Germany is surely the most contradictory tea culture in the world. It is the largest importer of Darjeeling and has immense influence on the international market. It includes a small region  with the highest per capita tea consumption anywhere. Germans played a major role in the successful establishment and management of the first Darjeeling estates in the 1840s, including being the first ever to report a profit. The key German breakthrough in replicating China’s porcelain and ending its monopoly transformed teaware in the 18th century. Bavarian factories led Europe in design, technology and manufacturing for centuries. There was a tea set in every home.

An antique Bavarian tea set
An antique Bavarian tea set

But Germany is a coffee culture. It rejected the new “straw water” and while it made tea cups, ordinary people drank beer from steins. Tea has never been more than a fringe offshoot, rather like, say, Brazilian restaurants in the US.  If you have ever ordered tea in a Stuttgart or Frankfurt coffeehouse, you will recall it as an unforgettable lifetime experience, never to be repeated; that comment is promise not praise. It’s not a household staple and mainly treated as an accompaniment to cream cakes. But the niche that tea occupies in Germany is distinctive. It is the only tea culture originally built on Indian tea. While the opening up of EU borders and immigration have increased sales of herb teas, Turkish mint tea and stuff in bags for tourist torment in Stuttgart coffeehouses, the core market is loose leaf Darjeeling. Darjeeling is very much associated with Britain, where the cliché has long been that it is the “champagne of tea” but Germany is the largest importer and to quote a report “the hub of Darjeeling tea demand.” Much of this is blended and re-exported. The largest tea mail order firm sells only Darjeeling and is playing a substantial role in the reforestation of the hills that is quite literally vital to the very survival of tea-growing. At the policy and industry level, German is fairly central to the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), a comprehensive and long-planned international set of rules for certifying pedigree Darjeeling, down to the details of leaf origin.

The initiative addresses three longstanding problems: counterfeits, misrepresentation and brand protection.

Counterfeits: A fundamental problem for growers is that real Darjeeling is expensive, but fake or substitute tea cheap. There has been no legally binding equivalent of trademarks and the French wine appellation controlée system. For many decades, low cost leaf smuggled in from Nepal and Pakistan has been mixed with the mountain harvest. An often-quoted figure has been that Darjeeling produced 10 million tons of tea and sold 40.

Misrepresentation: Germany contributed significantly to the dilution of the pedigree name. It legally sold as Darjeeling blends that contained 51% and added 49% from Sri Lanka, other Indian growing areas, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Africa. The misuse of the name spread even to the elite retail palaces of London. An authenticated story is that an official from the Indian Tea Board accompanied a distinguished lady to help her find the very best Darjeeling. That included going to a “well-known department store” (probably That One Everybody Knows Of) where the salesperson picked out the best on offer, labeled “Darjeeling Tea: product of Sri Lanka.” The Board officer expressed his astonishment and was answered with “Sir, don’t you know that the best Darjeeling comes from Sri Lanka?” Squish.

Branding: The faking is one aspect of not just misleading the customer but of debasing the product. That’s most apparent in the tea bags sold by the leading, prestigious consumer brands. Technically, their claim of origin is accurate, just as “luxury New York City apartment” suggests but does not state Manhattan but is in fact Staten Island. These offer the usual rhapsodies about terroir, harvesting, heritage, etc. But when you look at the detail, it’s from the lowlands of Darjeeling or its valleys and foothills: Staten Island.

The Darjeeling district is over 3,000 square kilometers in size, and borders the countries of both Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sikkim. The town is 11 sq km, and the 87 existing tea estates 175. One major aim of PGI is to protect Darjeeling as a “heritage brand.” Most tea drinkers of “Darjeeling” have never actually tasted a Darjeeling as defined by the PGI. (If you have found it a boring tea, flat, disappointing, or blah, that’s probably why.  Those supermarket bags are Darjeeling-style, like home-made style The key players in the implementation and impact of PGI are the EU, Japan and the US. They essentially comprise the premium market. It takes effect in 2016, but it will be several years before all the pieces are in place and current stocks run down.

The EU accounts for half the global Darjeeling exports, with Hamburg the main shipping and processing hub. Now, for the catch. While it will no longer be legal to brand as Darjeeling a 51-49% mix of Nepalese tea, it is sensible to change the brand. In the era of mass smuggling, Nepalese tea was good but not great. Now, a lot of it is great. One of the cliches of the trade is that even knowledgeable tea lovers can’t distinguish the difference in flavor and quality of a typical estate Darjeeling and a Guaranse, Ilam, Antu Valley or Kanyam region top grade. But they can see the difference in price. Darjeeling tea is very expensive, in terms of production costs and consumer prices. Many commentators question the long-term viability of the pedigree estates. PGI is part of the agenda for escaping low-cost competition. When low cost meant low competition, prices could be maintained.

