• Franklin

Tea in Ilam, Nepal — Down the Rabbit Hole, and into Tea Factories and Local Wine.

[Disclaimer: before I start this story, I want to clarify something for all my fellow Cebadors and yerba mate lovers in the world. Ilex paraguarensis will forever hold a special place in my heart. But, after spending time in the tea gardens of Eastern Nepal, camellia sinesis has captured my imagination with its complexity, beauty, and history. I believe all caffeinated plants can and should co-exist peacefully in the world.]

My introduction to Nepali tea began, as most things do in this country, in a suddenly immersive way. One rainy afternoon Prashant (my friend and guide in Ilam) and I arrived to the factory of Sandakphu Tea Processors in Ilam district in Eastern Nepal. Ilam borders Darjeeling, India’s famous hill station and tea-producing area.

Tea factory and tea fields in Ilam, Nepal
Tea factory and tea fields in Ilam

An important fact I quickly found out is that Darjeeling was once part of Nepal. But after British intercession in South Asia and a subsequent conflict with Nepal, Darjeeling changed hands to become part of the British Indian territory, largely because of its coveted potential for producing tea. The British then smuggled tea out of China, and made plantations on the terraced hillsides of Darjeeling. Ilam later followed suit, seeing the international business opportunities associated with the plant. So Darjeeling and Ilam still have this special sibling-like bond (even though all Nepalis will tell you their tea is superior to India’s).

We strolled in around 2pm, after hours of walking uphill through tea gardens. Santos, the manager of the factory, greeted us and within minutes we were sipping tea in his kitchen.

We drank his favorite, a black tea called Himalayan Gold. There are a whole score of other teas they produce that sound funnily similar to weed strains found in a dispensary -- Gold Tips, White Needles, Shangri-La White, etc. The preparation was simple: Santos took hot water (not quite boiling) and poured it over the tea, discarding the first bit of water to remove the residual dust from the brew. Then he just steeped it for five minutes, and poured it into our small glass cups. The same leaves can be used up to 8 times before being discarded. This was probably the best tea I had drank in my life, and I knew it at the first sip. I could taste the fermentation and rich soil in the leaves, and there was something special about drinking tea on the same hill where it was grown and dried.

Prashant and Santos, surrounded by tea

We drank a few cups of Himalayan Gold before we were caffeinated and buzzing, and then Santos asked if I’d like try to a local wine mixed in the tea. Of course, myself being a connoisseur of all exotic beverages, I couldn’t say no. This brew was called roxie, and its a simple fermentation of rice and grains. By itself it tastes like vodka with a hint of anise, mixed with a rawness of flavor that you'd expect from a homemade drink brewed by farmers living in the Himalayan foothills. The roxie was strong and the tea was strong, and our bodies became fortified against the damp cold creeping in as the sun dropped away.

I began to realize that making tea is one of those lifetime arts people can work at for decades and decades, and still only scratch the surface of possibility.

We then got a tour of the tea factory. They buy the unprocessed green leaves from farmers in the surrounding fields, and everything is certified organic. Once in the factory, the leaves are dried, fermented, or rolled -- all depending on the type of tea it was destined to become. There are 4 types of tea produced at the factory: white, green, black, and oolong. Black and oolong are fermented for up to a day, while white or green is fermented for a little bit or not at all. This is the reason why black tea has a higher caffeine content than green or white.

An interesting side note: apparently pu-erh is the big daddy of teas when it comes to caffeine, as it is fermented for months, and has multiple more times caffeine than a strong black. But, Chinese are the only ones that make pu-erh, because they alone have the technical know-how and industry size to do it.

Weathering room, tea factory, Ilam Nepal
Upstairs in the weathering room

There are all sorts of machines in the factory, and I have to confess that I understood only their most basic functions. Green tea has to go through a special steaming machine. Some teas are placed in a roller, which makes the leaves a uniform size. All teas go upstairs to a weathering room, where they are laid out on long racks for a slow dry. There are different types of drying apparatus for the different varieties of tea. Change around all of these variables, as well as the time of year the tea is picked and the type of leaves used, and you get the diverse flavors like Himalayan Gold, White Tips, etc etc.

