A startup is infusing hope in a struggling industry by changing the legend of Darjeeling tea
A VEIL OF FABLE shrouds the hills of Kurseong, halfway up Hill Cart Road from Siliguri to Darjeeling. Through this glassy cataract, you scan the trimmed tea bushes for fairytale creatures, among them the green thrips that are said to maul the leaves in summer, sucking out water and concentrating flavours. You take in the beguiling names, necessary serenades for the champagne of teas: Moonlight, Moondrop, Thunderbolt, Sunlight, Green Pearls. A tea plucked by virgins on a full moon night, another rubbed into submission by a master of brews, and one so delicate it can only be handrolled by children. It is easy to conjure up fantasies in Darjeeling’s enchanted highlands, where lianas, lichen and orchids knit vertical gardens and bamboos sway in the wind like exotic dancers. On the lawns of the bungalow at Goomtee tea garden, a century-old hacienda with polished wood floors and wide-open windows, BN Mudgal, the silver-haired tea planter who has managed sister gardens Jungpana and Goomtee for three decades, wears the knowing smile of a man grown weary of entertaining gushing guests. Summer rain rushes us inside, as though shutting the door on the rapt scenery and the storied past of Darjeeling. “It has been raining every other day and this is not good for the summer tea,” Mudgal says. “The spring flush was delayed this year. We got a good crop, but by the time we hit the market, it was already flooded with tea from gardens at a lower elevation.”
Darjeeling tea is at a strange crossroads. On the one hand, soil and weather conditions are less than ideal, the Gorkha separatist movement has once again reared its head, and costs are mounting, with average prices barely keeping pace. On the other, the demand for single-estate teas is on the rise thanks to greater awareness about tea and easy access to it through a new crop of online retailers. As with any lifestyle trend, there is also a vaguely disturbing tendency towards over-indulgence, with gimmicky and ornamental teas— ’beautiful hot water,’ as one planter described them to me—commanding hazardously high values even as some reasonably good tea is sold at throwaway prices. “Darjeeling tea is a buyers’ market. We make fancy small-batch teas for customers from China, South Korea and Japan because they are ready to pay even Rs 15,000 a kg. There is a lot more craft involved than some decades ago,” Mudgal says. “I have never had to work so hard.” What he leaves unsaid, suspended in the hoary mist of Darjeeling, is that the region produces 9 million kg of tea in a year—a tenth of India’s production— most of which is average or sub-par and auctioned off for under Rs 500 a kg. The highest quality tea, labelled FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, or, as the joke goes, Far Too Good For Ordinary People), is sold through contractual arrangements between gardens and buyers from Europe, UK, Japan, China and the US. Increasingly, planters are directly soliciting private clients in the hope of realising better prices, and only what is left unsold— about 40 per cent of the total produced—goes under the hammer in Kolkata, according to J Thomas & Co, the leading auctioneer controlling over 95 per cent of the trade.
Ecommerce is now beginning to plug the holes in the fine tea supply chain, with gardens setting up web-shops as well as partnering with online retailers. Of all the emerging online brands, the one that has sparked hope among Darjeeling’s planters—a traditionalist bunch who didn’t think good tea could be sold on the internet—is Teabox, a startup that is in its fifth summer of operation. With a modern sourcing and packaging hub on the outskirts of Siliguri, and a keen procurement team that laps up some of the best tea in Darjeeling within a couple of days of plucking, Teabox is right where the action is. It has sold over 80,000 kg of premium tea sourced from India—primarily from Darjeeling, though the share of teas from Assam, the Nilgiris, Sikkim and Meghalaya is on the rise—to 111 countries. Prices range from Rs 349 to Rs 4,999 for 100 gm loose leaf—about 40 cups. The US is its largest market, followed by Russia and then India, where Teabox is now trying to promote fine tea over chai. “We want to build a billion-dollar brand,” says Kaushal Dugar, founder and CEO of Teabox. “Some of the most sought-after products in the world, such as tea and spices, come from India. Yet, we have not given the world a single big brand. After five years of running this company, if I have learnt one thing, it is that we can dream bigger.”
