Ek Cup Chiya: The Story of Tea in Nepal

Features Issue 100 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Utsav Shakya

Years ago, I wrote a piece for a daily about how the question: “Chiya khayo?” or “Have you had your tea?” could arguably be the most popular Nepali greeting. Everyone I know says it. It’s a great way to say hello and initiate a conversation, or even an excellent way to cut one short if it’s gone on too long. That’s how much a part of everyday life tea is in Nepal. Enter a Nepali home, or a Nepali office for that matter, and chances are you’ll be holding a cuppa in your hands in no time!

The pull of a good cup of chiya (sweet milk tea in Nepali) is irresistible to most Nepali people. It’s had all day and every day, and is the staple drink of the country’s millions. Most Nepalis drink it with milk, spicing it up with ginger sometimes, while some drink it black with or without a little lemon squeeze. Whatever be your kind of tea, the best one is arguably the kind available in the little corner shops in the country’s cities or at the local tea shops of the idyllic, scattered villages. There’s something about seeing it being prepared over a small wood fire or on a kerosene stove as it boils steadily and gets its characteristic color that improves its taste, at least for me. Chiya in hand, many a discussions follow, ranging from politics (what else?) to general chitchat.

But how did this amazing drink become so popular? Who was responsible? And what else is there to it other than drinking it? With your own steaming cup of chiya by your side, read on.

A Brief History and an Overview of Nepali Tea
Sometime around 1873, Colonel Gajraj Singh Thapa, son-in-law of the erstwhile Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, was on a tour of Darjeeling. He was impressed by the sight of the young tea plants and the tasty drink he was offered everywhere he went. Having a fond travel memory was not enough for him though. So, upon his return, he was determined to grow the beverage in his own country. The colonel soon set up two plantations – Ilam and Soktim tea estates, 103 acres each – effectively ushering in Nepal’s tea industry. While Ilam’s estates grew Orthodox tea, Soktim estates grew CTC tea. The first Nepali tea produced was of the Orthodox variety. Incidentally, Nepal’s tea industry remained largely under the government and ruling class’s domain for more than a hundred years.

The seeds that were planted in Ilam are said to be Chinese, and in many of the plantations, the tea bushes are still those borne of the original seeds. There is also a bit of history attached to how these seeds made it here. Around the time of the last Nepal-Tibet war, also known as the ‘third battle’, which the Nepalis won, the Tibetan forces agreed to sign a treaty to stop the Nepali offensive. A Tibetan team arrived in Kathmandu in January 1856 and, a month later, the Treaty of Thapathali was signed between Jung Bahadur Rana and Kolan Shatra of Tibet. Perhaps as an offering of peace, the Tibetans are said to have brought seeds of the tea plant.

Over the years, Nepal’s tea industry has grown steadily. In 1920, there were only two estates occupying 233 acres producing a little over two tons. Today, the total area under the hill plantation is estimated at 2,153 hectares, consisting of 300 hectares of public estates/gardens, 700 hectares of private estates/gardens and 1,153 hectares belonging to small holders. At present, the national production volume of the hill orthodox tea is estimated at about 244,000 kg per annum. The tea gardens, situated at an elevation ranging from 3,000 ft to nearly 7,000 ft above sea level, produce some of the finest teas in the world. The country offers a diverse range of teas, including seedling and clonal varieties. Greens and blacks are mostly manufactured in CTC style. However, Orthodox styles, with a very few gardens producing organic and Fair Trade teas, are becoming increasingly more prominent. The close proximity of Darjeeling across the Indian border means teas here have Darjeeling-like characteristics. Of unique distinction to Darjeeling, Nepali tea liquor can be darker and offers a more delicate and very lightly sweet flavor.

With reform in the early 90s, Nepali tea started to be grown primarily by small holders unlike tea grown in most other countries. The benefit of small producers is artisan quality and care. However, the challenges of a lack in industry infrastructure and dependence on Kolkata port in India have produced challenges that have put a limitation on Nepali tea to gain consistent access to international markets and to keep their unique identity intact. But that too is changing.

To better improve the opportunities of these small tea farmers and others working in the Nepali tea industry, national and international organizations have emerged to support and provide broad-based foundations for long-term growth, economic self-reliance and ongoing social-programs development. For example, Winrock International helped establish Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative Limited in 2003. It aims to meet the need of improving international market access, promoting self-sustainable agricultural practices and developing international trade networks along with projects to increase the production of high-quality tea and bring it to suitable markets. Cooperative funds range in use from acquiring irrigation equipment to supporting labor issues like the empowerment of women (more than 60% of the workers employed in the Nepali tea industry are women) and banning child labor.

Unfortunately, things are not looking up much where tea production in Nepal started out, in the lush green slopes of Ilam. The first factory set up here, said to have been built with 24-inch-thick walls, lies in a pathetic and dilapidated condition. Although it survived the earthquake of 1934, which claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people here in Nepal, it is highly unlikely that it will survive the neglect that it has been subjected to since. The British machines that were brought in to launch it amidst much fanfare have since been taken away. The lintels lie rotting. Along with the plantations in Ilam that the government leased to the Sanghai Group for 50 years by offering them a 65% share, the factory, too, was leased. Even with only a 35% share, the government still has a say in doing something worthwhile with the factory. One idea is to add a Dairy Science and Tea Management subject to the curriculum to be taught specially, and with practical classes, in Ilam using the factory as a ‘laboratory’ of sorts. Together with this, the factory could also be restored into a museum, thus allowing it to become self sufficient.

