Tasters

Kevin Gascoyne

India 2016

India 2015

India 2014

India, Africa, UK... 2013

India 2012

India 2011

India 2010

India 2009

India 2016

Having had travel companions for the last few years Kevin was pleased to be travelling alone this year.  It gave him a chance to research revise his knowledge and generate the seeds of some new projects with his friends in the Himalayas.    Having toured the gardens of Darjeeling he headed to Nepal to visit his friends at Jun Chiyabari.  He then headed to Assam to the Tocklai Research Institute and Meghalaya to the exciting new garden of Lakyrsiew down there that he has been taking an active interest in for a few years now.

India 2015

Kevin’s annual travels to India this year was a little different as he was accompanied by a documentary film crew.  Director Jean-François Michaud of Radio Canada, the French language sector of the CBC, headed the two-man team.  The cameraman was Andrew Lee.  Camellia’s warehouse manager Jean-Philippe was also with him so with 4 men and a large amount of equipment the logistics of the trip were and extra challenge.  They followed around Darjeeling as he did his buying and then to Nilgiri in the South to discuss a project down there.   You can see the resulting documentary here

India 2014

After the 7 country marathon of 2013 Spring of 2014 was a little more compact.  I was accpompanied by Gabriel one of the managers from Camellia's Montréal Team.
Following some initial tastings in Kolkata we headed straight to the Darjeeling hills to put together the Darjeeling Spring Collection for the catalogue.  Over the border to neighbouring Nepal to see our good friends at Jun Chiyabari then down to the Indian plains.  Due to political unrest our itinerary in Assam was cancelled and we moved straight on to the little known state of Meghalaya and the very exciting operation at Lakyrsiew.

India, Africa, UK... 2013

An extensive and varied trip this year took me through 7 countries, on 19 flights in the space of six weeks.

I began in New York giving a conference at the Coffee and Tea Festival before taking a flight to South Africa. 

From Cape Town on the coast I headed up into the rugged Cedarburg Mountains of  South Africa’s Western Cape to find the lost valley of Wupperthal.  Cut off from the world, this tiny village community of thatched church and cottages is in the middle of a vast, arid plain. It was founded by German missionaries back in the 1830s. Today a cooperative of 93 farmers from Wupperthal and the surrounding villages produce a high quality, traditional, hand-harvest rooibos.  Camellia Sinensis has been buying it for many years. After various other explorations of Rooibos and Honey bush around South Africa I moved on to Malawi.

Alexander Kay, producer of our white Satemwa tea picked me up in Blantyre.  My first mission was to find some old tea plants from the 1880s, the 2 remaining specimens of Africa's oldest tea plants, to my disappointment they had been uprooted 2 years ago while planting a corn field! The Kay family are 3rd generation here. Aside from their big bread winning CTC operation Alexander has been experimenting with other forms of speciality manufacture.  I visited some other gardens and the Tea Research Foundation of Malawi in Mulanje. There is both cultivar and terroir potential for great and original whole leaf teas in Malawi.  Promotion of Speciality Tea to meet the increasing demand around the World rapidly became the theme of my visit...The teas showed promise and I have since helped him to purchase some more specialized machines, specifically a small drier, through my contacts in India.  Recent samples show a marked improvement in quality.  I published an article in Fresh Cup Magazine about this visit.

I then flew to Nairobi in Kenya where I met with the KTDA.  The Kenya Tea Development Agency was formed in 1962 when Kenya became independent from the British. Aside from a few enormous multi-national companies like Unilever, the KTDA run the whole of Kenya's tea industry from the tens of thousands of small farmers to big estates.

I started my visit giving a conference in the KTDA's enormous headquarters in Nairobi.  My presentation was addressed to the to the board and marketing department on the subject of  'The Opportunities and Challenges of the Speciality Tea Market: Cultivar to Cup'

I then traveled for a week around Kenya visiting many estates large and small.  One of the highlights was Kangaita source of our best Kenyan tea for several years. I then moved on to visit the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya in Kericho where I met with their board and toured the garden with the head plant breeder to discuss potential cultivars for speciality manufacture.

