The Tea Trail: Discovering Tea’s Roots in India

Updated: Dec 11, 2019


Hand picked tea leaves in Darjeeling, India

We started Alaya after visits to the beautiful tea estates of India.


Darjeeling, the region that is most iconic for tea in India, centers around a small town perched on the side of a mountain at nearly 7,000 feet in altitude. This is where the British cemented the culture of tea in the country.


In the late 1700s, the Royal Society of Arts from England had been discussing the possibility of taking saplings of the tea bush, camellia sinensis, from China to India. In the early 1800s, these tea saplings were seen in the state of Assam and later, Darjeeling.


India’s tea industry flourished thanks to a heist. Scottish horticulturalist Robert Fortune went to China in the 1840s and successfully took about 13,000 plant samples and 10,000 seeds (in glass bottles) from Hong Kong to Calcutta. It was these plants that gave way to the lush tea estates seen in eastern India today. By the 1850s, tea estates had been established in Darjeeling.


Today, as you wind through the narrow roads of the Darjeeling region, there are countless estates with images that harken back to those colonial days. The charm, romanticism, and rugged beauty of the region is hard to resist.


That British hangover is evident in Darjeeling. Tea estates are filled with old machinery, manufactured by the English, and hoisted up the hillsides by an army of workers. Darjeeling became the darling of the tea industry, producing teas at altitude that captured the terroir of the region, and were prized all over as the ‘Champagne of tea.’ Because of where they were grown, they developed a unique delicate flavor compared to the strong, robust flavors of Assam tea (which also stem from the same plant, but a variety that produces broader tea leaves).





Today, as you wind through the narrow roads of the Darjeeling region, there are countless estates with images that harken back to those colonial days. The charm, romanticism, and rugged beauty of the region is hard to resist.


Yet, while Darjeeling tea is often the most sought after, many of these estates are struggling to make them profitable ventures. Now run by owners who spend more time in Delhi and less time in the hills, they’re more transactional.


The tea prices are set in the auction houses. Much of the tea is sold through traders and middlemen. This creates unnecessary layers, which add to the overall price of tea. Until 2016, the tea auctions operated in their respective regions; meaning if a trader wanted to buy Darjeeling tea, he had to present at that auction when the tea went for sale.


We wanted to go to the source for this very reason: to cut down on the middlemen, and buy directly from the estate. That way the money goes directly to the estate, which then invests in the farming of tea and the thousands of workers there.


In 2016, India digitized that system, opening it up to people beyond the region. Yet still, tea estates didn’t have relationships with brands directly; they were selling through traders.


We wanted to go to the source for this very reason: to cut down on the middlemen, and buy directly from the estate. That way the money goes directly to the estate, which then invests in the farming of tea and the thousands of workers there.


In Darjeeling, where things move at a sluggish pace, the old colonial ways still linger, and the desire for change is a bit slow, we wanted to work with estates that were thinking about the future of tea, not only its past.


That’s why we decided to source from estates that are biodynamic, thinking about their workforce, and looking to improve the way tea is produced, while still preserving its roots.


Set in the Himalayas, at the base of Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, we had found our inspiration. Thus we named our company, Alaya Tea, stemming from the Himalayas -- literally.


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