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Nepali tea is a beverage from the leaves of tea (Camellia sinensis) plants produced in Nepal. Nepal produces teas that is unique in its appearance, aroma and taste. Reasons for the similarity of tea produced in Nepal with Darjeeling tea is that the eastern zones of Nepal have relatively the same geographical and topographical conditions as the Darjeeling. Nevertheless, Nepali teas do stand apart from tea grown in other counties, despite being introduced to the world much more later than the Chinese tea. Tea connoisseurs consider some of the teas from Nepal to be much better than the Darjeeling tea in its aroma, fusion, taste and colour. However, Nepali tea has been an unintentional "best-kept secret" in that it has not been very successful in capturing the limelight in the world tea market, perhaps due to the lack of sufficient quantities of tea.
Since its inception, Nepal's teas are characterized by two types of tea, which are Orthodox tea and CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) tea.
Orthodox tea refers to the process, where the tea is hand-processed or by rolling it in the machines which mimics the hand rolling technique. Most of the speciality teas, like green tea, oolong tea, white tea and hand rolled tea come under the category of orthodox tea. In Nepal, orthodox tea is produced and processed in the mountainous regions of Nepal at an altitude ranging from 3,000 – 7,000 feet above the sea level. There are six major districts, primarily in the eastern regions of Nepal that are known for producing quality orthodox tea, which are Ilam, Panchthar, Dhankuta, Terhathum, Sindhulpalchok and Kaski.
- First flush, begins in the fourth week of March and continues until the end of April. The leaves are tender and the liquor is light yellowish green in color, having a delicate taste with subtle aroma and flavor. The first flush is considered to be more expensive, because of its light and delicate flavor, but also due to the fact that it is produced in low quantity and the demand outstrips the supply.
- Second flush, starts during the second week of May and lasts until the last week of July. In the second flush the leaves gain more strength and exhibits the main characteristics of tea in contrast to the first flush tea. Some experts state that the best tea is made during the second flush.
- Monsoon flush, also referred as "Rainy tea" begins immediately after the second flush, that is around the last week of July and continues until the end of September. The monsoon tea, due to the continuous rain, exhibits a very intense and dark fusion as the tea develops its full color and strength, resulting into a full bodied tea. It is often recommended.
- Autumn flush, usually begins in October and lasts until the end of November. The autumn tea gives a fantastic combination of musky flavors, tangy aromas and an amber liquor.
Crush tear curl (CTC) tea is a method of processing tea, where three main steps are involved - crush, tear and curl, hence the name CTC tea. CTC tea is produced in lower altitudes in the fertile plains of Nepal, which are warm and humid, primarily in the Jhapa district, which is ideal for the production and processing of CTC tea. It accounts for almost 95% of the domestic consumption, owing to its cost of production, which is much less comparatively to that of the orthodox tea.
The Nepal CTC tea is also characterized by four pronounced flushes, the First, Second, Monsoon and Autumn flushes, but unlike the orthodox tea, the CTC tea is more or less uniform throughout, often exhibiting a strong color and subtle aroma after infusion. However, the flushes do not begin and end in accordance with that of the orthodox tea, mainly because of the difference in the geographical and topographical conditions.
During the Rana Dynasty
During the 1800s and the early 1900s, Nepal was under the reign of a highly centralized autocracy – “Rana Dynasty”. The Rana Dynasty expressed as monarchy. Under its reign, policies were ratified which often resulted in the isolation of Nepal from the external world. Nepal’s borders and governance were constantly under turmoil, both internally and externally. Unlike India, the policies helped Nepal retain its national independence from the British colonial rule. Although the policies helped Nepal maintain its independence, it insulated Nepal from modernization and economic development. Thus the nascent Nepali tea industry was greatly affected, and received a major setback, contrary to the “cousin” Darjeeling tea industry, which thrived under the British colonial rule.
It is believed by historians that the first tea bushes in Nepal were grown from seeds which were given as a gift by the Chinese Emperor to the then Prime Minister of Nepal, Jung Bahadur Rana. Nevertheless, Nepal's tea industry owes its roots to the colonization of India, by the world's first multinational company, the “East India Company”, under the British Empire. Around 1863, within a time span of 10 years after the first tea plantation was set up in Darjeeling, hybrids of tea bushes were brought, and the Nepal’s first tea plantation, Ilam Tea Estate was set up in Ilam district, at an altitude of 4,500-5,000 feet above the sea level. Visioning better future prospects of the tea industry in Nepal, two years later a second tea plantation, Soktim Tea Estate was set up in the Jhapa district.
However, the nascent tea industry of Nepal failed to grow. At a time period when the Darjeeling tea industry was beginning to do very well in the global mercantilist market, the tea industry of Nepal failed to provide even for the domestic consumption. The reason for the setback of the Nepal’s young tea industry was mainly due to political turmoil and resulting economic policies of that period, under the reign of the Rana Dynasty.
