Introduction to Black Tea – Nepal Edition

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History of Tea in Nepal

The history of tea cultivation in Nepal dates back to 1856 when Nepal’s Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana visited China and brought back tea seeds gifted to him by the Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Colonel Gajraj Singh Thapa was tasked with planting these tea seeds in Nepal. He established two tea estates, ILAM and SOKTIM, in the eastern region of Nepal, covering an area of 94 hectares with an annual production of 2 tons. These were the earliest tea plantations in Nepal(sources from umn.org.np).

In the 1860s, Colonel Gajaraj Singh Thapa, the administrative head of the Ilam district, pioneered tea cultivation in the region. The Ilam tea estate was established in 1863.

Another story dates back to 1863 when Gajraj Singh Thapa, the son-in-law of Jung Bahadur Rana, visited Darjeeling and tasted tea. Impressed by its taste, he decided to establish plantations in his own country. This led to the birth of Nepal’s first tea gardens, first in Ilam and then two years later in Soktim. While Ilam’s gardens focused on orthodox tea, Soktim’s garden produced Nepal tea.

In 1878, the first tea factory was established in Ilam. In 1966, the Nepalese government formed the Nepal Tea Development Corporation. In 1982, King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah declared Jhapa, Ilam, Panchthar, Terhathum, and Dhankuta in the eastern development region as Nepal’s tea zones.

For over a century, Nepal’s tea industry remained largely self-sufficient and non-export oriented until 1982 when King Birendra declared the five regions of Eastern Nepal as tea cultivation areas and introduced financial support for farmers along with small-scale farming initiatives, which propelled the Nepalese tea industry forward.

Current Status of Nepali Tea

Since 1997, late April has been designated as National Tea Day by the Nepalese government. In 1999, Nepal was officially recognized as one of the world’s tea-producing countries at the 4th Asian International Tea Conference. In 2002, the Nepalese government implemented the National Tea Policy to regulate and encourage the tea industry’s development.

However, in the 21st century, due to political instability and resulting economic policies, Nepal’s tea industry faced challenges, leading to stagnation. Currently, Nepal has around 28,000 hectares of tea gardens, primarily located in the eastern region but expanding gradually into the central and western regions.

In April 2018, the Nepal Tea and Coffee Development Board, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, launched a new logo for Nepali tea at the Everest Base Camp, initiating a new journey for Nepali tea on the global stage. The 2074 directive accompanying the logo mandates organic tea production and sustainable tea farming practices. Nepal’s tea is now poised to gain a foothold in the international market.

Presently, Nepal has approximately 14 registered tea gardens, 41 large-scale tea processing factories, 32 small-scale tea factories, around 85 tea production cooperatives, and 14,898 registered small tea farmers. The per capita tea consumption in Nepal is 350 grams, with an average of 2.42 cups per person per day.

Nepali tea is primarily exported to India (90%), followed by Germany (2.8%), the Czech Republic (1.1%), Kazakhstan (0.8%), the United States (0.4%), Canada (0.3%), France (0.3%), China, the United Kingdom, Austria, Norway, Australia, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Tea Plantation Locations in Nepal

Tea in Nepal shares striking similarities with Darjeeling tea from India but carries its own unique narrative. The resemblances between Nepal and Darjeeling lie primarily in their geography and topography. The high altitude and mountainous terrain endow them with distinctive air quality, temperature, and rich mineral resources, resulting in unique tea characteristics. Most tea is grown in family-run estates, small farms, or private gardens, making it a rarer, more refined variety.

Nepal’s Orthodox Tea cultivation primarily focuses on the southern foothills of the Himalayas. The significant elevation differences along the southern foothills of the Himalayas contribute to Nepal’s vertical differentiation and abundant natural resources. Positioned on the windward slopes of the southwestern monsoon from the Indian Ocean, Nepal receives ample precipitation, forming a distinctive topography and highly favorable climate for tea growth.

The traditional high-altitude tea gardens in Nepal are predominantly situated in remote areas above 1500 meters, with most gardens concentrated around 2000 meters, and some reaching elevations between 2800-3000 meters. With an annual precipitation of around 1800mm and an average annual temperature of approximately 15 degrees Celsius, these areas experience significant diurnal temperature variations and frequent alternations between mist and sunshine. Most tea gardens are located on steep slopes surrounded by forests, making cultivation and harvesting challenging yet conducive to the formation of high-quality tea leaves.

