In the southeastern corner of Nepal lies the small city of Bhadrapur. This sleepy, tropical town offers a striking contrast to the industrial bustle of mile-high Kathmandu. Here, the airport terminal is a single room and flight information is handwritten on chalkboards. Your arrival here is also a departure—you can sense that the influence of the West is present but muted. In many ways, this special region of the world is a crossroads between East and South Asia.
Bhadrapur lies a mere 300 feet above sea level in an area called the Terai. A fair road wanders out of the city, where the vista is dominated by a verdant agricultural checkerboard. Rice paddies are tilled by farmers urging on teams of water buffalo; bananas and papaya abound. Up you go out of the lowlands, rising rapidly into the hills, eventually encountering the place fittingly known as “twisted road.” You are in Ilam.
According to legend, in 1863, Junga Bahadur Rana, then Prime Minister of Nepal, was given tea seeds by the emperor of China. Rana gave the tea seeds to his son-in-law, Gajraj Singh Thapa, then Governor of the eastern provinces of Nepal. Thapa then started the first estate in Ilam, which still exists today.
Ilam produces nearly three-quarters of the high-quality Orthodox leaf in Nepal and the production of Ilam’s small farmers is, in turn, responsible for the vast majority of this output.
In all, two-thirds of Nepali Orthodox green leaf is grown by small farmers. This is the unique and compelling story of the region—one in which a new model for tea is being worked out on a daily basis. In less than a decade, eastern Nepal has quadrupled its output of orthodox tea. A great deal of the development benefit has gone to the small farmers, who are able to supplement their incomes with this high-value crop while continuing to grow staples such as potatoes and cardamom on their tiny holdings.
The growing conditions in the hilly region of eastern Nepal are essentially identical to those of Darjeeling, which lies roughly 30 miles away. Rainfall is plentiful and the heat of summer days is tempered by cool nights. Although Nepali tea does not enjoy the recognition and tradition of Darjeeling tea, it has time on its side.
Most of the tea in eastern Nepal has been planted in the past two decades and is thus very young—and this youth translates to high-quality green leaf. While Darjeeling struggles to shore up problems of declining leaf quality, Nepal has been making up ground, quickly learning the artisanal manufacturing techniques that turn tea potential into tea perfection.
Leaf styles mimic those of Darjeeling tea (so much so that Nepali tea is often packaged and sold as Darjeeling!) The plants stir from their winter slumber in late March and the First Flush commences. This leaf is “hard withered”—allowed to sit in the withering troughs for roughly 16 hours, losing slightly more moisture than the summer leaf. The subsequent roll is light and brief. Often, oxidation times are less than an hour, giving the leaf its green appearance and herbaceous profile. This tea proves the exception to the generally accepted rule that black teas are fully oxidized.
No matter the season, good Nepali tea demonstrates classic Himalayan character in the cup, with striking notes of muscatel and the customary astringency. Nepali tea makers have ventured into new styles as well. Sublime green and white teas produced on a micro scale can be had by savvy buyers.
And on that note, I promise to travel the eastern Nepali tea trail in greater detail during my next post. I will introduce you to some of the fine people that make these exceptional products as well as the organization that brings them together. I urge you to support the efforts of Nepali Orthodox tea producers as they seek to forge a strong regional identity based on product quality, human development, and ecological sustainability.
Main and 2nd: smbushberg