Nepalese tea growers are finally laying out their own stalls in the lucrative global market for premium leaves after decades spent in the shadow of their neighbors across the border in Darjeeling.
Grown at high altitude in lush, emerald gardens among the foothills of the Himalayas, "orthodox" Nepalese teas are now finding their way onto the books of speciality buyers from Europe and the United States.
AdvertisementThe orthodox method of production oxidises and prepares teas with a focus on the top-quality, whole leaves and buds that produce a nuanced and slightly fruity flavour and can be used for multiple infusions.
It is a niche but profitable market, supplying high-end tea shops and retailers around the world who cater to an affluent, health-conscious clientele.
"Nepalese tea is increasingly visible in the western world where the demand for high-quality tea has grown in recent years," said Dilli Baskota, manager of Kanchanjangha Tea, a garden based in the hills of eastern Nepal.
Germany and United States are the primary markets, but Baskota said that buyers from France, Britain, Russia and Canada, as well as consumer giants China and Japan, had recently placed sizeable orders.
Premium Nepalese teas can fetch prices as high as $85 per kilo on the international market, and according to the National Tea Board production has almost doubled in the past five years to 2.6 million kilos, of which 90 percent is exported.
The global market for orthodox teas is currently estimated by the US Tea Association at around 45 million kilos.
The hill gardens of eastern Nepal are at an equivalent altitude -- and share a similar climate -- to those just across the Indian border in Darjeeling, which produce some of the world's most sought-after and highest-priced premium black tea.
The Darjeeling brand enjoys international renown, but experts say complacency, price-gouging and a low-level but persistent separatist insurgency in the Indian region have given the Nepalese teas a foothold in the market.
"Around five years ago, some European buyers became frustrated with the Darjeeling growers, feeling they were using their monopoly on the brand to push prices far too high," said Vikram Mittal, a New Delhi-based trader in speciality teas.
"So they started looking more closely at similar-tasting but cheaper Nepali teas as a sourcing option," Mittal said.
Nepal growers cannot compete with the top-grade Darjeeling premium teas -- such as the "Silver Tip" leaves which are traditionally hand-picked under a full moon and retail at up to $500 a kilo.
But their medium-grade orthodox teas are competitive and quality is improving as owners lure Darjeeling planters to manage their gardens.
"Quite a few have moved to Nepal, where they are given more responsibility and better salaries," said P.K. Ganguly, a retired Darjeeling grower.
"They take with them decades of accumulated expertise in growing and processing and that makes a huge difference quality-wise," he said.
Nonetheless, as an impoverished, landlocked country, Nepal poses particular challenges to tea growers who have to struggle with a woeful transport infrastructure, power and labour shortages and a lack of government support.
"The government hasn't provided any real incentives," said garden owner Bachan Gyawali.
"Labour shortages and regular strikes enforced by one group or another have, at times, crippled the business," Gyawali said.
Around 8,000 small farmers are involved in orthodox tea cultivation and employ some 27,000 people -- the vast majority of them women.
In an effort to promote their brands, Nepal's private tea producers launched the Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative (HIMCOOP) in 2003, and have started to take part in global trade fairs, such as the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas.
HIMCOOP has hired a Darjeeling native, John Taylor, to oversee its marketing side, and has created a "Nepal Tea" brand endorsed by the legendary Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner.
While branding is crucial, Taylor said a long-term effort was also needed to woo major overseas buyers.
"Tea is a very personal business. You have to build up a personal relationship with the buyers who often visit the gardens themselves," he said.
HIMCOOP president Sushil Rijal acknowledged: "There is huge potential for orthodox tea in European countries and North America but, up till now, we haven't been able to market our products that well.
"Honestly, we are very new in this trade," he admitted.