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A new champ takes Darjeeling cup

- In battle of the brew, weather helps Jungpana pull past Castleton

Calcutta, Dec. 15: The real battle in Darjeeling is not between Mamata Banerjee and Bimal Gurung but between Castleton and Jungpana, which produce the best tea money can buy.

Castleton — the tea garden formed by Dr Charles Graham in 1865 — is like Brazil in football: five-time World Cup winner, a record every other team chases.

Jungpana, started by British planter Henry Montgomery Lennox in 1899, is a lot like Spain: the modern-day gold standard of football.

As in the world of soccer, so in the garden of tea: there’s a change at the top of the totem pole.

Most tea tasters agree that Jungpana has consistently produced better tea this year, outclassing Castleton, which has lately gone through some rough weather.

Owned by Amgoorie India Ltd, a subsidiary of the Goodricke group, Castleton was battered by hail, which badly hurt its crucial second-flush crop.

“We had a delayed flush this year because of hail in April,” admits Arun N. Singh, the managing director of the Goodricke group. “This affected the quality of our second-flush teas.”

The shift in buyers’ preference to Jungpana has underpinned the prices the two gardens have realised at the auctions. Figures available with J. Thomas & Co Pvt Ltd, one of the world’s oldest and largest tea auctioneers, show Jungpana grabbing the price perch.

On an average, Jungpana sold at Rs 856.33 a kg compared with Rs 569.15 that Castleton fetched through the period from April to the second week of November. The figures represent the average price of all grades of tea.

Shantanu Kejriwal, whose family acquired Jungpana in 1956 from the Ranas of Nepal, said: “I think the weather suited us more this time.”

Tea pundits point to micro-climatic conditions as well. Castleton’s gardens face east and south and sprawl over gradual slopes with no rain-shadow areas at an altitude ranging from 800 to 1,830 metres.

Jungpana is laid out over south-facing slopes at an altitude of 2,400 to 6,100 metres, which ensures extra hours of sunlight.

There’s an old saw in the tea business: gardens at higher elevation usually produce good second-flush teas. But it all boils down to the amount of sunlight, light mists and late-evening showers a garden gets.

Tea cognoscenti are, however, reluctant to choose between Castleton and Jungpana. Or even agree that the world championship contest is between these two gardens. Margaret’s Hope, Makaibari, Thurbo and Happy Valley — and some less familiar names — roll off their expert tongues as formidable competition.

Says Krishen Katyal, the chairman and managing director of J. Thomas: “Each tea needs to be approached with an appreciation of its peculiarities and individual characteristics. You really can’t compare between a Rembrandt and a Picasso. If my pockets are deep enough, I would buy them all!”

Industry veterans recoil at the thought of using a footballing metaphor — a match-up between Brazil and Spain — to describe the battle between the gardens.

Brand it like Bordeaux

The rivalry between Castleton and Jungpana mirrors the rumoured jealousies between Mouton and Lafite — the two great French wine-growing châteaux owned by the different branches of the Rothschild family.

The comparison with Bordeaux wine ends there, though. Darjeeling estates don’t market their produce with their own distinctive labels, barring the odd exception. Consumers are rarely aware of the provenance of the Darjeeling tea they are drinking.

That’s because the gardens tend to sell their teas like a commodity through auctions and private sales to market intermediaries who then package and put the product on shop shelves. The buyers are mostly from Japan and Germany, and a few other European countries.

“We haven’t developed the infrastructure to transform a commodity into a product. This is probably a hangover from our colonial past,” says Sanjay Bansal, the chairman of the Ambootia group.

So little of Darjeeling tea is produced each year — fluctuating between 8.6 million kg and 11.6 million kg as opposed to 500 million kg of Assam — that there is no reason it can’t become a thing of desire like single malt Scotch whisky or the best of French wine. Even Bordeaux wine was sold as a commodity until a landmark event nearly 160 years ago.

The French displayed a business wisdom the British — then known as canny traders — did not with their tea from the empire.

Under a classification done in 1855, Bordeaux’s estates were clubbed into different classes according to quality at the behest of the emperor, Napoleon III. For instance, the A-team of Bordeaux consists of five chateaux with the other 56 chateaux classed into four categories.

A similar hierarchy for the 87 Darjeeling gardens might see Jungpana and Castleton marked top of the class along with a few others. Once such an order is established, with official sanction, it might encourage the gardens to brand their teas as their produce graduates from being a commodity to a luxury product.

Sugato Dutt, a director of Subodh Brothers Pvt Ltd, a leading Darjeeling tea dealer, explains that gardens have traditionally preferred the wholesale route because of lack of incentives to do otherwise. In any case, most gardens have had a hand-to-mouth existence, the financial constraint nipping the concept of branding in the bud.

“Branding does have its advantages. It means a better price and a lasting trademark of the company. It will ensure that sellers like us are able to buy throughout the year,” adds Dutt.

He voices the warning, however, that branding could double the cost of production as marketing, packaging and promotion will demand investment and not just a one-off spending but steadily over a number of years before a company begins to taste profits.

Ranabir Sen, a former chairman of J. Thomas, does feel the stirrings of change in the Darjeeling cup. “Branding is more important to consumers and it keeps prices stable. Even when prices fall heavily in the estates, not a paisa comes down in retail sales. Garden owners are now increasingly trying to build a brand.”

Castleton springs to mind. So do a few others.

A tale with tea

Whether branding should come first and classification follow, if at all, or the other way round is a matter of debate that can’t be settled over a single cup of Jungpana or Castleton.

The objective of either or the two together is to establish the exclusivity of the best of the Darjeeling gardens so a family is known by the tea it serves — a Castelton house or a Jungpana house, depending on the year, of course.

This year, certainly, it had better be a Jungpana house. And with the tea can be told a tale. Apocryphal, according to non-believers.

There was this British hunter and his faithful Gorkha, Jung Bahadur, who were attacked by a leopard in the Himalayas. Jung Bahadur was badly mauled while trying to save his master. As he lay dying, he asked his master for some “pana”, or water. He was taken to a nearby spring and given water but died soon after.

The area came to be called Jungpana: a combination of the man’s first name and his hoarse cry for water.

Jung Bahadur’s brave soul may finally have found peace this year.

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