From Nairobi I moved on to Kigali in Rwanda to write an article about a tea project there. The dramatic, leafy beauty of these high-altitude valleys impressed me from the start. The Cyohoha Valleys of Kinihira previously contained vast swamplands.  They were drained by the Dutch back in the 1960's with French development money.  The result is a cluster of valleys containing perfectly level, very fertile, plains at their base.  

Sorwathé Factory, Rwanda’s first private factory project was completed in 1978.  Today, it is the largest single factory in the country, they manufacture an impressive 3.0 million tons annually, 15% of Rwanda’s total output. In the field 20% of the growing is traditional plantation; the other 80% is farmed by a cooperative of small holders.

With its social development roots Sorwathé has continued to focus on humanitarian values through housing, schooling and the freehold farmer projects.  Certified Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and Ethical Tea Partnership, recent estimates suggest that around 10 000 families are now sustained by the project.  I have published an article about it in Fresh Cup Magazine.

From Rwanda I flew back for a few more days of consulting in Nairobi before flying East to India.

Arriving in India I first toured the gardens of the Indian Himalayas, my 20th consecutive spring  visit to a region that feels very much like home.  I picked up a few spectacular Darjeelings from Thurbo, Singell, Samabeong, Jungpana among many others.  From high in the mountain valleys I travelled down to Kolkata for more tasting and to finalize transport arrangements.

Then it was off to the UK for a couple of projects.  The first was a visit to the famous traditional tea company of Twinings in Andover, South of London.  I spent the day with Stephen Twining, 10th generation in a business that was founded back in 1709, and their excellent chief taster Michael Wright.  After tasting one of my Darjeeling fresh samples we toured the newly renovated, state of the art, factory and spent a very pleasant afternoon in the tasting room.

My final tea visit on this year’s trip was Tregothnan in the deep southern reaches of Cornwall.  This private country estate, founded back in 1334, is growing small amounts of tea plants in the specific Cornish micro-climate.

At that point it was time to head home to drink some of my prize Darjeelings and the other spoils of a very rewarding tour.

India 2012

As I left for Asia on March 26th (my 19th consecutive Spring tour in Asia) I review my charged itinerary, budget and the quantities I was to buy. As always I was really looking forward to seeing friends and associates, some of whom I have known for the best part of 20 years.  Also on my mind was tasting the new First Flush teas, a moment I look forward to all year.  The First Flush in Darjeeling was slightly late this year and the start of the season very dry, in fact they had not had any rain since October and the plants were struggling to push leaves.  The saving grace this year was the constant cloud cover that, despite not releasing a drop of much needed precipitation, protected the leaves from burning.  In retrospect this first week was a great week for high quality, some of the best we have seen in a few years.  As with many other plants: flavour chemistry is often enhanced by stress.   Worries about the pitiful quantities in this first week were allayed when the rains finally broke in force and continued throughout the rest of the First Flush and the producers made up all the quantities necessary. 

As always first contact was in Kolkata, tasting the few Darjeeling samples that had made it down from the hills so far.  I bought a light bright Phoobsering and a Thurbo that had been made for me from a preferred section of that garden’s young clonal plants.  These were quickly dispatched to the eagerly awaiting and desperate Darjeeling lovers among our staff and clients.

The next day it was straight up to the hills and the gardens of Darjeeling. A few days in to my tour I met up with a French photographer Stéphane Barbery who spent a couple of days with me. You can follow the link below to see some of the photos he took.  Over the following weeks I visited around 15-16 gardens tasting, buying, meeting growers and consultants and doing other small research projects.

Once I was done in Darjeeling I flew to the other side of the Himalaya and the little know tea-growing region of Kangra. It was an excellent experience in learning, both for field practice, and the socio-economic dynamics of a struggling industry.  I was lucky to have been invited to give a seminar at the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology.   During a day of seminars and activities I met a large number of the local growers in one place.  During some extensive tastings I was pleasantly surprised at the potential in some of the teas that a few of the serious growers were making, complexed and sophisticated cups of all styles from green, wulong to black.  Visiting the gardens it struck me that the producers of Kangra are sat on a gold-mine of old, classic plants from the 1850's to the 1880's.  Beautiful small leaf tea, largely planted from seed at altitude and with similar growing seasons and conditions to Darjeeling. Due to a long series of historical disasters, earthquakes, cholera and repeated collapse of their markets, to mention just a few, they are holding on by a thread.  They are mainly surviving on the production of green tea for the Kashmir market and hard-wither orthodox to send in the Kolkata auctions.  Some of the smaller growers however are making some very high grades that I will be working on to get a couple of teas for the catalogue in the future.  In recent years scientists profiled the flavour of Kangra tea as unique and managed to acquire a geographical indication for the region.  Kangra Tea now has its own logo, like the other Indian regions, thought their name is still to be made. I toured about 8 or 9 gardens before moving on towards Nepal...

