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Tomorrow is the summer solstice, a red-letter day in Darjeeling’s Makaibari tea garden. At night, trained tea workers will climb steep hills to pluck tea. These leaves will go into making the garden’s summer solstice specials, which include a muscatel and an oolong.

Makaibari’s story is unusual. Probably the most famous tea garden in the world, it was never a “Company" garden. It was started and owned by the Banerjee family for four generations—a rarity in Darjeeling, where tea estates were largely British owned and run.

There are many firsts to Makaibari’s name: In 1859, G.C. Banerjee built the world’s first tea factory there. In 1988, it became the world’s first tea estate to be certified 100% organic. And in an industry where labour is a bone of contention, Makaibari adopted the Fairtrade policy early, in 1993.

 But neither organic certification nor fair trade call for a summer solstice plucking. That comes from the biodynamic practices the garden has adopted. It’s what Rudra Chatterjee, the garden’s current owner, describes as “some science, some myth". But it’s believed to be good for the soil and the produce.

 If you have tasted Makaibari’s tea, you will concede they are outstanding. Certainly, it seems the estate’s way of farming has created a healthier ecosystem. Darjeeling’s terroir suffered extensive damage from the use of pesticides during the green revolution. Soil erosion and landslides have become chronic problems. So, when you look at Makaibari’s 1,000-something acres, with nearly two-thirds left as virgin forest and only a quarter used to plant tea, you see a garden that is astonishingly vibrant. Tea grows in harmony with juniper, pine and elderflowers.

 The last Banerjee to run Makaibari, Rajah Banerjee, started biodynamic and permaculture farming in Makaibari. Today, it has become a way of life. A unique home-stay programme allows the estate to host travellers—mostly trekkers. Students spend gap years teaching the children of tea workers at the school. The estate even organizes an annual football tournament for its residents.

 And the tea itself is fit for royalty. Heads of state are gifted Makaibari teas by the Prime Minister’s office. Tea-loving Bengalis savour it. And fans of film-maker Satyajit Ray may recognize Makaibari as the tea loved and favoured by his iconic character, the private detective Feluda.

 It was in 2014 that Rudra Chatterjee acquired Makaibari for his family’s Luxmi Tea. The business has tea gardens in Tripura, Assam and Gisovu (Africa) but Makaibari is not just another estate in the kitty. It remains the pearl in their portfolio, with its special status as a mystical, magical tea garden.

 TEA TAKES

The summer solstice muscatel looks like liquid sunshine, with characteristic fruitiness. There are other standout muscatels from Darjeeling but there is something indefinable about this cup of tea. The other special is the indulgent Silver Tips oolong, recommended for bedtime. 

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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