We sip a redolent spring tea and laugh about how easy it is to be a startup posterboy in West Bengal. “If I hadn’t been exposed to Bengaluru’s startup culture, Teabox would not have taken off,” Dugar says. He spends much of his time at the Teabox corporate office in Koramangala,Bengaluru’s startup district. The company has raised $9 million in funding from Accel Partners, Jafco Asia and Horizen Ventures, and its commitment to freshness and quality has turned several satisfied customers, including Robert Bass, founder of New York-based private equity Oak Hill Capital, into investors. “I realised how far we have come when a big American beverages company recently wanted to acquire us. They came halfway across the earth to discuss the offer, and I walked away wiser and more confident,” Dugar says. Teabox says it has grown three times in volume in the past year. It has also initiated partnerships with hotels and airlines on the back of a simple innovation: a nylon mesh bag filled with loose leaf tea that is then sealed, like potato chips, in a nitrogen-flushed pack to retain freshness. Teabox has also bet big on its own flavoured tea blends crafted with natural spices, fruits and flowers without any added flavouring oils. “We have something for everyone—green tea for the health conscious, chai blends for those who can’t do without milk in their tea, and floral flavours for the adventurous—but personally, I want urban Indians to be able to experience fresh Darjeeling tea that tastes the way it is meant to taste, and not stale and limp after being stored in a leaky room for three months,” Dugar says.
“Urban Indians should be able to experience fresh Darjeeling tea that tastes the way it is meant to taste, and not stale and limp after being stored in a leaky room for three months” – Kaushal Dugar, founder and CEO, Teabox
IMPECCABLY DRESSED AND juggling his iPhones, Dugar, 34, is as sophisticated as his brand. Teabox has a Scandinavian aesthetic—black steel and beechwood furniture, stencil font and minimalist branding—that he attributes to his wife Prachi Jain, the creative head of the company. Son of a businessman who supplies machinery and equipment to plantations in Darjeeling, Dugar studied Business in Singapore before returning home to work in the tea industry. The startup was originally called DarjeelingTeaExpress and it struggled to get on board hallowed plantations that could not be bothered to entertain small buyers. Dugar would drive up the treacherous mountain roads in a Wagon R, tasting and buying tea every week and paying good prices. “I only agreed to give Kaushal some of our tea because his father is a good friend of mine. I thought I should support this young man in the small way that I could,” says Mudgal. Today, more than half of all tea gardens in Darjeeling work with Teabox, sending samples every few days and waiting to dazzle its young procurement team. “No one expected Teabox to become a game-changer. The way they are growing, they could soon become a pillar of strength for Darjeeling,” Mudgal says. Darjeeling tea, crumbling under the weight of its own past, could use propping up. “The British were passionate about tea. Then ownership passed on to businessmen and then to their sons. Now that all the land in Darjeeling is on lease from the government, it is not about a future, it is about survival,” he says.
Over a century and a half after the British finagled thousands of Camellia sinensis seeds from China and planted them here in the shadow of the Kanchenjunga, no other part of India produces tea as fine and nuanced as Darjeeling’s. When you drink a cup of FTGFOP, a fragrant liquor typical of a summer flush tea that is at once sweet, woody and infused with the essence of Himalayan flowers and fruits, you know it could only have come from one corner of India. Linger over it and you will want to know much more: the mystique of terroir, the craft of the planter, the pluckers and the songs on their lips, the colour of the sky the day the leaves were picked, the groan of the old Britannia machinery that rolled them around until they were wiry and packed full of mysteries. Was your cup nurtured on the inaccessible slopes of Jungpana or the highest reaches of Gopaldhara? Each of the 78 gardens in the Kurseong- Darjeeling region, and indeed, their sub-zones, located anywhere between 450 to 2,000 metres above sea level, bears a distinct signature, an indelible watermark. The seasons add even more variation to the spectrum of Darjeeling teas. In spring, the fresh leaves forming after a long winter make a flowery and astringent brew. In summer, the heat deepens flavours after a brief dormancy. In the monsoon, growth is rampant and the leaves are larger—Darjeeling produces nearly half its tea during this season—but much less flavourful. The brief autumn in October is characterised by a full-bodied, fruity flourish. There are perhaps as many different Darjeeling teas as there are days in a year. Yet, single-estate tea is hard to come by in India, and even overseas, where most of Darjeeling’s produce goes into blends, stripped of its prized pedigree.