After the Rana Dynasty
During the 1950s, there was a shift in the political scenario of Nepal. A new constitution was written to develop a democratic system. Despite failure in successful democratization, Nepal’s economy at least opened up to the rest of the world. As a result, the stagnant tea industry witnessed an inflow of public and private investment. The first private tea plantation was set up in 1959, in the terai region under the name Bhudhakaran Tea Estate.
In 1966, the Nepal Tea Development Corporation (NTDC) was set up to aid the development of the tea industry. Originally, tea leaves produced in Nepal were sold to factories in Darjeeling, as the Darjeeling tea bushes had become old, leading to the deterioration of the processed tea. The Nepalese tea leaves were therefore a valuable input for the factories in and around Darjeeling. Finally in 1978, the first factory in Nepal was set up in Ilam for the processing of tea leaves and a few years later another factory was set up in Soktim, Jhapa district. From 1978 to the 1990s, various efforts were made by the Nepal Tea Development Corporation with the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), to encourage the participation of small and marginal farmers in the growth and production of tea as a cash crop. As a result, today the small and marginal farmers constitute the majority percentage share in Nepal's tea industry. Slowly, the stagnant tea industry was evolving into a fully commercialized industry, benefitting the country’s economic and socio-economic development. To further aid in the development of its tea industry, in 1982, His Majesty’s Government of Nepal under the reign of the then King of Nepal Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, declared five districts – Jhapa, Ilam, Panchthar, Dhankuta and Terhathum as Tea Zones of Nepal.
From 1987 to 1993, some of today’s notable institutions were incorporated to further aid the Nepal Tea Development Corporation in the development of a century old stagnant tea industry, like – National Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCDB), Nepal Tea Planters' Association (NTPA) and Himalayan Orthodox Tea Producers' Association (HOTPA). In 1997, Nepal's tea industry saw a major transformation towards privatization, with the privatization of the plantations and factories under the Nepal Tea Development Corporation (NTDC).
Since the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, an array of international non-governmental organizations (like – Winrock, SNV, GTZ etc.) have become involved with the stakeholders of Nepal's tea industry, because the tea industry in Nepal also played a significant role in the eradication of poverty, especially in the rural areas where the tea plantations were concentrated. By the 21st century the stagnant tea industry had transformed into a fully commercialized industry, yet it had not yet developed a strong brand in the global market, lacking efficiently integrated production and marketing systems.
Hence, in 2000 as per the provisions of the National Tea and Coffee Development Board Act of 1992, the Government of Nepal ratified the National Tea Policy. The National Tea Policy focussed on the following five main broad topics: -
- Production and processing
- Market and trade promotion
- Institutional arrangement
- Manpower development
- Development and promotion of auxiliary industries
Today, Nepal’s tea industry is dominated by private interests with the first private orthodox factory, Maloom Tea Estate being established in 1993, whereas in the 1980s the tea industry was a Government monopoly prior to the liberalization of the tea industry. Until 2000, Nepal's tea exports accounted for only about 100 – 150 tons per annum. However, due to the liberalization adopted about a decade ago, Nepal's tea industry witnessed an exponential rise in tea exports, accounting for almost 4,000 – 5,000 tons per annum.
At present, Nepal produces approximately 16.29 million kilograms of tea per annum on an area of 16,718 hectares. It accounts for only 0.4% of the total world tea output. Tea is taken as self-dependent cash crop in agroforestry practice and is found as the most important example of the long term sustainable farming.  The main tea producing regions in Nepal are Jhapa, Ilam, Panchthar, Dhankuta, Terhathum with newly involved regions being Kaski, Dolakha, Kavre, Sindhupalchok, Bhojpur, Solukhumbu and Nuwakot, with a goal of increasing the total tea production in Nepal. Nepal's teas are mainly exported to India, Pakistan, Australia, Germany, France, Poland the Netherlands, Japan, Belgium and the United States of America.
Himalayan Orthodox Tea Producers Association (HOTPA), the association of orthodox tea producers of Nepal, realizing the potential of the Nepalese orthodox tea in the global market, has been adopting various measures to improve the quality and marketing of orthodox tea. In 2003, Himalayan Tea Producers Co-operative Limited (HIMCOOP), the marketing wing of the Himalayan Orthodox Tea Producers Association (HOTPA), was set up to assist in the marketing of Nepali tea. Similarly, in 2006, the Himalayan Orthodox Tea Producers Association (HOTPA) implemented the Code of Conduct. The main objective of the Code of Conduct was to increase the standards of Nepalese orthodox tea to an international level. The main principles of the Code of Conduct are:-
- Respect towards nature
- Respect towards human
- Respect towards production system
- Respect towards quality
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