Pandemic delays Darjeeling first flush roll out in Japan

Darjeeling first flush teas are produced in March and April after the winter in India. However, because of Covid-19, the Indian government imposed a nationwide lockdown beginning 25 March, which resulted in the huge loss of the Darjeeling first flush teas this year. After some restrictions were relaxed in Darjeeling starting 18 April, the tea estates managed to process some first flush teas from over-grown leaves and preparation began for the second flush season.

Established in Tokyo in 1985, Teej Co Ltd was one of the first companies to introduce the non-blended, garden-fresh teas to Japan. Teej started sell Darjeeling First Flush teas in early July, about two months later than usual, because of Covid-19-related delays. Mori Kuniyasu, the president of Teej, faced unprecedented difficulty procuring the first flush Darjeeling teas this year due to the turmoil in production and transport triggered by the lockdown measures against the disease. However, as soon as it launched, orders from their customers rushed into Teej’s website, and all teas sold out quickly.

The limited logistics worldwide made it difficult to import the tea. Mori received the first flush samples only in mid-May and selected two manufactured before the lockdown; Sungma DJ-2 and Goomtee DJ-6. Furthermore, it was uncertain when the tea would be delivered to Japan, either by air or surface cargos. He decided to use DHL to carry the total of 300kg of tea, two Darjeeling and one Assam (Sironibari C-5 BPS) invoices. The tea was handed over to the DHL Kolkata on 19 May and transferred many times on the way, then finally arrived in Japan on 8 June. Although both the price of teas and expense of transportation were exceptionally high at this time, Mori did not add the rise in costs to his retail and wholesale prices.

When Mori started selling Darjeeling seasonal teas 35 years ago, non-blended teas were new and novel products, which required explanation and education for consumers. Those quality teas are naturally expensive, so Mori has been trying to handle them at an acceptable price range for producers, exporters, catering businesses, consumers, and himself.

From the beginning, Mori noted that just displaying his tea packets on the shelves in supermarkets or department stores did not help consumers to buy them because of their higher price. Therefore, he started to supply restaurants and cafés in order for their customers to taste those teas with a little margin. He also understood that offering the teas at a stable wholesale price makes it easier for shop owners to control the beverage cost. He has also been keeping the retail prices steady as long as they derive a reasonable profit for the company to sustain the business. Mori believes that an affordable price for general public is a crucial factor for the growth of the specialty tea market.

The outbreak of Covid-19 made many Japanese buyers suspend importing the Darjeeling first flush. Others who could buy a tiny quantity are now selling them at prices three to five times higher than that of Teej.

“Tea is a beverage consumed in a daily life, it is basically the same for the seasonal Darjeeling teas,” said Mori. “I always place the most importance on the balance of quality and price. I sometimes experience tough negotiations with producers or suppliers, but I’ve never compromised on quality.”

  • Yumi Nakatsugawa has been working as a freelance writer specialising in food and restaurant management. While freelancing, she developed a love of black tea as well as tea-producing countries and tea people. Her passion for black tea has brought her to Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, Indonesia, Nepal, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea to see tea production firsthand. Based in Japan, Yumi may be reached at: [email protected].

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