But implementing this needs a lot of able management, and the lay workers in Ilam complain that the bad state of things is because of the incompetence of the policy makers in the capital. No leaders in tea management are from Ilam, they complain when asked to voice their concerns. To add to these woes, land is being sold easily as new blood leaves the villages for bigger cities.

The Making of Tea
Flushing Seasons and Characteristics of Nepali Tea:
The term ‘flush’ refers to the picking cycle of the leaves. Some teas, especially oolongs (Chinese tea leaves that have been partially fermented before being dried), are harvested in cycles, usually four times a year. The first and second flushes are generally considered to be of the highest grades. However, equating flush with tea quality is risky business as each region (and each year) has unique weather patterns that undoubtedly affect the quality of the crop.

Spring makes the first flush of the year. The cropping season begins from late February to mid-April following the first light showers after winter. These are springtime teas. The young leaves yield a light tea, which has a light golden color and a delicate aroma. A connoisseur’s delight! The second (summer) flush is gathered during May and June. These teas are more ‘full’ than the spring varieties. The liquor is bright and the taste full and round with a fruity note. The monsoon reaches the eastern part of Nepal by the end of June and continues till September end. The teas produced during this period called monsoon flush contain a lot of moisture and are of standard quality. They have more color and are stronger. While the spring and summer flush are afternoon teas, the monsoon flush is a morning tea. Finally, for the autumn flush, October yields a batch of vintage teas known as the autumnal. The autumnal features an extraordinary combination of Muscat flavor, rich aroma and a lingering lemon to amber aftertaste. They can be enjoyed in the morning with a drop of milk.

But whatever flush they might be, the leaves have to undergo a specific process according to the kind of tea that is being made. The tea leaves undergo withering (where they are subjected to a rush of air, both cold and hot, rolling (where the leaves are churned by a roller machine) and fermentation (to obtain a particular taste), drying, sorting out and then, finally, grading into different qualities. Not all tea goes through the same processes though. For instance, green tea is not dried, hence its name, for retaining its color, which other leaves lose after being exposed to heat from the dryer.

Tea for Good Health

Green tea has been associated with many Asian cultures, particularly with the Chinese for thousands of years. It owes its popularity to its many nutritional and medicinal values and also because it works as a nerve stimulant. It is capable of effectively and instantly refreshing a tired mind and body.

Among the different types of tea, green tea is said to be the most beneficial to human health as it is subjected to a minimum of the manufacturing process. Unlike black tea, green tea is not fermented and so it contains less caffeine. The leaves of a tea plant contain a number of different chemicals such as tannic acid and caffeine. It also contains a number of antioxidants like flavonoids as well as nutrients that are beneficial to the heart. It is anti-carcinogenic too. Drinking tea also benefits the heart as the antioxidants present in it stop the oxidation of bad cholesterol (LDL) and increases the amount of good cholesterol (HDL). It also helps to lower blood pressure. The antioxidants help to fight oxidative stress by destroying free radicals. Studies have also linked the consumption of tea with a reduction in risk for several types of cancer. Researchers speculate that the polyphenols (which act as antioxidants) in tea may inhibit certain mechanisms that promote cancer growth. Both green and black teas have been credited with cancer-inhibiting powers.

Besides, tea also helps in blood clotting and reducing cholesterol. It is beneficial for smokers, too, as it helps eliminate nicotine and other harmful chemicals from the system. It also works in reducing alcohol consumption. Regular intake of green tea is beneficial for weight management as well as reducing tooth decay. However, in case you are preparing yourself a cuppa for health reasons, you should be careful not to make it too strong. A strong brew contains more tannic acid, which may cause indigestion or constipation. However, tea before bedtime might disturb sleep considerably.

Tea Talk
The sophisticated dining public seems to have finally embraced the wide world of fine wines that venture beyond French varieties and into the wilds of the world’s vineyards. This same crew is now expanding its palate to include gourmet teas – from the single-variety to the blended and black to white.

In fact, many of the intricacies of tea lingo and appreciation can be better understood by comparing them with that of wine – there’s the same discussion of appellations, aroma, body, finish and so on. In addition to these descriptive terms, there is also a host of expressions and acronyms used by tea connoisseurs and professionals. For the uninitiated, tips – also known as golden tips or silver tips – are the small, unopened leaves of the tea plant. These are also commonly known as buds, although they do not flower. They are considered to be of better quality than the larger, older leaves of the plant and cost more due to their high harvest/production cost. When a tea has many tips, it is called “tippy”. Some tea leaves are made entirely of tips.

This, however, does not mean that tea tastes less wonderful if you are oblivious about tea lingo or the knowledge of its history; because it does not. Nevertheless, a little history and knowledge of where your next cuppa comes from does lend your drink a dash of personality. In the words of T’ien Yiheng, “Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.” In Nepal, these words and this drink couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer who loves drinking sweet, black tea in random places. He can be contacted at utsavshakya@gmail.com. Phone: 9841327187