The world-famous Darjeeling Tea is sold at Selim Hill Tea Garden, one of the region’s 74 active tea gardens. Selim Hill, like most tea estates in the area that rely on international exports, was barely making ends meet. After all, the pandemic had wiped off their hopes of exporting the first (spring) and second (summer) flushes.
But something changed dramatically when Sparsh told his buddies that his parents were considering selling the tea garden. Sparsh worked at a think tank after graduating from Ashoka University in Sonepat with a degree in political science and international relations.
Sparsh’s friends asked if they might help save Selim Hill when his family chose to sell it. Ishaan Kanoria, a 24-year-old investment banker, and Anant Gupta, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) alumnus, joined the team.
Consumers may get a year’s supply of fresh and organic tea for just Rs 2,100 through their unique subscription plan. Dorje Teas was founded by Sparsh and Ishaan under the guidance of 74-year-old Rajah Banerjee. Sparsh says, “He is also an investor in the company, our brand ambassador, and the wise old man who is mentoring us through the process.”
Why the Darjeeling Tea industry suffers
Sparsh and Ishaan identified four major reasons why the local tea industry was suffering, and how they could help improve it.
- Climate change: The region is experiencing irregular droughts and unnatural landslides as a result of climate change and factors related to it. Other macro factors include an increase in the number of dams, which leads to increased seismic activity, including earthquakes. Because Darjeeling receives its rains during this time, the tea is produced over about seven and a half months. This period of rainfall had shrunk to about five and a half months.
- Beholden to the export market: According to Sparsh, the Darjeeling tea industry needs to break free from its bubble and move on. Tea gardens in this region do not cater to the domestic market, nor do they promote all four flushes as distinct products. Our tea garden would close down, according to many industry veterans, if we didn’t focus on the export market.
- Archaic systems of management: Apart from an antiquated system of grading and sorting tea leaves for export, tea gardens continue to be managed in a colonial hierarchical manner. Sparsh acknowledges that this has benefited previous generations of his family, but believes it is not sustainable in the long run.
- Cheaper Tea from Nepal: Many tea gardens lost a lot of their produce during the region’s crippling 104-day strike in support of a separate Gorkhaland state. To meet domestic demand, traders began importing less expensive tea from Nepal, capturing a significant portion of the market. India consumes nearly half of all Darjeeling tea. Dorje Teas has launched a social media campaign to show customers where their tea is grown.
Subscription model: Breaking the mould
Darjeeling teas are available in four different flushes: spring, summer, autumn, and monsoon. Each has its distinct taste, aroma, flavoursome families have, and story. “Monsoon flush tea, which gets the worst rap, is unique because it has a bold colour, a smoky flavour, and drinkers can put a drop of milk in it,” says Sparsh.
Ishaan and Sparsh have developed a subscription model that allows customers to pre-order their annual tea supply. The prices of the monsoon and autumn flushes are lower than those of the spring and summer flushes. However, the first and second flushes, which are exported, are not available to Indian customers. Teas from the first flush range in price from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per kilogram.
Dorje Teas has created a Tea Club in which we send subscribers updates on what’s going on in the garden every Sunday. Subscribers become tea garden supporters and receive high-quality, organic farm-fresh tea delivered to their door. Customers who prefer to drink more frequently can have these packets sent once a month. This becomes a worthwhile proposition at 2,000 per kg for the entire year.
Whole Leaf, Broken Leaf, Fannings (deposited in tea bags), and Dust are the four grades of leaves used in the tea industry. Tea gardens use breakers, which effectively use metal to cut down the tea leaves, to determine these classes. Breaking leaves degrades the quality of the tea, and leaves leave a metallic aftertaste. At their legacy factory, Dorje Teas has abandoned export-market-oriented grading standards.
Selim Hill Collective for the community
The Dorje Teas Collective aspires to “establish a paradigm for a more sustainable and just tea garden, where workers are fairly compensated and biodiversity is protected.” In Selim Hill, there are about 1,000 families, 350 of which are directly related to the tea garden. Sparsh’s father assisted in the establishment of a functional sewage system for the area’s population, although the area lacks a proper municipality.
The Second Chance House at the garden is where the Selim Hill Collective is based. The goal is to resurrect the tea garden and turn it into a profitable enterprise. Dorje will donate a portion of every subscription to the Collective’s tree-planting program. They’ve also begun a proper taxonomy of bird species in the field of wildlife protection. However, these projects are still in their early stages, and there is a long way to go.