Thursday, May 20, 2021

Talking to Narendra, a Nepal tea producer


photo credit Ralph; everyone takes better captures than me

I wrote an interview post covering more standard background on Narendra Gurung awhile back, here (and white and black tea reviews, and a later black tea review).  He just finally met with that circle of friends for the online meetups I keep talking about.  

It's always nice talking to people I already feel familiar with and know a lot about, and also to new people, for learning from more of a blank slate, and this worked as a pleasant form of the first case.  I'll cover a few points we discussed, as usual with this not really intended as a summary.

Issues related to tea production in Nepal

Nepal produces some great tea, better than they really should be able to given their limited history, but according to Narendra their industry faces some serious challenges, especially related to small producers.  On the growing side implementing organic production is very problematic, both difficult and costly.  It's hard for growers to evaluate requirements for tea production in terms of soil nutrients, and soil compound level testing practices are not well-developed.  This is problematic enough for standard tea production, but all the harder for trying to balance organic inputs, for example substituting natural fertilizers for mass produced chemical versions.

Narendra's tea farm, discussed more in that earlier post

Another serious challenge relates to the business and regulatory infrastructure for export.  There isn't a mature wholesale network developed that makes it easy for small farmers to sell teas for export, or for domestic distribution, with domestic demand not able to support the highest quality level sale at sustainable pricing levels.  The same applies to development of tea processing businesses.  As things stand now options for both are limited, with regulatory constraints not set up to facilitate further development of both types of channels.

Of course all three of these factors mentioned also relate to a level of general economic development.  We didn't talk specifically about sales and distribution logistics, about specific infrastructure channel development for moving goods and supporting these steps, but issues like that have been developed extensively within Thailand over the past 20 years, and they were probably as far along as in Nepal now prior to that.  These problems also represent business opportunities, in addition to being current economic restrictions or roadblocks, but a global downturn from this pandemic experience doesn't help support making those development changes.  Prior shipping options narrowed significantly last year, and international demand for all sorts of goods dropped, along with the health of individual economies all around the world.

Most discussion was positive, to be clear.  We talked about how good Nepal tea is too, and how it can be so, even with these apparent limitations.  For me personally it's a main favorite category.  Especially their white tea versions tend to be distinct, and very positive, with great intensity and complexity, a nice mineral aspect base, pleasant sweetness, and floral and bright citrus range. We didn't really get into why that seems to be the case; it must be terroir related, and also tied to local processing styles.

that Nepal white tea, one version of it

It's no surprise that in Nepal more people drink plain, flavored, masala chai-themed, or CTC teas, versus the high quality orthodox tea I was just referring to.  I just mentioned this in relation to US demand in talking to Jason McDonald, a US tea grower, about how that same thing is a main demand limitation in the US.  It's true in India too; Darjeeling stands on the same quality level as most of the best orthodox tea produced anywhere (with some limited volume, truly exceptional range quality produced by longstanding tea traditions in China, Japan, and Taiwan), but CTC teas are most popular there.  It's also like that in Thailand, and in Russia; basically everywhere.

six years ago I reviewed a masala chai from a Nepalese intern at work

The divide implied here doesn't really hold up, that the amazing, exceptional oolongs, black teas, and pu'er produced in China is appreciated and enjoyed by most of the people there, or even a significant percentage of the population.  It's not like that.  People in China drink local teas, and as elsewhere "tea enthusiasts" seek out the best quality from that range.  It's just that this awareness and demand is based in an old, native tradition there, so it surely is taken up by a broader minority than in the US, for example.  But still by a minority.  

Several of my best friends in Bangkok have been the families of friends of my children, most from China and Japan, and in none of their cases were any of them remotely aware of high quality tea types.  They drank whatever teas turned up at their local grocery stores.  It's my impression that the "artisian / specialty / craft" food themes that became very common in the US in the 1990's is not really a global phenomena, and may or may not ever become that.

Huyen's capture version, with Ralph showing a Nepal tea he had handy

another of Ralph's captures

Tea evaluation

Back to talking to Narendra, an interesting tangent about tea description came up.  This is the kind of subject that no two tea enthusiasts, vendors, or other professionals would see in exactly the same way.  Intuitively it should be possible to clearly and objectively describe tea character, and this should support informing consumers about products and sales options.  The opposite turns out to be more common, and perhaps more true.  Tasting and description are at least partly subjective, so that an optimum for vendors might be to pass on a clear impression of a tea without committing to describing specific aspects, which consumers would interpret differently.  Which is tricky, of course.

On the one extreme evaluation processes come up, and use of tasting wheels to help clarify a range of potential aspects, along with aroma training kits to help train tasters to make those connections.  For me writing 1500 word tea reviews so frequently one might imagine that I'm "bought in" to such potential for objective analysis.  But I'm not.  I think that Ralph, Huyen, Suzana and I would describe the exact same tea experiences very differently, using different aspect descriptions, and focusing on different aspect category ranges within a given tea trial (feel versus flavor, for example, or seeing different aspects as quality markers).  Brewing process differences, and varying device and water types used, would probably lead to us not have the exact same experience, even if the dry tea product was identical.  We didn't really map out all those divides in discussion but we did talk around a little of it.

flavor / aroma wheel discussion keeps coming up, last covered here last year

It's hard not to drift towards a "what's next" context when discussing any problems or limitations related to tea production, marketing, sales, or tasting, especially related to themes about undeveloped potential.  We didn't really push on to that range so much. An hour-plus discussion only goes so far, and identifying the scope of issues comes before guessing at potential solutions.  

It's a real shame that Nepal makes such good tea, with international awareness of that still building, that small growers there face all the challenges they do, and then a Covid-related global downturn stalled all the development work people like Narendra were trying to do.  He's not bitter about it; past a certain life experience level it becomes comfortable to "work with what you've got."  He is looking forward to getting back to that work; that doesn't need to involve resignation to acceptance of current conventional limitations.  Economies will open again and more planes will fly, and experiences like tea drinking will seem more important to more people again.

Thailand takes the downturn on the chin but limited range of impact can make it seem more acceptable, or normal.  Foreign tourism has dropped out here, something like a 15% loss to the economy, but other sectors are doing better.  It's hard to get a feel for how other countries are doing, for example how this has impacted Nepal.  I suppose it would always depend on the business sector and the individual.  Tourism is probably less of a factor there but indirect or overall impact must be considerable.  Every country has restricted normal forms of life experience, out of necessity.  It was nice to focus more on tea in discussion, a happier subject, as we tend to in most of those talks.  

When Narendra asked Suzana about the pandemic status in India she was clear and direct about it; India experiences a complete nightmare now, an unthinkable death toll, across many local areas.  You can sense the stress she experiences from loss and concern over personal risk.  But Indians are grounded, philosophical, optimistic, and resilient, if a little prone to superstition in some personal cases.  They will be fine, as we all will be.  

It reminds me of updating my Mom about a personal trial related to my kids (which I haven't shared here; I could get to that), that it's all ok, even though it's not really ok.  My kids are grounded and resilient; they'll be fine. And Thailand will pull it together and get vaccination coverage ramped up, so we can move off this pandemic isolation theme that never completely ends here.

their bright spirits are consistent

Keo, looking older with really long hair

a mentos and Coke science experiment

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