My Darjeeling Experience or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying (about Pesticides) and Love The Tea
Makaibari Tea has ruined me for life, in the best possible way. Let me tell you why…but it might take a minute to get there. Pour yourself a cup of tea and settle in.
As the owners of a tour company, my husband BJ and I travel all year long, staying in hotels every night, or if we’re lucky, an Airbnb with a kitchen once in a blue moon. When people wax poetic about how wonderful our nomadic lives must be (and for the most, it is great!), I grab them by the shoulders, look deeply into their eyes and cry, “I miss having a kitchen!”
I’m no culinary whiz, but I do enjoy making healthy(ish) soups and salads since we seem to get so few vegetables on the road. But one of the more simple pleasures I miss is being able to make tea. A coffee drinker since my teens, I’d always romanticized the ritual of tea consumption and so wanted to be a “tea drinker.” It was only when I actually started down that path that we left our home, and kitchen, behind in the U.S.
If we’re being really honest, I only learned how to properly make tea in late 2013, when we visited oh-so-charming Darjeeling. Since we spend much of our time divided between India and Nepal, it was interesting to see how Darjeeling culture is truly a blend of the two.
When we got to Darjeeling, we sampled teas in some of the local cafes. At that point, my parameters were pretty much “What sounds interesting and doesn’t cost $50 a cup?” I didn’t know much about tea except that I needed to try it in Darjeeling. The Champagne of Teas and all, right? Right.
Trouble in Tea Paradise: The Malaysia Files
Here’s some backstory: I had more than ten years background at the time in the natural foods world (including a stint as a coffee and tea buyer at a large organic grocery chain) and natural medicine (as a board-certified Acupuncture Physician and Doctor of Oriental Medicine). I knew the basics of tea on paper, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know (you know what I mean?) I knew how important it was to consume organic coffee, since it is one of the most heavily sprayed crops on the planet. Somehow, though, the sad state of tea had eluded me.
Rewind a bit to mid-2013 when we were in the highlands of Malaysia. We visited a tea plantation cafe mostly because we were already out there taking photos of the gorgeous gardens. We ordered our tea and took a spot on the beautiful raised terrace overlooking the expansive fields. What I saw next almost literally made me gag. There were two men with big tank backpacks just soaking the tea bushes in pesticide. I mean, absolutely drenching.
Let’s take a little side bar here (telling a story about tea is not always linear, you know!) Let’s forget about you consuming that nasty tea, just take that aspect off the table. Think now about the men employed to do that spraying. You think that they were even remotely protected them from those chemicals designed to kill? They weren’t wearing masks or any other respiratory protection—a baseball cap and gloves does not a HazMat suit make.
In addition, we took the time to speak to some workers in the fields as we were driving in. They almost all seemed to hail from Nepal, one of the poorest (but most amazing) countries on the planet. Hmm. Ok. So you’re importing cheap labor to risk their health spraying poison on the crops you sell to unsuspecting people at a premium. Wow! Not to mention the long-lasting damage to the surrounding communities whose drinking water is now contaminated with these chemicals. To say I was disillusioned with the tea industry would be a disgusting understatement. Big Tea can suck it, I thought.
Back to Darjeeling. BJ and I made our rounds in the tea shops, and in the back of my head I figured it was a special occasion and I could ignore the massive amounts of pesticide used on these crops. Oh, yeah—you think they wash the tea before they process it? Sorry! Not only have their been numerous studies (here, here, and here) about pesticide residue in tea, but when we took a brief tour of the aforementioned Malaysian plantation, there was surely no “washing” station. Believe me, I was looking for it.
I started to look at tea as an occasional unhealthy treat, much like Cheetos or cupcakes. How twisted is that?
Makaibari: My Tea Knight in Sustainable Armor
Before we left Darjeeling, we decided to visit a tea garden, but not just any tea garden—the FIRST tea garden. Hey, go big or go home, right?
Let me present a few facts first, but believe me, it is worth your time to carefully explore Makaibari’s website if you find this sort of thing interesting. It would take me pages and pages to even touch on all of their innovative agricultural and social programs!
- G.C. Banerjee establish the first tea factory in the world at Makaibari in 1859
- Makaibari is the only Darjeeling Tea garden which never belonged to the British.
- Makaibari was the first tea garden to be certified Organic in 1988, and certified in Fair-trade and Demeter [biodynamic] in 1993.
- The pursuit of culture and education, use of alternative energy, and ladies empowerment are at the very basis of Makaibari Corporate Social Responsibility for a sustainable lifestyle.
Bullet points are all well and good, but let me tell you about what we experienced during our visit.
We arrived and immediately met and chatted with 4th generation owner Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, aka Rajah. (Since our visit, Rajah has sold a large stake in the company to Luxmi tea, but still remains the Chairman, the face, and the heart of the company.) Rajah was born on the plantation, as was his father (see the short video below to learn more about how and why he became committed to the family business). Rajah’s commitment to sustainability, both environmentally and culturally, is humbling. After our chat in his office, chock-full of glowing write ups from magazines and newspapers, we headed down to the well-loved and well-used tasting room with Rajah himself.
He put us through the cupping wringer, tasting each of the different teas and he explained the process and flavor profiles. We even got to try Makaibari’s famous Silver Tips Imperial which sold for a record-breaking $1850 per kilogram in 2006 at a Beijing auction. At the end of the tasting, there was a pop quiz—my least favorite kind of quiz—and we had to tell Rajah what kind of tea was in the “mystery” bowl. Due entirely to his expert teaching (and me really wanting to impress him), I answered correctly! (This has no bearing on the story, I’m just really proud of myself.)
