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Darjeeling in Tea Bags? Appalling, Growers Say : Himalayas: Recession, collapse of the Soviet market, hailstorms, ethnic violence, aging bushes are factors.


DARJEELING, India — Those who grow Darjeeling tea have long believed that putting it into tea bags would be like selling champagne in plastic bottles.

But the tea bags may be about to happen, what with the worldwide recession, the collapse of the Soviet market, devastating hailstorms, ethnic violence and venerable tea bushes that appear to be dying.

Some planters in the towering foothills of the Himalayas have come to think that, however distasteful the idea, they have no choice but to sell at least some of their treasure in bags.

Although some foreign marketers of Darjeeling have been putting it into tea bags for years, the producers have not. However, "If Darjeeling can survive, we must do something new to market our teas," said Teddy Young, the last British plantation manager.

Despite the challenges faced by the Indian tea industry, few people believe it is about to do a nose dive.

The British began growing tea in India in 1833, when the East India Company was having trouble with its tea monopoly in China. The company was trafficking opium in China, too, which so angered the Chinese that war soon broke out.

By 1860, at least 50 private companies had established tea colonies in an area of northeast India that became Assam state. At the turn of the century, India surpassed China in tea exports to became the leader in the international tea trade.

In recent years, annual exports of Indian tea have hovered near 500 million pounds.

Although Assam grows the most tea, Darjeeling, a mountainous area in the neighboring state of West Bengal, produces some of the world's most popular and expensive.

In 1992, one plantation set a record by selling a kilogram of Darjeeling, about 35 ounces, for 13,001 rupees ($520), the annual income of many middle-class families in India.

The town, atop a mile-high mountain, was developed by colonialists as a summer escape from the stifling heat of Calcutta, the business center.

On clear days the snow-covered peaks of Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, are visible from Darjeeling, which means "Place of the Thunderbolt."

Rows of 3-foot Darjeeling tea bushes with small green leaves line the 76 plantations on the slopes. Although some still have palatial homes built in colonial times, all of the estates now rent their land from the government.

Problems for the Indian tea industry began when the Soviet Union, its biggest customer, collapsed in December, 1991.

During the 1991-1992 tea season, the Soviet Union bought 400 million pounds of Indian tea. In the next season, which ended in April, purchases by the newly independent republics fell to 160 million pounds, according to the Tea Board of India.

Then, in April and May, two hailstorms heavily damaged 25 plantations in Darjeeling. Hailstones the size of billiard balls pounded the estates during "first flush," the season when the best tea is harvested.

"It is definitely going to affect the quality of our Darjeeling tea in 1993," said Young, the British estate manager and vice president of the Darjeeling Planters Assn.

To make matters worse, the estates rely on plants that have yielded tea for more than 100 years. When they die, the plantations will have to uproot bushes on the steep slopes and plant new ones that take eight years to mature.

More disruptions may be created by a growing autonomy movement by ethnic Nepalese. In Assam state, armed militants have kidnaped plantation managers for huge ransoms.

Because of faltering markets, many plantations have begun changing the way they export their tea. Estates that once shipped all of it to auction in Calcutta in 88-pound chests now export to individual customers in pouches as small as 3 1/2 ounces.

"The Darjeeling producers are changing over to direct marketing," said Ranan Dutta, secretary of the Darjeeling Planters Assn. "In other words, to make more money we're cutting out the middleman."

That explains the possibility of selling lower grades of Darjeeling in tea bags.

Tea bags are anathema to those who fastidiously boil the water, pour it over loose tea in a preheated pot, cover the pot with a quilted cozy and pour the brew through silver strainers. But the producers might increase sales in the United States, where many people dunk bags containing blends of up to 40 teas.

Young said companies probably would blend low-grade leaves for tea bags, while maintaining the top line for traditionalists.

"With the changing conditions, we have no choice," he said.

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