Over the years, Goomtee has retained its global position as one of the best-loved high elevation tea estates from Darjeeling. The owner of the estate, Ashok Das, speaks to Vahdam teas about retaining the soul of the mountainside.

It has been two months since my visit to Goomtee Tea Estate and Resort in Darjeeling and it seems the right time to reflect on what I learnt. Walking up the steep slope of the Goomtee Resorts, I witnessed a rare moment of bonding between a father and his baby. They were walking down the slope and the father was gurgling to his baby, who was excited pointed at the flowers and birds. The slope of Goomtee is nothing short of an extension of the forest itself.

Lined with tall teas with tea bushes running on its slopes, I can imagine hours spent pondering over Proust on that slope. Although I was running late, I took a moment to greet the parent and child. That’s how Darjeeling is, there’s always scope to make some more time.

“My father built the tea factory as well as this bungalow,” Ashok Das shares with me once we are seated in the iconic hallway of the Goomtee estate. “My family has been associated with the estate for the past 60 years and I have been here for the past 40. My father and I were always very clear that our objective was to maintain a quality garden and business will remains profitable.”

“I never had eyes for anything else. This is what I always wanted to do.”

“I studied to be an engineer but once I came here and took up my position at Goomtee, I realised that there is just so much to do that I cannot consider anything else,” he adds.

Information provided by Goomtee Tea Estate

While it is quite well-known that most of the tea plantations in Darjeeling were founded by British traders, there has been very little talk of how the handover to the present Indian owners took place. “When my father took over this estate in 1956, he had to begin his journey of understanding tea as a planter. There was very little help at hand. He spent months reading books, made friends and learnt everything he could about tea. It took him years,” Das says.

“Most people have forgotten that Darjeeling tea was not a celebrated form of tea until quite recently when it regained its status as a superior tea. This feat did not happen organically. Years of hard work and mistakes and learning has gone into making Darjeeling the product that we know today.”

The easier option for Das, or his father, was to move into more conventional options in the big cities or even outside the country. The decision to stay back and hold their ground to make something unique and truly worth cherishing has paid off.

Information provided by Goomtee Tea Estate

Of course there were mistakes. The stakes were high and the cost of these mistakes took time to fill. The lessons learnt in the process, however, were priceless. “Change is the essence of business,” Mr Das tells me.

“In the 1960s, we were a failure with Russian buyers as they wanted a specific kind of black tea. A plain strong black tea. Then change took place and we catered to new markets. Their requirement of tea was quite varied compared to the buyers we had been catering to. We have the Japanese, the Germans, the Iranians among many others. That is how change happens.”

A short pause later, he remarks, “There is much talk about how the industry has changed and how things have changed. I find it silly. Of course things will change. The industry will grow, newer aspects will be introduced or discovered. Without change there is no progress.”

In the light of Darjeeling, a laidback bountiful region, change is often overlooked and if not, is considered a discomfort.

Information provided by Goomtee Tea Estate

The lack of attention to global trends is among the causes behind some unpleasant changes in the tea business in Darjeeling. “While the evolution of the Indian tea trade was taking place, steps were also taken for consolidation of trade,” Mr Das explains. “In due course, the control of nearly half the region became limited to 5–6 groups. And this has resulted in the loss of individual characteristics of the Darjeeling tea.”

“As of today only 15% of our total produce makes profit. And that is because we have been able to retain the natural characteristics of the tea.”
The Goomtee Resort, the planter’s bungalow lovingly set up by Mr Das’ father has been converted into a boutique hotel, is an alternate source of income.

Information provided by Goomtee Tea Estate

With the resort doing well and the teas gaining popularity in newer markets, all seems to be well at home. “No,” Mr Das says. “The future of Darjeeling tea is in a precarious position. The benefits allocated to the workers in the region has done far from attracting newer people into it. Instead, the children of the workers of the tea business now look down upon the trade.”

“This is the 21st century where no child wants a future of working manually, no matter how exquisite the produce or how relevant to nature.”

Absenteeism among tea workers has reached a new high. “The number of workers for the tea trade has come down and with the younger lot losing interest, we might soon run out of people to harvest the tea,” he says.

“It is heartening to see that the people have progressed. You see, all the people in Darjeeling are well-dressed and presentable. They have the means to do so. However, the viability of the industry is the challenge.”

Information provided by Goomtee Tea Estate

The global market has not been too kind to Darjeeling tea as well. “Rightfully so,” says Mr Das. “There has been a lot of incorrect information circulated in the international tea business for the benefit of a handful of people. That needs to be amended right now. There are way too many people selling poor quality produce by blending it with established estates.”

“I am so surprised sometimes to see that the total amount of our teas on sale across the international market surpasses the total amount of teas we produce! Tea buyers should beware of such trickery.”

He continues, “There has been much talk about how expensive the ‘real Darjeeling tea’ is but if you think that mixing poor quality tea with it to bring down the price will help your cup, you are mistaken. Once you have tasted true Darjeeling tea, there is no going back.”

And the best place to put your mind to rest about the taste of Darjeeling tea, is Darjeeling. “The tea of Darjeeling is not just something you add hot water to. When you come to Darjeeling, experience the tranquility of a tea estate, breathe in the pure fresh air and witness the tea being made in several steps, you see the story behind the tea. That is the side journey to every cup of Darjeeling tea that you savour.”

Susmita Mukherjee


Vahdam Teas

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