After that we got a full factory tour, and I mean full. It wasn’t just “here’s this machine, here’s that machine”—we really got to understand the process and the soul of the factory. Suddenly the alphabet soup of Darjeeling tea grades—SFTGFOP, TGFOP, TGFOP, etc—were making sense. Since we were there in late December (too late for the Autumnal flush, too early for March’s First Flush), no tea was being processed at the time; however, we still got a deep understanding of the process.
Most interesting to me, given my background in the natural foods world, was how carefully they maintained their organic workspaces. Do you know how difficult it is to receive and maintain a USDA Organic certification like that? Extraordinarily. And that’s to say nothing of the other European organic certifications which have even more stringent rules.
In addition, Makaibari employs biodynamic practices, a whole ’other level of intention and care. Biodynamic farming was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s as an ultra-holistic “spiritual science” in relation to agricultural processes. In my opinion, the more intentional the creation, the better the product. (Click here for a lovely, poetic description of a biodynamic plucking by Rajah Banerjee himself.)
Power to the Tea-ple
I now had a new baseline for how tea should be produced—that is to say, without the use of harmful pesticides and in accordance with sustaining a thriving environment. But what about the other side of the equation, the workers? That might be an even more amazing facet of Makaibari.
Makaibari truly sees itself as having a partnership rather than an ownership, and the biggest proof we saw of that was in the homestay program. If you wish to stay in the Makaibari gardens overnight, you can stay at one of many homestays in the surrounding villages. This money goes directly to the families in the communities. We toured a few homesteads and they were darling, obviously put together with care by the families. Makaibari also runs a free primary school and a community library and computer center. Just let that sink in.
I would be remiss not to mention the fabulous dinner and social hour we had with Rajah in his gorgeous ancestral home (which was an appropriate climb through even more tea bushes). How lucky were we to receive such an invitation? This is where we got to see that Rajah lives his values, they’re not just propaganda printed on the wall. Rajah Banerjee embodies all the endearing qualities of a real-life J. Peterman from Seinfeld—an eccentric, brilliant man with a huge heart.
He prepared us a Bombay Sapphire gin & tonic made with a top secret family recipe including over 20 ingredients. We enjoyed cocktail hour in his stunning, museum-like sitting room, full of historical family portraits, heirlooms, and stuffed game (his father had quite a penchant for hunting). All I remember about dinner (maybe thanks to the gin & tonics?) was that it was 100% delicious and that I ate my weight in added ghee. There’s no shame in my ghee game.
Thankfully, BJ & I took about a million pictures between us that day, which is sometimes the only way I can keep our travels straight. Luckily there is another way to relive that experience—the tea itself.
Bringing the Tea Experience Home
The next time we visited our families in Florida, I immediately set to work on preparing my beloved stash of Makaibari tea. I took the directions to heart and followed them to the letter, which was also a first for me. I’m of a generation and an astrological sign (if you believe that sort of thing) which believes More is Better, and that included tea steeping time. Talk about a paradigm shift! I set my timer, strained my tea, and then my habit soon became sticking my face over the steaming tea leaves and inhaling deeply as if I was taking my very first breath. The deeply nuanced and earthy scent of these cooked leaves is by far one of my favorite smells in the world, no doubt in part to my experience at Makaibari.
So, where does that leave me? I now know enough about Darjeeling teas to say that I’m an Autumnal and 2nd Flush (Muscatel) kind of girl (well, la-tee-da!) And of course I know more than enough to say that organic teas are the only way to go (to say nothing of the biodynamic and fair-trade aspect). But I mentioned at the outset that Makaibari has ruined me—what does that mean?
I’m left with a big Makaibari-shaped hole in my heart when we’re on the road (which is to say 95% of the year). Say what you will, but finding the odd electric water kettle in a hotel room and having to jam my Makaibari leaves in an unbleached tea bag is not the experience I’m after. That’s why when we settle down for a month or two between our tours and rent an apartment somewhere in the world, I make sure to bring some Makaibari and a tea pot.
We’re currently sitting tight in Mexico for a few months; my daily Makaibari is one of the highlights of my day, and it’s why I am finally sitting down 2+ years later to express my gratitude to Makaibari for their practices, their passion, and their product. I don’t have many rituals on the road, but when I get to stick my nose over a freshly steeped pile of Makaibari leaves, that to me has become “home.”
The leaves for this special lot of tea were plucked on the full moon night of June 13, from a minute past midnight to 3am, by about 500 female garden workers… “A lot of preparation went into this. The ladies plucked the two leaves and a bud by the light of tallow torches (animal fat-fed torches). The plucking time of 2 hours 59 minutes was fixed after intensive study of the biodynamic calendar and precise astronomical charts. The ladies plucked about 300 kilos of green leaf that was processed and made into 50 kilos of the ‘silver tips imperial tea.'”
Banerjee explained that during the full moon, water content in all life forms decreases. “What you have in the tender tea leaves and bud is the distilled essence of the plant with all its subtle flavours and characters. Hence, leaves plucked during a full moon night make for excellent tea. This full moon night of June 13 presented a unique planetary configuration that comes once in 108 years,” he explained.