After the leaves go through their different processing stages, they are hand-graded by a group of workers. These ladies have to go through every single bit of tea and pick out the abnormal pieces that didn’t get removed by the machines. And then, once this meticulous and seemingly never-ending effort is finished (I know how much work hand-grading is, we had to do it with coffee at Tat Tvam Asi in India), the tea is packed and ready to ship out around the world.

Hand grading tea, Ilam, Nepal
Expert ladies hand-grading tea. And in fashionable uniforms!

I relentlessly picked Santos’ brain about all of the elements of tea production. This is definitely a carryover from my decade-long obsession with yerba mate. We drank more roxie after we left the factory, and the night quickly turned into a rousing celebration with fellow villagers, all of us belting out traditional Nepali tunes around the campfire. Prashant and I left Santos the next morning, with my interest in tea sufficiently piqued, and remarkably without a hangover.

I began to realize that making tea is one of those lifetime arts people can work at for decades and decades, and still only scratch the surface of possibility.

We kept climbing the hills of Ilam for a week, passing through tea field after tea field, waterfalls and foggy mountains. Many of these fields were small plots owned by farmers, who grew and dried the leaves by themselves, for personal use or sale in the local community.

In closing, I have to mention something about the strange beauty of a giant field of tea plants. Walking or driving through the Ilam countryside is almost a hallucinatory experience. Row after row of tea plants meld into each other, until the whole field is pulsating with a green energy. Add in the undulating hills of Ilam and its misty weather, and it seems like you’re looking at one of those iTunes visualizers or a Van Gogh painting brought to life.

This perhaps partly explains the mysterious and magnetic qualities of tea. Even looking at the rows of plants, one is transported to another world of awe and beauty. This is the first step down the rabbit hole of tea (I think Alice went to a tea party, yeah?), and the more you learn, the more you realize what a massive world it can become.


Postscript: I left Ilam on a high — partially from meeting so many interesting people in such a gorgeous place, and partially because of all the caffeine and antioxidants I had ingested. But, it turned out, the journey with tea was far from over..

Santos and I happened to be visiting Kathmandu at the same time, so naturally we met up for tea. He found me in the backpacker area, full of stores selling any handicraft or manufactured good you could imagine— outdoor gear, hemp clothing, baggy hippy pants, shirts adorned with OM symbols and mandalas, Buddha statues, turquoise jewelry, ukuleles, etc etc.

He took me to one of the ubiquitous tea shops common in Nepali tourist zones. These stores are run by people from Ilam, and they all carry more or less the same products — high quality tea from Nepal. As Santos has spent many years in the industry, he knows most of the shopkeepers in Kathmandu.

The proprietor, Govinda, welcomed us in, and within seconds he was heating water on the electric kettle. It was another exciting moment for me, as I now had the opportunity to question a tea retailer all about his business (I already got to do this with Santos, who is the producer). It was a harken back to my yerba mate thesis writing days, and I was gratefully soaking up every bit of information he gave me. Plus, this conversation was fueled by many small cups of black tea, which Govinda expertly refilled for everyone in the room.

For instance, I learned: Himalayan Gold and Gold Tips are their best-selling items. Gold Tips are solely the new growth tips of the plant, giving the tea a delicate taste. Himalayan Gold has larger leaves mixed in, giving it a hardier robust flavor.

Chinese are their top customer, although Govinda also sells to Nepalis scattered around the world, who in turn resell the tea at their own shops. Europeans and Americans prefer green and white tea over black. Govinda has traveled to many countries (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Russia, France) to sell his product, with many of these trips and the industry as a whole being supported by the Nepali government.

tea store, Kathmandu
With Mr. Govinda in his tea shop, Kathmandu

He also quoted me a bunch of prices which I can’t remember, but suffice it to say their tea is really expensive. It is expensive in Nepal, and gets an enormous markup when it comes to the United States. So I felt especially grateful to be drinking what seemed like a never-ending supply of camellia sinesis.

I returned to Govinda’s tea shop a couple of times, and with each visit I fell deeper into the world of tea. All I am missing now is time with a tea farmer, and I will have seen the plant’s complete evolution, from seed to green leaf, to fermentation, to dried product, to being packaged and shipped halfway across the world, all ending in the unsuspecting mug of an American looking for an exotic Himalayan brew.

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