Off late, white tea in Assam is being auctioned at record prices, prompting us to look at the future of this speciality tea
Assam has become synonymous with tea; and you cannot travel across the State without noticing lush tea gardens dotted with workers plucking the leaves. Black tea, oolong tea and green tea are some of the varieties that Assam is known for. Out of which, orthodox and CTC (Crush Tear Curl) processed black tea dominates the market. However in the last couple of years, a new contender seems to have emerged in the form of white tea.
It is true that Assam produces black tea and green tea in huge quantities, but there has been a constant attempt to produce white tea on a commercial basis. The average cost of white tea (per kg) is INR 7000 to 8000; most of the white tea produced in the State is exported. Pijush Roy of Kamakhya Tea Trading in Guwahati shares, ‘There are some local tea lovers who buy white tea, never mind the price. Within the country also, there is a rise in demand. But the global market, as in the past, always has more buyers of white tea.’
White tea is the most expensive of all teas and its price ranges from INR 8,000 to 12,000 per kg. Made only from the unopened buds and young leaves of the tea plant named Camellia sinensis; its brew is light and delicate with a slightly sweet flavour. It needs to be plucked at the right time, either at the start or at the end of the season and is the least processed of all teas.
Moreover white tea has a lot of health benefits. It was initially used for medical purpose only. It is rich in antioxidants, reduces the risk of heart disease, helps to lose weight, and protects your teeth from bacteria. It also has compounds that may help fight cancer and osteoporosis. But unlike green tea, the awareness regarding the health benefits of white tea is not known to a lot of people.
Recently, white tea broke price records in the auctions which raises the question whether Assam needs to work on massive white tea production.
The annual production of Assam tea shows an increase in the quantity. In 2016, Assam produced 642.18 million kg of tea, which was highest in India. Last year, Assam produced 675.17 million kg of tea, out of total tea production of 1,321.76 million kg in India. This year, as per records, the production from January to April was 64.29 million kg. It is interesting to note that black tea tops the list in case of production, not only in Assam but also in the whole of India.
It is interesting to note that the average auction prices of black tea from Assam and West Bengal increased to INR 161 per kg during the first four months of 2018 from INR 151.81 per kg last year; and the highest record price was INR 700 for a kg. When it comes to white tea, the record price reached around INR 17,000.
But despite record prices, the annual white tea production in Assam is quite low; the scenario is the same in other states of the Northeast like Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, where white tea is produced.
Tea buyers at the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre also confirmed that white tea is not produced in big quantities in the region. One of the reasons behind this could be the fact that the manufacturing process is labour intensive. ‘There are also very few buyers of white tea even in the international market. In India, the demand for white tea is yet to come,’ chimed the buyers.
The export and auction of Assam tea compared to that of Darjeeling and Dooars Tea suggests that the market is doing good. However, there is no record of white tea export by Tea Board of India. Most of the white tea production in Assam is done by tea gardens owned by proprietors, rather than agencies.
‘The system of auctioning has changed. Nowadays only e-auctioning is done. Buyers can sit in their homes and bid for the best tea. Only the auctioning time is decided here,’ said Sailen Baishya, Chairman of the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre. ‘Mostly black and green tea is auctioned. Auctioning of white tea is less. The market for white tea is not up to the expectations yet. However, several gardens in Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have produced good quality white tea at high labour costs. It’s because the conditions are suitable for white tea production. What we need now is a potential market.’
Recently, Donyi Polo Tea Garden of Arunachal Pradesh was in the news for their white tea, which was auctioned at a record price of INR 17,001 per kg. Manoj Kumar, senior manager of the garden, shares that it is possible to produce more white tea but it would be unadvisable to do so without having buyers in place. ‘Yes, it is possible to produce more white tea but the issue is that we do not get adequate buyers often. We are producing good quality white tea, which involves spending a lot on labour. Hence, once we create a market, we can get into large-scale production. Things are at an initial stage now. The soil condition and climate is not an issue here because as it is pretty much suitable for producing white tea. What we need to focus on the most is the marketing of white tea. Also, as it involves a lot of manpower, involvement of government agencies and the tea association will help make it easier.’
As it can get expensive, Subhankar Baruah, an executive of the Chabua Tea Estate informed that white tea production in the Northeast is mostly done by proprietorship tea gardens. ‘It takes a lot of manpower to produce white tea, gardens owned by companies do not go for such varieties.’ But even then, all is not bleak. Baruah mentioned that quite a few planters from Assam are slowly but strongly making an entry into the world of white tea. For example, Raj Barooah, Director of the Thengalbari Tea Estate and an enthusiastic tea planter from Assam, took white tea from his garden in Jorhat to be exhibited for the first time at the Hong Kong International Food Fair. There was some resistance initially but once people tasted the tea, their impressions changed.
Another success story is that of Doomni Tea Garden in Baksa district located on the foothills of Bhutan; the garden has made a name for itself with regards to white tea production. The garden has received good response within the country and abroad. It makes 80 kg of white tea annually, which is a huge quantity, as the overall production rate is quite low.
Shree and Company, a retail outlet in Ganeshguri deals in all varieties of tea ranging from black tea, oolong tea, green tea to all kinds of speciality teas. Gunjan Bihani, proprietor of the store shared, ‘From a manufacturing point of view, there is huge potential for white tea in Assam and in the Northeast. The tea gardens in the region are producing white tea but since the cost of production is higher, the market has to be present. As a seller, I can see that the market for white tea is growing. Earlier, coffee was preferred by the elite class but with the introduction of various speciality teas, they are opting for white tea.’
He also stated that more promotion and awareness is required. ‘If the market demands increases, then the cost of production will go down and tea gardens will start producing white tea on a large scale. Guwahati Tea Auction Centre has been constantly working on promoting white tea among all other kinds of speciality tea. It’s only a matter of time when buyers will realize the potential of the white tea from this region, and automatically the sale will go up.’
There is also the notion that white tea is only for the elite. ‘It cannot be denied that white tea is preferred by people mostly from cities. The price is comparatively high, hence there is an idea that it is bought only by the elite class and is mostly preferred in urban places and cities. It will take time for white tea to be accepted by the common people.’
For now, white tea production in Assam and other Northeastern states is in the initial stages so it is difficult to say whether ‘white tea’ is the new ‘green tea’; if markets open up in the coming years, then it is likely that we will see much more of this refreshing tea.