Story of Meghma Tea
Founded by Darjeeling labor activist Madan Tamang in 1999, Meghma Garden is in the remote Kalikhop valley in the Ilam District in the far northeastern corner of Nepal not far from the Indian border and Darjeeling. This is not really a commercial venture but a totally philanthropic project to improve the lives of the local people in this extremely poor region where subsistence farming and extreme poverty are the rule.
Ilam is also an area more or less operating under control of the Maoist guerrillas of Nepal, the Maobadi. Initially high-minded, the Maoists have become increasingly lawless. The Maobadi are known for requiring businesses within their rule to "contribute" significant sums of money to them. For small struggling enterprises, such as the Meghma tea garden, the financial impact can be extremely onerous and a threat to the business's survival!
Prior to the founding of the garden Meghma was primarily known to Westerners as a breathtaking gateway for trekkers headed into the Himalayan high country. Located at over 7000 ft (2100 m) in altitude, Meghma is a pure, pristine paradise where tea slowly grows under the shadows of Mount Kangchenjunga.
The conditions here are perfect for producing very subtle high-grown teas that can easily fetch ten times as much as those produced in the Gangetic plain far below. As the farmers of Ilam barrel into the 21st century, they are depending on the hard income from to Tea and Tourism to raise their standard of living. Hand made paper, high altitude bio-organically grown vegetables, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, exotic orchids and an alpine hill resort are some of the ideas in the offing to further develop this area.
Only seven years old, this small upstart is producing teas every bit as good as those produced on the famous Darjeeling gardens to the southeast. With each new season, tea drinkers "in the know" are eagerly awaiting the new crop from the tiny village of Meghma (located at 2900 m above sea level).
The tea garden is far away from modern word, free from pollution of any kind. When the garden was founded, ground that had only ever seen grazing yaks was tilled for planting. The garden, while not organic certified, has always used totally organic farming techniques. The production processes are totally traditional. Meghma has discovered the art of making an orthodox and oolong tea, which exudes the aroma of orchids carried on a fresh spring breeze and a taste reminiscent of new spring vegetation. This tea is distinctly different than the occidental varieties, and is an experience that you will not want to miss!
Madan Tamang is the gentleman behind the beautiful family-run Meghma tea estate and our gorgeous honeybee oolong. Meghma is very close to Darjeeling, so we were able to catch up with Madan during a brief trip to Darjeeling in October, 2006. As you're about to find out, he's very passionate about two things — oolong tea and rhododendrons. Luckily for him, he's found a way to incorporate both of them into his life's work. Here's a glimpse into Madan's world.
I come from a large family of 12 brothers and sisters. Our ancestral village is in Meghma, on the Indo-Nepal border. The family has large tracts of land on both sides of the border and we used to use these areas for growing food crops and rearing livestock. This took care of our basic daily needs.
My grandfather had always wanted to grow tea but could not source the expertise and knowledge required to start. He also did not have the time as he was a very busy man. Basically, I am trying to fulfill his dream as well as make responsible and adequate use of our ancestral land holdings.
My vision is to create a 200 acre Rhododendron forest in Meghma.
It started back in 1994, when I planted a few saplings as an experiment. Well, things went well and I now have 85 acres under tea cultivation. I know this is a small amount of land, but my goals are not to be a big industrial tea estate. My aim is to cover only about 120 acres as I want to produce very exclusive teas for a select, discerning clientele. In my younger days, I had limited knowledge of tea but with the help of expert tea growers from Darjeeling, I was able to learn a lot. This helped give me my start into the world of tea.
Meghma tea estate is located in Eastern Nepal, bordering the Darjeeling District of India. It's so close to Darjeeling that I spend a lot of time in both places. In fact, our ancestral land, as I mentioned before, is on both sides of the border. So I am equally at home in both places.
It's largely a matter of economics. We didn't have all the resources that the larger tea estates have. So the cost-structure of producing an oolong tea suited me very well. No factory or expensive equipment was required for this type of manufacture. Secondly, I was able to, by trial and error, eventually produce a fairly pleasing cup which my clients abroad found quite refreshing. Once I knew that I had produced a good tea, I decided to focus on oolongs.
