The tea produced in India's Darjeeling is so good that it's called the "champaigne of teas" in the world.
Darjeeling tea boasts top-quality flavour, aroma, and quality, and has an intricate and complex flavour profile, which is confirmed by research that shows that it's loaded with aromatic compounds with a strong and pleasant aroma, according to Healthline.
But a new worry has taken hold of Darjeeling tea producers, traders, and exporters over the years — the Nepali tea.
The tea produced in Nepal is not only being sold in Indian domestic market but it is being sold internationally under the label of Darjeeling tea or Himalayan tea, which is the exclusive domain of Darjeeling tea as it has a geographic indicator (GI) tag.
Mislabelled Nepali tea hurts Darjeeling tea
The tea import from Nepal increased by more than 60 per cent in 2020 and by more than 50 per cent till June 2021, as per a report in The Print.
Sujit Patra, the Secretary of Indian Tea Association, told The Print, "They are being passed off to the customers as Himalayan Tea or long leaf tea. Himalayan Tea is specifically Darjeeling tea. This is ruining our Darjeeling tea industry. We are getting complaints from growers that some Chinese or Korean origin tea is coming via Nepal using the free trade route."
Kolkata-based tea exporter Ashok Lohia said they lost at least 5 per cent export market to this imported tea during the October 2020-2021 period.
The reason behind this loss is that Nepali tea is around 50 per cent cheaper than Darjeeling tea, and while the two teas are definitely distinct, a common consumer may not tell the difference between the two upfront as they are similar.
"It is not possible for the consumer to understand if he is drinking Nepal or Darjeeling tea as both are so alike in taste, aroma and flavour. Some deceitful sellers pass on Nepal tea as Darjeeling variety," said an industry source in a Business Standard report.
Sub-standard Nepali tea lacks quality checks
This is not just hurting the sales of Darjeeling tea but it is also affecting the brand as the tea from Nepal, often sold dishonestly as Darjeeling tea, lacks in quality control measures.
While original Darjeeling tea goes through 34 checks, the tea imported from Nepal under the bilateral free trade agreement only goes through three or four checks, as per The Print report cited earlier.
“They [Nepali tea producers] use pesticides, which are high on carcinogenic values. The tea connoisseurs, who are paying a huge amount of money expecting organic estate tea, while buying from retailers, are probably ending up paying for inorganic tea from Nepal,” said a member of Darjeeling Planters Association in The Print's report.
"The domestic market is flooded with Nepal teas. Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal has asked the Tea Board to work out a package for promoting tea in the world markets. We are waiting for the package," said Anshuman Kanoria, the chairman of the Indian Tea Exporters Association, in a report in The Economic Times.
The 2017 shutdown worsened the situation
The extent of damage from the Nepali tea has worsened since 2017, in which period the production — not just sales or exports — have fallen too.
The Darjeeling tea estates were shut for more than three months in 2017 during agitation for the separate Gorkhaland state in region. As supplies from India stopped because of the shutdown, international buyers turned to alternate sources, such as Nepal.
Atul Asthana of Goodricke Group, a major tea exporter, told Zenger News, “In 2017, when we had a four-month lockdown, the international market changed their supply chain. Nepal emerged as a substitute for Darjeeling tea, which produced almost similar quality and had lower prices.”
Nepali tea's challenge grew over years
While this issue has increased in recent years, it's not new. It has been in the making for more than two decades.
A report in The Times of India from 2001 reported that Nepal at the time produced 6 million kg of tea against Darjeeling's 8.5 million.
The report noted that while Darjeeling tea is better in quality, Nepali producers could catch up in the future.
The ToI reported, "Qualitywise, Darjeeling is better, argue DPA [Darjeeling Plantations Association] office-bearers, because of a century of experience behind tea cultivation in Darjeeling. Climate-wise, Nepal is similar to Darjeeling, and in the long run Nepal tea can pose a stiff challenge."
This has proved to be true over the years, as has been evident for last few years. While tea production has been affected by falling yield and strikes as well, the cultivation in Nepal has increased over the years.
Low Darjeeling production also a concern
Tea production in Nepal grew at a rate of 84 per cent between 2004-14, according to Zenger News, which added that the country exports to at least 35 countries.
On the contrary, the production of Darjeeling tea in 2021 fell to 6.19 million kg — the lowest on record — against 6.39 million kg in 2019, according to The Financial Express. This is a drop of 50 per cent.
Asthana, quoted above in the story, said the production has fallen from a level of 10 million kg to 6 million kg.
This, with the influx of Nepali tea eating into Darjeeling's share, brews trouble for the "champaigne of the teas".