Nepal’s Terroirs – The next Darjeeling
Much like the Himalayas reaching to the heavens, the small nation of Nepal has started to rise in the international world of orthodox tea.
Our first experience with Nepali teas came at the World Tea Expo back in 2013, where we spent time with Sushil Rual, the Managing Director of the Kuwapani Tea Plantation. He was an excellent ambassador of the Nepal brand and very enthusiastic in sharing all about the Nepali tea industry, harvesting methods and the differences between the tea estates. He provided us with both first and second flush samples from many of the estates and we were delighted to find each cupping provided great flavours from such a young growing area.
After tasting all of the samples and hearing first hand the story of Nepal we knew a selection from this region would have a place on our tea menu, allowing us to share with other tea connoisseurs.
The Terroir and Estates
Nepal itself is wedged between China and India and contains eight out of the ten tallest mountains on Earth with the Everest summit actually forming part of the border along China to the North. India then surrounds this narrow land locked nation of around 27 million inhabitants in every other direction, with Darjeeling less than 80 km away on the shared Eastern border.
The Nepali terroirs used for full leaf tea production exhibit parallel attributes with the world famous Darjeeling; highly desirable acidic soils on steep mountain sides and high elevation valleys averaging 800 – 2,000 metres above sea level, blanketed by heavy mists and just enough sunshine for slow growth to ensure concentrated oils in the leaves.
There are over 20 larger tea estates across the districts (average size around 150 acres) which have their own tea factories, but for the most part they rely on the small farmers and act as a cooperative, buying their leaves each harvest to provide sufficient leaf to make processing economically feasible. Some of the most respected and recognisable estates are, Himalayan Shangri-La Guranse, Kuwapani, Jun Chiyabari, Mist Valley, Everest and Ghorka.
The Nepali tea industry has made great strides and is open to outside assistance to promote growth and continuously increase the quality of their teas. As example, based on recommendations from a 2011 visit by USAID to the area, many of the estates have now created tea collection platforms closer to the farms which eases the burden on the growers to deliver the leaves directly to the estate and also ensures a fresher leaf is delivered to the estate for processing (Source: Nepali Tea Assessment – Nepal, Economic, Agriculture, and Trade Activity, USAID May 2011).
This progressive outlook has been noticed by several Darjeeling tea makers who have moved to the area and are now making their mark in Nepal, much like many young wine makers who seek the ability to shape a newly emerging winery and express their own style. The appearance of less traditional whites, greens, and oolongs is now occurring as they try new things.
Tea Flavour Profiles
Current Nepali teas have cupping qualities which will excite lovers of Indian teas. The four distinct flushes (Spring, Summer, Monsoon, and Autumn) are very similar to what one expects with any good Darjeeling.
We have found the teas we have cupped commonly include pronounced muscatel notes and a pleasant astringency in Spring (First) Flushes, whereas the darker liquor of Summer (Second) and Autumn Flushes have a wonderful sweet smoothness which includes pleasant wood tones and cocoa notes.
Many times when tasting a comparable Nepal and Darjeeling from the same flush in the same cupping session, it is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible for the average consumer to distinguish one from the other, yet Darjeelings still command prices in excess of double those of Nepali teas which proves the importance of brand recognition.
Nepal Terroir Brand Recognition
Nepal is a country keen to gain world brand recognition for their terroir, but it has proven to be a difficult uphill climb due to historical governance problems, lack of economic resources since government privatization in the mid 1990’s, and prior harvesting quality issues. The other key element affecting the Nepal brand is its dilution by those taking advantage of lack of consumer knowledge of Nepali teas and the instantaneous recognition of the Darjeeling name.
Nepali tea has been almost invisible in the Western tea market due to a large portion of the annual production being purchased by foreign tea factories and dealers who then mix them with Darjeelings as most consumers buy based solely on a recognisable name (Source: India Economic Times, January 12 2012).
On average, each year over four times more tea than what is produced by the 87 estates in Darjeeling is sold under the Darjeeling “Champagne of Teas” logo, which does a disservice to both the Darjeeling and Nepal regions who are seeking to grow their own brands.
We certainly if Nepali teas are good enough to be traded as Darjeeling, they are good enough to be sold under their true origin!
Choosing Nepali Teas
We believe current teas originating from key terroir regions within Nepal represent an exceptional value for lovers of Indian style teas and with these new talented tea artisans now trying new and innovative tea styles not characteristic of the region, we can be sure of even greater things to come.
Most importantly, when you are looking to expand your tea palate and are looking for excellent value we encourage tea lovers to remember:
- You’ve probably already had a Nepali tea you found exceptional and just didn’t know it
- Darjeeling tea estates recognise Nepali teas share a similar terroir
- Current Nepali teas are outstanding value for the quality, and
- Always buy from a source you can trust and who can trace the origin of the tea