The other aspect of my wanting to produce an oolong was because of its healthy properties. Recorded medical benefits are that this tea reduces cholesterol levels as well as high blood pressure whilst reducing the risk of arterial diseases as well. So it's quite healthy of course. That's an added benefit!
Our production is more akin to the Taiwanese methods with local adaptations.
Basically an oolong is semi-oxidized, which means it is exposed to oxygen less than a typical black tea. This is what distinguishes it from black or green teas. Green tea undergoes little to no oxidation, while black tea undergoes longer oxidation, or exposure to oxygen in the air. Sometimes people say that an oolong tea is in between black and green tea.
Yes, our tea is completely hand rolled. Our methods are actually very simple - after plucking the green leaf, it is manually hand-rolled and then spread out on a table and covered with a moist cloth for the semi-fermentation process to begin. This takes up to 4 hours.
The leaves are then placed on large pans with handles and charcoal-fired for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on atmospheric conditions.
The leaves are then placed on a table for cooling - up to 3 or 4 hours. These unsorted, dried leaves are then passed through a series of meshes of varying sizes to separate the larger leaves from the smaller ones. In the industry, we call this grading.
Finally, we pack the tea into plywood chests or paper sacks and the production process is complete.
We pay our workers a daily wage that is higher than the industry norm in Nepal.
My response is simple. Of course Taiwan and China produce some wonderful oolongs. But we are not in competition with them.
Incidentally, our production is more akin to the Taiwanese methods. But of course, there are some local adaptations. As far as quality, we think ours is a unique oolong that can stand on its own. What matters ultimately is that a few discerning people like my tea. That makes us very happy indeed.
So far in 2006, I have planted 227,000 rhododendron saplings.
It is a sad fact that the (Indian) sub-continent has a long way to go before it addresses the economic plight of the poorer sections of society. That being said, we try to do our part to improve their lives in whatever ways we can. For example, we pay our workers a daily wage that is higher than the industry norm in Nepal. Ours is largely a philanthropic venture, so as we make profits, we plan to do more in terms of providing basic amenities like housing, etc. Social welfare is a big part of our current and long term plans. As our project yield returns, it is my earnest wish to continue to improve the lot of the local population.
Since tea is a seasonal crop, we try to look after our workers in the off-season as well. That is why, during the lean months, our workers produce and sell a hand-made paper from the bark of the Daphne bholua plant. The bark of this plant is pulped in water and then spread out and dried to produce an eco-friendly paper. In fact, we use this paper in some of our packaging. This provides some much-needed income to the workers to help weather the slower times of the year.
Rhododendrons are also my passion. As a child, I grew up surrounded by Rhododendron forests. Unfortunately, scarcity of fuel resulted in the denuding of these forests by the local villagers. Sadly, people would chop the trees down for firewood for their heating needs.
It is my dream to rejuvenate these areas. So far in 2006, I have planted 227,000 saplings. My vision is to create a 200 acre forest with proper fencing. This will help the eco-system improve as well as generate plenty of local employment. It is a 10 year project and an ongoing labor of love for me.
We feel that the Rhododendron replanting initiative is one of the best ways that we can help not only the eco-system, but also the people of the region. We channel the proceeds of the sales of our tea into a fund that is used to rejuvenate these forests.
The tea industry in Nepal is in dire straits today. I hope that being in the neighborhood of the Darjeeling district, with similar climatic conditions, will help promote our teas to a sustainable level. We have been practicing organic farming on our estate for some time now, and I think our practices illustrate a sustainable future for the Nepalese tea industry.
It's been a pleasure. It is extremely encouraging to see that teas from our region find mention in the west. I do hope that The Simple Leaf meets with all success and I wish you the very best. I will be forwarding you samples of our produce from time to time, to enable you to keep your customers abreast of our efforts to improve quality to the best of our ability.