S Kalyana Ramanathan / London March 04, 2009
Darjeeling tea may finally find its legitimate place in the European market with well defined parameters put in place, stipulating what blend of tea will qualify as genuine Darjeeling tea. The Tea Board of India, along with The United Kingdom Tea Council, is in the final stages of discussing an appropriate system that would define Darjeeling tea and the mechanism to ensure that the Darjeeling tea planters get the right price in the European markets.
For the last few years, tea planters in India through the Tea Board have been seeking a conclusive definition of Darjeeling tea in the global market. The most recent proposal from the Tea Board to its European counterparts has suggested the blend must consist at least 90 per cent of Darjeeling tea to qualify to be called so.
Though the UK Tea Council and the EU Tea Committee are not opposed to the idea of finding a clear definition of Darjeeling tea, there has been some apprehension on the implementation of such a definition. “We support this completely. What the Tea Board of India is doing is a laudable effort. But the procedures need to be simple and benefit all parties,” said William Gorman, executive chairman of The United Kingdom Tea Council. The council has been vested with the task of representing the 27 EU trading partners on this subject. The trading rules not just in the UK but in other European countries would be considered, said Gorman.
India has every reason to protect the integrity of Darjeeling tea, which is considered as the ‘Champagne of Tea’. This variety, according to Tea Board statistics, accounts for 1.24 per cent of India’s annual tea production. However, it fetches nearly twice the price of any competitive variety of tea, commonly consumed in the UK (like the typical English breakfast tea), according to trade sources in the UK.
In 2007-08, India produced 8.05 lakh tonnes of tea and the estimated production in the current year is 8.32 lakh tonnes. Between January and November 2008, India exported 1.76 lakh tonnes of tea.
“It is like the Scotch Whiskey or Champagne. We are quite aware of what the Tea Board is trying to do,” Gorman said. The concern among the EU trading partners is the “policing” of the proposed system. They are seeking an efficient, intelligent and yet a simple mechanism for qualifying a blend as Darjeeling tea. Interestingly, the real challenge for Darjeeling tea comes from much closer home than one would expect. Certain varieties of tea grown in Nepal manage to pass on as Darjeeling tea. “Even tea tasters at times find it difficult to distinguish between these two and hence they (Nepalese tea) pass on as Darjeeling tea,” said Gorman.
Proposals from the Tea Board have been vetted by the legal councillors for The UK Tea Council. Their response and suggestion will be considered by the board of The UK Tea Council on April 22. The UK Tea Council believes that the new system to evaluate and price Darjeeling tea should be in place this year, said Gorman.
The UK Tea Council along with other members in the EU are taking extra care to put in place a system to evaluate a specialty tea such as Darjeeling tea so that other similar teas can benefit from this. Other varieties such as Assam, Nilgiri and from various countries Sri Lanka, Rwanda and China can emulate this model to ensure that the planters get the right price and buyers get what they are paying for, said Gorman.
The UK is the largest consumer of tea in the western world while most other parts are large coffee consuming nations. It imports nearly 160,000 tonnes of tea every year.
In per capita terms, the UK is the second largest tea consumer (per capita consumption at 2.5 kg) in the world after Ireland (2.6 kg). Though India China and Kenya are large tea growing nations, their per capita consumption ranges between 0.3-0.4 kg.