Darjeeling in lockdown – the loss of the first flush is the latest blow to a region on the brink of crisis

In Darjeeling, lockdown means this year’s first flush has been all but lost.  We’ve spoken to producers and garden managers on the ground about what this means for them and the region as a whole. Here’s what they told us.

What’s happened?

Lockdown in Darjeeling hit at peak first flush season. As the Financial Timesreported last week, the timing spells “deep trouble” for many gardens and the wider community –  half of Darjeeling’s inhabitants rely on tea for their livelihoods.

The first flush is widely acknowledged as some of the best of Darjeeling tea. Although the season for first flush is short, the quality of the tea produced means first flush accounts for up to 40% of annual garden revenues.

India entered lockdown on the 24th March, meaning that very little of this year’s first flush was produced. Rishi Saria, owner of Gopaldhara & Rohini Tea Estates, told us on Friday: “If Darjeeling gardens don’t make first flush and sell it, how will we go into second flush? How will we pay the wages for the whole of April and May and June? The situation is really bad on the ground. We really don’t have funds to see off May and June. Somehow we have managed so far through additional borrowing, but I don’t see the banks lending us more.”

On Thursday 23rd April we spoke to Subroto Sen, Garden Manager of Badamtam Tea Garden (one of our favourites):

“Ironically this year the weather had been absolutely perfect: we got some early rain, we had started our harvest in good time, we had started manufacturing these beautiful teas. Unfortunately this lockdown came in – the COVID-19 led to a lockdown in the country – so now we are just about open and restart our operations, but just at 25% of our total strength.”

The timing of the lockdown was heart-breaking for producers and will disappoint many Darjeeling first flush drinkers.

Mr Sen Interview: Part 1

Why do we love Darjeeling tea?

Darjeeling is so loved by tea drinkers because the region produces such unique flavours. The first flush encapsulates spring, with its characteristic high floral aromas and light astringency, and the second flush (at best) has unique muscatel flavours. Nowhere else produces teas quite like these.

If Darjeeling produces such good tea, why is the region in financial difficulty?

Just two years ago, political unrest in Darjeeling meant that there was very little production for a year, which meant very little income. Some of the independent gardens, unable to survive this loss, were bought out by larger groups or left to go fallow. One of the other challenges is that there is a lack of younger generations coming into the industry. Gautam, manager of Seeyok Estate and winner of our 2019 Excellence at Origin Competition talks more about this here. Some of the smaller gardens have already been reported not to have reopened after the recent lockdown was lifted.

While Darjeeling tea commands a much higher price than Assam and other regions in India, Darjeeling gardens have been struggling to break even – the low volume and seasonality of production (hallmarks of quality) is not generating enough profit for producers.

A deep rethink of how producers in Darjeeling (as a whole) can start making sufficient profits to support the region for the long term must be inevitable. Major considerations will be cost of production, pricing, route to market and government legislation.

Will production start again?

Tea has been designated by the Indian government as an essential industry and so there is movement towards going back to work. On Wednesday Subroto Sen told us that he was hoping that production may start again very soon. His positive outlook contrasts with that of some of the other producers and is encouraging.

The lockdown has meant that the bushes have become overgrown so they will need to be cut right back again to allow for the new growth of the tender buds and young leaves that are needed for high quality Darjeeling production. If the weather cooperates, new growth should arrive just in time for the second flush season.

Subroto Sen said that because tea bushes have been left during this growth period having been picked, they were pruned, and picking should begin soon. However, bushes which have significant overgrowth must be severely cut back.

Mr Sen Interview: Part 2

What is happening with the early first flush?

Roads are reopening only for the movement of tea and coal. This means that the small amount of tea that was produced before lockdown will soon be able to move to Kolkata and be sold. There is hope that prices will be high for the producers based on the good weather (and so high quality of the little that was produced before the 24th March), and because supply is very low. However, the slightly increased price will not make up for the losses.

What does it mean for the production later in the season?

Some managers are concerned about how they will maximise the opportunity for the second flush with a significantly reduced workforce (current rules state that only 25% of the workforce are allowed back), so there is a movement this week by the Tea Board of India to push the government to allow more of the workforce back (given reports that cases of COVID in India are flat lining).

What teas can we expect from Darjeeling this year?

We are fortunate to have secured some of very earliest first flush produced before lockdown. We remain hopeful that the second flush will deliver great quality and revenues for producers.

What do we think is essential for the future of Darjeeling and other quality origins?

While the issues in Darjeeling are complex and multilayered and reach beyond the damaging effect of the lockdown, our experience from other origins shows us that for a quality tea region to thrive, it needs people to demand pure unblended tea that has the unique character of that region – we must do this (if we aren’t doing so already). This will support greater awareness of Darjeeling’s quality and help its producers command higher average prices and make better returns.