The sumptuous homes of the estate owners and managers contrast starkly with the humble mud houses of the workers, lending a hierarchical, almost feudal feel. In today’s competitive international marketplace fragrant Indian teas are considered delicate and exclusive but have been overshadowed by brews from smaller producers such as Kenya and Sri Lanka. However this year, climate change has affected tea production in Kenya and pushed up global tea prices and this might work to the advantage of India’s tea industry. Online disruption is looming, through retailers such as Teabox, based in Siliguri in Darjeeling. Its formula for modernizing the dilapidated supply chain: Ship the output of small producers under its own online brand, cutting the time from tea garden to teacups around the globe from months to mere days. With the backing of investors such as Silicon Valley’s Accel Partners, Teabox boasts a personalized tea subscription: Customers take a short online quiz that reveals their preferences and habits, which an algorithm then converts into a selection. Perhaps technology can help age-old Indian brews reclaim their rightful place in the global tea pantheon. .
However, unlike producers of fabled French wines and Scottish whiskeys who have kept up with their market while preserving traditional techniques, Indian teamaking mostly has remained frozen in time. Much of it dates to the British colonizers who brought in the tea bushes and pioneered the first commercial cultivation of tea outside of China. Since then the tea industry, whether in family estates or company-owned tea plantations, has seen surprisingly few changes. Aside from a significant presence of the world’s largest tea producers, Unilever (Lipton) and India’s Tata (Tetley), little of the raucous change of the Indian urban economy seems to have touched the area.