Tea Time: All About Nepali Teas


[Photos: Liz Clayton]

In the high-altitude hills that roll beneath the spectre of Mount Everest are the somewhat unexpected tea gardens of Nepal. The nation's tea growing regions are said to have been founded in the 1860s, upon a gift of Chinese tea saplings to the then-Prime-Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, who delegated the task of planting to one of his colonels. This established the first Nepali tea factory in Ilam, only a short distance (a few hours, as the crow flies) from the now-famous Indian tea gardens of Darjeeling, whose flavors Nepali tea are said to echo.

Tea production in Nepal is divided between two streams. First are the very mechanically processed CTC, or crush-tear-curl teas, which may be destined to land in blends or bags, and are ideal for preparation of Nepali sweet milk tea. But there are also the orthodox teas, which are traditional leaf teas where the leaves have been hand-rolled or rolled in a machine that emulates hand-rolling (rather than crushing, tearing and curling.) Specialty quality teas which are grown for the orthodox tea market are found along the high elevations of Nepal nearer the Himalayas, while CTC teas grow in the lower regions.

Though political and economic conditions have not allowed Nepali tea to really flourish on an international spectrum, these teas have been acknowledged for the subtle flavors derived from their particular landscape's conditions (such as high altitude and a long growing season, approximately March to September).

Over the course of such a lengthy crop cycle, the tea harvest gets divided into four distinct seasons, or "flushes", each of which represents a different stage of growth in the tea plant and carries with it its own palate of flavors which guide the tea drinker in selection. First Flush is said to be light and delicate, with young, small tea leaves producing wonderfully subtle flavor; Second Flush is a stronger development of the first flush's flavors; Monsoon Flush, or "rainy tea", harvested during the summer rainy season, has a fuller flavor yet; and Autumn Flush presents a more tart and musty development of those flavors as the season winds down.

And although the traditional bent of Himalayan tea production has been towards not-tremendously-oxidized black teas, a growing enthusiasm for producing flavorful oolong teas has sprung up in the nation's hills, several thousand kilometers from the celebrated oolong-native regions of China's Wuyi mountains, and the fertile gardens of Formosa.

Three Nepali Teas to Try

Steep these teas in a gaiwan, which has room for the leaves to open up. (Here's a guide to gaiwan brewing.)

2011 Nepal Silver Tips Oolong This startlingly floral silver-tipped late spring oolong is a gem. It's a moderately oxidized tea, creamy, bright and zesty all at once. The liquor develops more depth on the second infusion, but with the same breezy floral sweetness along with the boldening flavor. A really lovely representation of an evolving style of tea for this tea-producing region. (From Tea Trekker)

Shangri-La Nepal Oolong This tea from Nepal's Ilam valley is more astringent and less fruit-flowery than the first we tried—but it's got a very creamy, near-butteriness that's sure to beguile. Partially oxidized and twisted with a medium amber liquor, Shangri-La still stands up well as a sessionable oolong with a bit of bite. (From Sing Tehus)

Himalaya Golden Nepal: Maloom Estate (First Flush) This black tea is a gentle execution of its cousin teas in India: it's an easy-drinking, twisted leaf tippy black tea, gentle on its own or supremely soothing in milk. It's light amber in the cup and un-astringent, with a fresh, grassy taste—at worst a little indistinct, but at best quite graceful. (From Tea Trekker)

Do you have a favorite tea from Nepal?