Few people in the US have witnessed the changes in the tea industry the way James Norwood Pratt has.
When Pratt was a young man starting college in Winston-Salem, one of his professors asked him if he was a Darjeeling man. He quickly, though somewhat overconfidently, answered “No sir, I’m from Forsyth County.”
Mr. Pratt’s understanding and appreciation of tea has grown immensely since then to the point that he served as a judge for the inaugural Golden Leaf India Awards Southern Tea Competition in 2005. He authored The New Tea Lover’s Treasury and the Tea Dictionary. He has been the voice of the American Tea Renaissance for years, and continues in his love for Darjeeling tea.
I asked Norwood to share some of his insights on Darjeeling.
1. You have written about how Darjeeling estates have their own personalities. Can you say more about what you mean?
JNP: Two estates stand out as examples of having distinct character. Years ago, before India had its independence, Lopchu Estate was one of the only estates owned by Indians. The Lopchu Estate sold tea in packets, and Indians bought Lopchu teas as a sign of solidarity for independence.
Another notable estate is Makaibari. Swaraj Banerjee’s Makaibari is a hopeful sign of the future of tea agribusiness. It is the first biodynamic tea garden.
2. What other changes and impressions strike you about Darjeeling?
JNP: One of the biggest changes across Darjeeling has been the consolidation of tea estate ownership. The current 80 – 90 estates are in the hands of approximately 20 individuals or companies. Business efficiencies can result, but the unique practices of some farms may fall by the wayside.
The majesty of the place is undeniable, but the landscape can pose challenges. There are fields on Jungpana Estate so steep that men have to carry the tea down the slopes in baskets atop their heads. Witnessing that level of dedication leaves a lasting impression.
I also remember talking to Teddy Young at the Darjeeling Planters Club. Teddy was one of, if not the last British planter in Darjeeling. After India gained self-rule, British estate owners sold, and Indian owners gained control. Teddy was a young planter then, and decided to stay and use his valuable experience under the new owners. He continued to work at various plantations and stayed in Darjeeling after retiring. I may have been one of the last persons he met.
3. Are there particular years, harvests, or estates of tea that stand out the way some wine vintages are known to do?
JNP: there was a Makaibari 1st flush from the early 90s that had a candy quality I haven’t experienced since. But I don’t cling to that experience too tightly – you have to accept a tea’s redeeming qualities each season and harvest.
4. What have you heard about this year’s Darjeeling tea?
JNP: The lack of rain made a tough go of 1st flush, but 2nd flush is showing much more promise.
My many thanks to Norwood, and congratulations on his recent World Tea Award in the category of Best Tea Spirit.
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