In search of a climate-beneficial cup of tea

In search of a “beyond-organic” cup of tea

For many of us, drinking tea is a daily ritual. Black, green, white, Oolong, herbal, loose, bagged… you let it steep and sit down with your steaming cup and. Pause.

But unless you live in a part of the world where tea is grown, you really only think of tea as the dried, processed leaves that come neatly bagged. Few of us ever even see an actual tea plant — the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis — or think much about where and how it grew. Yet with over 4 million tons of tea is produced annually around the world, we’re talking about a big industry with a big impact. And because we lift that cup to our lips, it’s our impact, too.

If you just want to reduce the impact of your bag of tea, choose organic, fair-trade tea.

But what if you could actually reverse the impact of your bag of tea — purchase tea produced in such a way that it actually improves the soils and ecosystems in which it grows? Or perhaps even builds soil and therefore sequesters carbon, helping to stabilize the climate through its very growing process?

In other words, when it comes to tea, what does “beyond organic” look like?

To find out, Project Grounded traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas near Darjeeling in Northwestern India.

The journey up the dizzyingly steep, winding roads, past tea plantations that glow in all the imaginable shades of green, takes you to Kurseong village, home to Makaibari Tea Estate. The estate has been in the same family for four generations and is currently owned by the charismatic Rajah Banerjee. Makaibari tea is famous among tea connoisseurs. But it also sets the bar higher than any other tea estate I know in terms of ecological stewardship and social responsibility.

Most tea estates, even the organic ones, are monoculture farms, and establishing them involved major deforestation. Makaibari does a few things differently. Yes, it’s organic; in fact, it was the first tea estate in the world to be certified organic in 1988. But that’s just a start. The tea plantings here are managed according to biodynamic and permaculture principles. Unlike your average tea estage, Makaibari retains 70% of its area under forest cover. Even areas were tea was planted look more like “tea forests”: the tea bush is a part of a multi-story system of trees and plants — grasses, herbs, legumes, fruit trees and the forest — all helping to build more topsoil. The entire system is storing carbon, and therefore taking it out of the atmosphere where there’s too much of it.

Makaibari takes its commitment to soil restoration seriously. It’s not an afterthought or “sustainability strategy” — it’s what they are about, and the tea is just a beautiful by-product of a healthy soil and ecosystem.

The topsoil layer here has traditionally been very thin due to the steep slopes and heavy rainfall of the monsoon season. But the trees and the forest supply wind break and a natural source of mulch, which helps to rebuild the soil. Every year, during the cool season when the tea plants are resting, compost is spread under the plants to further reinvigorate soil life. Masanobu Fukuoka, the legendary Japanese pioneer of no-till farming who just passed away last month, visited Makaibari already back in the 1980s and worked his soil fertility magic on these slopes. It seems that Makaibari has been “regenerative organic” long before that term was even coined.

But Makaibari extends its regenerative commitment to regenerating the local communities, too. Its initiatives for the surrounding villages range from health clinics and educational programs to micro-credit programs and sustainability efforts at village scale. Makaibari also runs a village homestay ecotourism program for those who come to visit the tea estate, the profits of which go to the families.

I wasn’t a tea connoisseur when I first began researching teas. But Makaibari tea really is unlike any tea I’ve tasted before: amber-colored, subtle, aromatic. When I drank my first cup — perfectly prepared by owner Rajah Banerjee — I’d just been walking up and down those misty slopes where the fragrance of tea lingers in the air. And in every cup since then, I have tasted little hints of vibrant, cared-for forest soil.

Makaibari Tea is available in the US at Arbor Teas.

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