the cultivation being done by small farmers. Nearly all the tea here (5 million kilograms in 2018-19) is CTC (crush, tear, curl). At 500-750kg a year, Doke offers an alternative model of small-volume, high-quality, handcrafted speciality tea.

Doke also shows that Bihar’s tea can be more than just a close cousin of the Assam. This is exactly what is needed to create a brand for Bihar’s tea and place it within the larger narrative of Indian tea. But for now, suffice to say that there’s tea being made in Bihar, grown on river-fed land, cultivated naturally, offering sustenance to the local community, and made with skill. That ought to be reason enough to try it.

TEA TAKES

Doke’s Green Diamond Tippy has a gorgeous golden hue, is more sweet than vegetal for a green tea and best of all, isn’t bitter.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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