“Darjeeling tea made in Hamburg was the joke back in our time,” says Arun Kumar Gomden, a senior planter-turned-consultant who has managed some of Darjeeling’s best-known gardens: Thurbo, Margaret’s Hope and Castleton. After Independence, the UK started sourcing its tea from Kenya and Germany quickly became the largest importer of Darjeeling loose leaf tea. It was routinely blended with cheaper teas from Sri Lanka, Nepal and other regions and re-exported. “Even now, only a fourth of all the tea sold as ‘Darjeeling tea’ is the real deal,” Gomden says. A typical first flush Darjeeling tea today is delicate, flowery and fresh, but this is an artifice of German taste, Gomden says. “We used to make robust teas from the spring flush, fired and rolled like typical Darjeeling black tea. The Europeans got it into their heads that the first tea of the year should be light, and so we changed the whole product,” he says.
Each of the 78 gardens in the Kurseong-Darjeeling region, located anywhere between 450 and 2,000 metres above sea level, bears a distinct flavour profile
Darjeeling has always been market-responsive, from indulging Europe’s fancies to producing middling green teas that satisfy the demand from the domestic market. For the past few years, the buzzword in Darjeeling has been ‘clonal tea’. While Darjeeling is home to heritage Chinese bushes, next-generation tea plants cloned from high-quality cultivars with names like AV2 and B157 are increasingly filling up sparser areas and replacing bushes past their prime. Clonal teas taste more uniform and are often more intensely flavourful than Chinary teas, the output varying only with the micro-climate and the cultivar used. “They are easy- drinking teas,” says Gopal Upadhyay who, at 32, is head of procurement for Teabox. “Ideal for people who are discovering tea.” Thanks to their impeccable clonal bushes, gardens like Castleton and Margaret’s Hope, known for their traditional black teas, are now producing some of the best first flush white teas Darjeeling has ever seen. Small-batch and highly sought-after in the tea rooms of London and Paris, they are the new face of Darjeeling tea, but some worry that their popularity may be ephemeral.
“I personally prefer good tea made from Chinary. That is the definition of Darjeeling tea. But now that Darjeeling’s clonals are maturing, they are yielding very interesting brews,” Gomden says. He is something of a legend. The first to identify an alluring flavour peculiar to the best second flush teas made from Darjeeling Chinary, he gave it a name: Muscatel, to denote a certain spicy fruitiness and musky aroma, with a lasting finish as can be found in no other tea. “In 1986, when I was managing Castleton, we made a small batch of tea from a particular section that had this unique flavour. I called it ‘Muscatel’ in the invoice and the 21 kilograms sold at Rs 1,460 a kg back when four-figure prices were not common,” Gomden says. There is a very small window, perhaps just two weeks in the month of June, when leaves picked from the highest valleys of a garden can yield a Muscatel. This became the holy grail of Darjeeling tea praxis, with most gardens following suit.
“In 40-50 years, there will be no Muscatel tea from Darjeeling,” says Upadhyay. “The autumn flush, too, is shrinking and increasingly inconsistent. I could only meet 40 per cent of my procurement target of last year’s autumn tea. The rest didn’t make the cut.” The uncertainties of Darjeeling tea, coupled with a wave of innovation in other tea-growing areas of the Subcontinent, have forced Teabox to rely on Coonoor, Nepal, Meghalaya and Assam for expansion. Veena Chordia, a tea professional who grew up in the gardens of the Nilgiris, has joined their procurement team and will likely head sourcing from Sri Lanka as the company expands. Together, the tea markets of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are an $8 billion opportunity.