A new generic Himalayan brand is emerging very rapidly, centered on Germany and built on Nepalese tea. The Nepalese Tea Growers Association, that has been extraordinarily successful in the country’s innovation, is aggressively tightening relationships with plenty of trips to Hamburg. Prices are very volatile in the Himalayan climate, with a severe drought affecting the quality and volume of the 2016 spring season harvest. Nepal tea prices are increasing with reputation and demand. All that said, here’s the comparative producer prices in late 2016: Darjeeling: $10-15 a kilo, Nepal: $5-10.   

It is ironic that a country where tea is peripheral to everyday life should be so central to the likely future of one of its most renowned heritage names and to black tea prices, blends and distribution. There will be a surge in Himalayan teas and it will be German-driven. The PGI will  have impact on price, quality and trade and be very much German-influenced. And the Germans will continue inhaling coffee and chewing cake – “Kaffee und Kuchen.”

There is just one region where they be downing tea. This is East Friesland, a marshy coastline and string of islands, mudflats and cold beaches in the North West, on the Baltic Sea. Think of words that describe Florida; Friesia is their opposite. Its half million population  drinks a quarter of all the tea in Germany (80 million people), all black and heavy: Darjeeling, Assam, and Sri Lanka – good quality and largely unbagged. The tea is served in small porcelain cups and accompanied by kluntjes, a rock hard sugar candy. It melts slowly and makes a crackling sound. A dollop of very heavy cream sinks to the bottom of the cup and rises as it dissolves, forming floating whits clouds – a storm in a teacup. Brown aged rum adds to the winter protection from the icy winds of the Baltic. The explanation for this tea parlor in a klatch of coffees goes back to the original historical drivers to its introduction and expansion in Europe.

Friesia adjoins the Netherlands, the earliest of the maritime nations that opened up trade with Japan and China. It was also the leader in the informal importation of tea in Britain, otherwise known as smuggling. Tea came to Ostfriesland via Holland. It was adopted largely because the water of the region was so brackish, salty and unhealthy; water was for millennia a killer scourge and very dangerous. Heating water for tea transformed daily life. Finally, unflavored black tea offered the same winter comfort as it did in Russia, England, Ireland, Mongolia and Tibet, the leaders in rapid tea addiction.

The final German impact on tea goes back to the 1840s, when the hillside area of Darjeeling, a refuge from the summer heat for British colonial officials and a sanatorium for sick soldiers, began the taming of the jungle terrain to plant tea bushes. Most of the pioneers were Scottish geniuses, adventurers and drifters from the English upper class social fringes, frequently the wanted and the unwanted, and  a surprising number of government medical officials; the very introduction of bushes from China and and the creation of the first estates were made by a Doctor. The tea plantations were little more than patches of cleared land, with leopards and cobras common distractions, along with wolves of course. In the mid-1840s, there were fewer than 30 houses on the hills. The area was contested by the kingdom of Sikkim and British colonial intrusion was often resisted by the many mountain ethnic groups, especially the Gorkas.

Two German families came to spread the Gospel, were left adrift by their sponsor and played a major role in the development of this pioneering outpost. The close-kinit Wernickes and Stolkes established some of the still well-regarded estates. Steinthal is still informally known as the “priest’s tea garden.” Add to this the estates they founded (Rishehaat, Goomba, and Tumsong) and extend it to include ones they played top management roles in and you have a powerhouse mini-Darjeeling: Makaibari, Tukvar, Bannockburn, and Glenburn. Three generations built the tea business. Over time, they adopted English names and sent their children to English schools. To be German in colonial India during the two world wars was not exactly a social advantage and there are records of arrests being made in 1939 of German residents in Darjeeling. The German imprint faded, estates were sold off, and the children emigrated and the story was over by 1949. Here are some general messages from the German experience:

  1. The PGI is for real and is a alert to the fact that the Darjeeling you may have tried, in bags and blends, is likely to be fake, Darjeeling-style or just bad – wood shavings in flavor rather than tea. The difference under PGI should be like Scotch whiskey: certified single malt versus Glasgow battery acid.
  2. The Himalayan combination – PGI Darjeeling and quality Nepal – is worth looking out for. A number of the better US loose tea package brands  are using the name for their Nepalese teas. Better a 51-49% Himalayan blend than today’s tea bag dust of anything from anywhere.
  3. The prices of Darjeeling are likely to increase. PGI has that as its real priority. Excellent in tea quality will provide a fair base for premium prices.

As for advice to tourists on ordering tea in, say, the Movenpick cafe in Mannheim – Detroit without the glitter… Well, the beer is very good and it is socially acceptable to drink Weissbier for breakfast.

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