Next came a visit to Nepal.... I landed in Kathmandu and, after a few appointments in Kathmandu, traveled to the garden of Jun Chiyabari. This newly established garden with its beautiful factory is run by a couple of very experienced managers brought in from Darjeeling.  They are making exceptional teas and I picked up a First Flush and an Wulong.  In the space of a week my itinerary was compromised 3 times by political activity in the form of 'bandts' - an imposed 'strike' where nobody is allowed to drive on the roads. Anybody caught on the road has their vehicle burned and has to walk home!  Since the Nepalese New Year that week things had started to warm up and by the time I left 3 consecutive bandts for a total of 5 days were in announced.  As 2-wheeled vehicles are permitted I fled to the border early morning on a motorbike and was happy to arrive down in the plains and cross back into India. I had still managed to sneak in a few visits to various gardens, the project I set up with the Japanese tea farmers in Fikkal last year, the Small Farmers Project and Jun Chiyabari's sister project Ilam Chiyabari...

Having left Nepal a little earlier than expected I quickly nipped back up into the Darjeeling hills to a favourite Garden that I had missed, the very isolated Samabeong who had had an exceptional year and I picked up a delightful tea from them. 

Back to Kolkata for meetings, tastings and to finish off the buying and shipping arrangements and I was on my way home to enjoy my new selection of Himalayan delights….

Read an article of Kevin’s travel journals here

Listen to a live radio interview with Kevin on the phone from Gopaldhara Tea Garden in Darjeeling

India 2011

This year my Asia trip was split into three distinct parts.  Aside from my usual Darjeeling tour I returned Sri Lanka again and also headed a very exciting exchange project in Nepal. Jonathan who manages our teahouse in Montreal accompanied me. First news from the tea community in Kolkata on arrival was of an excellent start up in the mountains.  After the last four years of no sun and then drought the weather had been ideal for both quantity and quality. Early samples had been smuggled out of the gardens which were in full manufacture but locked-up by a region-wide union strike. The strike was cleared up within a few days and the workers of Darjeeling received a 34% pay increase!

Our Japanese guests arrived in Kolkata for the Himalaya Japan Exchange Project I had been developing over the previous year. Mr.Iwata a 17th generation tea farmer with a tiny tea garden near Kobe in Japan, was here to improve his understanding of black tea and to share his expertise in green tea. Mr.Takeda a semi-retired tea-scientist and president of one of Japan’s most respected research institutes who has spent his life developing plants for the Japanese tea industry for the scientific aspect.  We all headed for Darjeeling to pick up our Indian expert the highly respected tea consultant Mr.JP Gurung. We then traveled on to Nepal where we spent a week exchanging knowledge on the manufacture and cultivation of black and green tea.

Once the project was finished we left our Japanese friends and began a series of Darjeeling garden visits buying the exceptional selection of First Flush Darjeelings that you can see in our catalogue for 2011. Finally the philosophical patience of the Indian tea industry was rewarded with a bumper season that they direly needed to keep the industry alive. From Darjeeling we flew to Colombo in Sri Lanka to continue tasting and buying of Ceylon teas for the catalogue and traveled through various growing regions for research. A few final days in Kolkata to finalize the buying and transport arrangements and we were heading home after a whirlwind month of exciting discoveries, a new level of understanding and a lot of really great tea.

India 2010

INTRODUCTION 

This year I was accompanied by Alexis from the Quebec Store.  We started the trip in Kolkata as I always do and first went to a couple of offices to taste and get an idea of what was happening with the First Flush.  First information was of a dry and hot Darjeeling praying for rain and very little teas had reached Kolkata as yet.  We then headed for Darjeeling and began a week of non-stop garden visits.  From the mountains we travelled back to the plains to visit a range of different Assam gardens.  The third, more exploratory part of the trip took us over the Brahmaputra to the very isolated, tribal State of Arunachal Pradesh to check out a couple of tea projects there.  Lastly we went back to Kolkata to finalise the buying and shipping arrangements.