Organic Production System

Nepalese farmers generally adhere to sustainable agricultural practices. Many mountain farmers own pairs of oxen for plowing, some cows, and a few chickens/pigs/goats, whose manure sustains soil fertility. With fewer pests in the high mountains, Nepalese tea regions cultivate traditional plants like Adhotoda vasica and Ablizia lebbell, scientifically proven to repel insects and fix nitrogen. Thus, Nepalese farming practices can be seen as “beyond organic,” truly eco-friendly.

Harvesting Standards

Tea harvesting in Nepal relies mainly on manual labor, with a strict focus on picking the bud, one bud and one leaf, or one bud and two leaves. The harvested leaves are vibrant in color, tender in texture, and often transported to tea factories using mules. Additionally, many tea factories use mules to transport fuelwood for tea processing, creating a picturesque scene of mule caravans in the Nepalese tea regions.

High Altitude, High Quality

The slow growth of tea leaves at high altitudes results in higher leaf resilience and lower caffeine content, with higher levels of natural linalool contributing to the unique aroma of Nepalese high-mountain tea.

Specialty Tea – a Distinctive Feature of Nepalese High-Mountain Tea

Part of Nepal’s high-mountain tea includes Specialty Tea (orthodox tea), which has won awards at North American Tea Championships and gained popularity among Chinese tea connoisseurs. Unlike imported teas processed to a certain degree of shredding, Nepalese orthodox tea retains its strip-like form, offering a more stable, robust taste with mountainous resilience and lasting quality, setting it apart from other imported teas.

Types of High-Mountain Tea in Nepal

Nepal’s high-mountain tea includes black tea, white tea, oolong tea, and green tea.

Among black teas, there are primarily three types:

(1) Golden Tips: Pure buds, Nepal’s highest-grade black tea, with very limited annual production. Quality and taste vary significantly among different tea estates. This is a tea that captivates the soul without needing any extra introduction.

(2) Golden Tea: This category includes one bud one leaf black tea and one bud two leaves black tea, often referred to as “Golden Tea” or “Golden Tips,” representing Nepal’s premium black teas. Named for their natural floral and fruity aroma due to Nepal’s terrain, these teas are known as “Golden Tea.”

(3) SFTGFOP1 (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1): Notable examples include Misty Valley and Guranse, renowned for their unique flavors and qualities. These teas, with distinct characteristics from their respective estates, are widely exported to Europe and enjoy recognition in international markets.

White teas primarily consist of two types:

(1) Silver Tips: Pure buds with extremely limited annual production, known for their delicate fragrance and natural sweetness, appealing to white tea enthusiasts. The indigenous buds from high mountains are considered precious.

(2) White Tea: Referring to one bud one leaf white tea, equivalent to China’s “Bai Mudan” grade, also among Nepal’s premium white teas. Similar to black tea, its natural floral and fruity aroma, attributed to Nepal’s terrain, earns it the name “White Tea with Floral and Fruity Aroma.” Unlike black tea, white tea emits a subtle “floral and fruity” scent due to differences in production methods.

In addition, Nepal’s high-mountain tea includes Oolong Tea and Green Tea, characterized by their high-altitude essence, hand-picked harvesting, and especially, the majority of green tea exports to Japan.

Characteristics of Nepalese Black Tea

The first flush of tea in Nepal occurs in March, followed by a second flush in mid-May. Monsoon tea is harvested from July to September, and autumn tea in October.

The eastern tea planting regions of Nepal border India’s Darjeeling, sharing a climate similar to Darjeeling tea plantations. Therefore, teas from this region are considered close relatives of Darjeeling tea, both in flavor and aroma.

Orthodox Tea – Areas cultivating Orthodox Nepalese tea include Dhankuta, Terathum, Panchthar, Ilam, Kaski, and Sindhupalchok. While the black tea produced here resembles Darjeeling tea, it is more refined. Due to the friendlier climate of Nepal’s eastern mountainous region, the tea trees are younger, resulting in better leaf quality. These are premium teas exported at high prices.

In the eastern region of Nepal, unique microclimates create distinct environments within tea gardens located just 2-3 kilometers apart, resulting in teas with unique characteristics. Gardens like Misty Valley and Kwaapani excel in producing floral and fruity black teas, while estates like Ilam and Shangri-La produce robust black teas(quotes from umn.org.np).

Nepalese black tea is rich in carotene, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, caffeine, and various amino acids. The chemical reactions of polyphenols during fermentation significantly alter the chemical composition of fresh leaves, producing components like theaflavins and thearubigins, enhancing the aroma and forming the unique color, aroma, and flavor of black tea.

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