Tea gardens in Nepal
This first flush fetches the highest prices, not only for its fine flavor, but also as it is produced in much lower quantity.
Many people don’t know this, but the tea grown here can be better than that of neighbouring Darjeeling. Though similar to the world famous Darjeeling teas, it is not only quite a lot cheaper, but can be of much finer quality. Sharing similar geographical and topographical conditions as Darjeeling, tea here was first introduced in Nepal a decade or so after it became established in Darjeeling.
Nepal’s teas stand out from those coming from Darjeeling and connoisseurs reckon some of the teas to be far better in aroma, fusion, taste and colour. However, Nepal tea is still unknown to much of the outside world. It lacks marketing, quantity and often fails to meet demand.
Hybrids of tea bushes were planted in Ilam Tea Estate in Ilam district at an altitude of 1,300-1,500 meters above sea level in 1863. Two years later a second tea plantation, Soktim Tea Estate was set up in the Jhapa district.
Though the Darjeeling tea industry took off in India in the following decades, tea in Nepal failed even to provide enough to meet domestic consumption. Political turmoil and the resulting economic policies under the Ranas could be seen to be largely to blame.
It was not until a century later, in the 1950s when there were moves to develop into a democratic country that Nepal’s economy started to open up to the rest of the world. There was the start of public and private investment into the stagnant tea industry and the first private tea plantation, Bhudhakaran Tea Estate was set up in the Terai in 1959.
More recently in 1996, the Nepal Tea Development Corporation (NTDC) was set up to assist in the development of the industry. In the old days, tea grown in Nepal was sent to Darjeeling for processing. The younger Nepalese tea plants produced leaves that helped improve the quality of the tea harvested from the older Darjeeling tea plants. Eventually in 1978, a tea factory was set up in Ilam to process tea, with a second factory set up in Soktim in Jhapa district soon after.
Up until the 1990s, efforts were made by to encourage small farmers to grow and produce tea. These small farmers now produce most of Nepal’s tea. By 1982 there were five districts designated as Tea Zones of Nepal : Jhapa, Ilam, Panchthar, Dhankuta and Terhathum.
Various non-governmental organizations like Winrock, SNV and GTZ have sought to encourage development of the industry, seeing it as a way to help eradicating poverty in the rural areas where the tea plantations are concentrated.
Types of tea
Like in Darjeeling, much of the tea is orthodox tea. This refers to the process where the tea is hand-processed or rolled by machines that copy the hand rolling process. This includes most specialty teas like green tea, oolong tea, white tea and hand rolled tea. The first flush harvest starts at the end of March and lasts about a month. This is when the leaves are at their most tender and the liquor is a light yellow-green color, with a delicate taste and subtle aroma. This first flush fetches the highest prices, not only for its fine flavor, but also as it is produced in much lower quantity.
The second flush starts in the middle of May and lasts for a couple of months. The leaves become stronger and some experts rate this as the best tea. The monsoon flush or “Rainy tea” is harvested straight after the second flush at the end of July until the end of September. Due to the continuous rain, this tea is much more intense and dark making a fuller bodied tea. Last is the autumn flush that begins in October and lasts till the end of November. This tea tends to be taste more musky and has smells more tangy.
Silver tips tea refers to tea made from the very smallest, top leaf of the shoot. A delicate tasting tea, this fetches the very highest prices.
CTC tea (crush, tear, curl) refers to the processing and is produced in lower altitudes, in the plains of Nepal, mainly in Jhapa district. The quality of Nepal’s CTC tea tends to be of average quality and accounts for about 95% of domestic consumption.
Nepal’s tea industry is nowadays dominated by private companies, with the first private orthodox factory, Maloom Tea Estate being set up in 1993 (from the 1980s, the tea industry had been a government monopoly). Until 2000, Nepal only exported around 90,000–136,000 kilos a year, though since then, production has climbed to about 16 million kilograms of tea a year, accounting for just 0.4% of the total world tea output.