DARJEELING

Darjeeling had even less rain than last year (which was already a record dry one) making it the driest in 11 years. The whole industry were counting the days since last October 10th, , the last real precipitation they had, while watching the temperatures soar way above the norm.  Even after a week of garden visits, when we left the mountains, they had been 175 days without rain.

In the lower gardens it seemed much worse with more burning, lost plants and many going into banjhi after just one plucking round.   Up the higher elevations the gardens weren’t quite as damaged due to better moisture retention in the soil, but leaf production was way down. It was immediately apparent that all the gardens were suffering.  Gardens that we have come to expect solid quality were coming up with bland or harsh uninteresting teas.  I had to use all my resources to look further afield and buy some “lucky” quality invoices from more obscure gardens.   By the time I had finished buying I was very happy with this year’s catalogue:

-CASTLETON DJ-12 CLONAL   YR 2 CONVERSION  
-GOPALDHARA WT CLONAL  
-PHOOBSERING DJ-1 CLONAL  ORGANIC
-SOURENI EX-1 CLONAL  ORGANIC
-THURBO DJ-12 CLONAL  YR 2 CONVERSION
-SEEYOK DJ-6 CLASSIC ORGANIC/ FAIR TRADE
-JUNGPANA DJ-14 CLASSIC YR 2 ORGANIC
-GADDAPAHAR DJ-5 CLASSIC
-AVONGROVE DJ-12 ASAMMICA/CLONAL 70/30 BLEND  ORGANIC
-SIKKIM EX-1 CLONAL

ASSAM

This year was probably my best visit to Assam so far. I managed to visit all the gardens that are currently making the top orthodox leaf (with exception of Sri Sibarri which was too far off the route this time).  I was early for buying, as the best “tippy” Assams are produced in May/June, but there are some treats on the way.  Upper Assam had had plenty of rain where Lower Assam a little less than usual and was a bit dry, though nothing like Darjeeling.  We visited a very varied selection of operations from the massive to the modest, from the kings of quality to the standards.

ARUNACHALPRADESH

From Halmari we headed for the town of Dibrugarh to meet for a trip into Arunachal Pradesh.  This obscure and isolated state is bordered by Bhutan, Tibet and Burma on the West, North and East flanks respectively.  All three are closed to the outside World.  The southern border is mostly the mighty Brahmaputra, a river so wide here that it is constantly changing its banks and cannot be bridged.   The Chinese border is still disputed, back in 1962 tensions mounted to the point of war between China and India.  Military activity has now calmed but there is a certain amount of tribal tension as the region is principally tribal.   We had arranged special permits to enter the region in advance.

Leaving  Dibrugarh we travelled South  East then curved North to start crossing some of the hundreds of rivers that bring water down from the mountains into the Bramhaputra we drove through the steep, very beautiful, high altitude valleys.  We moved deeper into Arunachal’s forests.  The main “highway” is barely 2 lanes.  The rivers often wash out the roads so there was a lot of driving through riverbeds.  The projects we saw were both very interesting, tea related social development operations.

Chapters from these travels will be posted in some of our upcoming blogs.


India 2009

GREAT TEAS FROM A DIFFICULT SPRING

First news from the Darjeeling hills this year was of warm weather and political unrest. Warm seemed to be a positive change after a couple of cold, wet and troublesome First Flushes. But by mid March it seemed apparent that no rain was coming and very little tea was growing.

Arriving in Kolkata the initial reports of 40%-50% harvests, most of the companies had invoices DJ10 and below instead of the usual DJ 20s and 30s they would usually have produced by then. Quality was also suffering seriously, very few good teas. With reduced quantities I was naturally expecting prices that would correspond to this scarcity. By the end of my visit I would say that overall quality was at about 6 out of 10. Prices were up a little but part of this was also due to fluctuations in the exchange rates. Darjeeling has not seen a drought of this scale since 1999. Overall the mood in the industry was a little worried but accepting and philosophical.