The demand for Gorkhaland has become a full-blown agitation after a clash in the hills between protestors and security forces deployed by the West Bengal government, and Darjeeling has been in lockdown for two full days now. We are trapped in the unstirring air of Siliguri in summer, wondering if the tea gardens are feeling the heat. At the peak of their celebrated second flush, they must get fresh leaves plucked every four-five days—it takes a bud less than a week to unfurl—or risk lowering the quality of their product. When we finally drive up the luxuriant hills, along the toy train track and past Paglajhora where a landslide washed away the road in 2010, Upadhyay looks nervous. “We are still waiting on the Goomtee Muscatel to be delivered. The Chinary tea from the Maharani region of Margaret’s Hope is yet to fulfil its promise and I am worried about the quality of the second flush in our preferred high-altitude region in Jungpana— Mahalderam. We typically source 600-800 kg or more from these gardens,” he says.
THE REMOTEST GARDEN, Jungpana, connected by wooden bridge across a stream bordering it, and reached by 633 slippery steps cut into the steep hillside, is the least affected by the agitation as it has a large number of staff living onsite. Lassi Thamang, the factory assistant manager at Jungpana—a woman in a managerial position is a rarity in Darjeeling, where brightly-dressed women have traditionally only plucked and sorted tea—welcomes us with a warming brew from last week. Upadhyay is only interested in more recent batches. A tasting is arranged, with 32-year-old Rajdeep Rai setting out porcelain cups in a row, boiling freshly- drawn water in an old kettle—I have been warned that the tea would always taste better at the gardens on account of the spring water—and weighing 2.5 gm each from five different batches of tea using the good old countermeasure of a 25-paisa coin. “The tea is not as coloured as last year’s,” Upadhyay says, asking for samples from one ghani—a small batch—to be sent to the Teabox office.
With an annual production of 60,000-65,000 kg, Jungpana is an average-sized, if overachieving, Darjeeling plantation. Most of its area is under organic cultivation, with the non-organic leaves processed in a separate facility, adhering to the strictest export norms. Being organic is not easy, factory accountant Ajit Sharma tells me on a walk through the hedges. A section of the garden went non-organic this year to boost productivity.
Housed in wood buildings and run on vintage equipment, the leaves wilted, fired and rolled as per the manager’s instructions, a Darjeeling tea factory is an unlikely marvel in precision and quality control. The final product is sorted by machine and by hand into different grades, starting with FTGFOP, after which every subsequent grade merits one less prefix. Despite this, twigs, hair and tiny pieces of glass find their way into the processed tea. At the Teabox facility, the tea is further cleaned, tested for chemicals and moisture (which cannot exceed 4 per cent except in case of flavoured blends), packed, labelled and kept in cold storage until dispatch.
Like a fine, balanced brew, Teabox’s business is built on the tenets of quality, marketing and technology. Dugar says one of their innovations has been “to hack the tasting process”. His procurement team of four—average age 30—rates and grades all teas on specific weighted parameters like colour, depth of flavour, aroma and aftertaste. “Tasting was once the privilege of old gentlemen with 40 years of experience. Well, I can’t spend 40 years building a brand. We have broken it down to data science,” he says. Based on a customer’s past choices, Teabox recommends other teas that he or she may enjoy. They can also take a quiz to find the next tea they may like to try. This is how, on a rainy evening in Bangalore, I stumbled upon Giddapahar, a fine family-owned garden with a winning mix of old Chinary and high-altitude clonals. “Because of Teabox, smaller estates are getting global visibility,” says Hemendra Kumar, the young, fifth-generation owner of the garden that has seen a marked revival over the past few years. Kumar, who produces about 40,000 kg of tea in a year, is focused on high-quality, high-value teas. His summer Muscatel, picked on May 30th, was among the first to make it to the Teabox second flush catalogue. “The people at Teabox know the potential of each garden,” he says. “It is up to us to live up to the expectations.”