Aside from the immediate financial problems that low quantity and low quality present, the complications will continue. The plants all started going into banjhi (dormancy) earlier than usual so that the Second Flush will be offset with the Summer rains. Many sections of plants scorched by the drought will require expensive replanting.

SNOWVIEW / KUMAI

The garden of Kumai is the eastern most of the region 4 hours drive from Darjeeling. The border of Bhutan is over the valley only one km away. A large part of the garden is actually in the plains the rest on the first slopes of the foothills as they rise up to become the Himalayas. The elevation ranges from 300-1500m, from the top of the garden the view is spectacular West Bengal stretches out so far that you can see the curvature of the Earth. Kumai was taken over by Tea Promoters (Singell, Samabeong etc.) 3 years ago. I have been tasting their teas for the last few years in Kol. and this year the quality of their DJ4 and DJ5 wasn’t bad and overall quality remarkably improved.

First steps when they took over were to apply all their organic practices to the garden and their Fair Trade practice to the workers who number around 900, mostly Nepali origin but around 13% indigenous. The factory was converted from CTC to full orthodox. The garden was extremely dry from the drought many plants dead or dying, maintenance foliage dark and scorched with a small flush struggling through on the plucking table. With 60% assam-hybrid plants the long-term plan is to gradually in-fill and replace with china clones.

SAMABEONG

A couple of hours drive North West and vertically up from Kumai I popped in at Samabeong for a few hours. The mist was thick and as usual they were a couple of weeks behind the rest of the region with barely enough leaf for a single invoice. So far only their china sections had flushed and they were still waiting for the precious clonals. I tasted 6 “ghannis” (small unsorted batches). All were tasty but not yet the Clonal magic that I wait for every year. Even the china sections of this garden share that very unique Samabeong signature.

RISHEEHAT

One hour from Darjeeling town the Risheehat garden was established by Scots back in the 1893. The name means, “Seat of the Sage” in Hindi. It must be one of the steepest gardens in the whole region with a large altitude differential. 90% old china plants, they have been turning out some very good quality over the last few years. The whole place has a feeling of well established, and organised about it. The factory is clean and well kept and the garden will receive its organic certification at the end of this year. They had around 25 teas to show me mostly very solid classic chinas and a couple of flowery clonals, one of which I bought: the remarkable DJ-22. Their production was down around 50 % because of the drought but the garden, which backs on to one of the cloudiest ridges in the region, looked relatively healthy (after some I had seen). There was still scorching and leaf damage in some sections but plenty of fresh bud.

SUNGMA

Across the valley from Gopaldhara is the old garden of Sungma, managed by Mr.Jah one of Darjeeling’s most respected senior planters. Originally planted in 1863 it still contains 80% of the original china planting with a growing 15% clonal and 5%assam-hybrid population. Over the last 3 years Sungma has been consistently producing high quality teas. I tasted their first 30 invoices and all were very respectable, a high percentage was top quality. Slightly amber liquors, smooth textures and strong aromatics. The garden was behind schedule but not as scorched as many, again the established/ well-organised feeling of sister-garden Risheehat.

GOPALDHARA

On arrival in the Gopaldhara garden at river level in the bottom of the valley, the first thing was to visit the new factory. It has been built over the last 3 years and, having seen the chaos of construction, I have even more respect for Mr.Panjika the jolly manager who continues to seduce us with the Wonder Tea. This year the factory was in the final stages of completion and looking good with a few innovative features that could be interesting but have yet to be tested.

GARDEN PRACTICE

As with all industries of farming and cultivation, each garden manager has a slightly different approach. Asking about the measures to be taken for drought I heard all sorts of stories- often conflicting. From severe pruning to no pruning, different chemicals or natural infusions that should, or should never, be applied and so on, the variation is impressive. It serves as a good illustration as to how there are many ways to grow tea even within the same region.

A new practice this year, adopted very quickly by many gardens under the recommendation of the TRA, is vermiculture. Many planters have built long shade-covered worm-tanks to breed worms for the gardens.

Despite the difficult conditions and the overall low quality of this year’s First Flush I managed to put together a very diverse and surprisingly high-quality selection of teas. Thanks to all my good friends and contacts in India that pulled out their best leaves for me.

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