A Visit with the Lochans
By: Elizabeth Ray
Elizabeth Ray is agribusiness scholar currently doing an internship in New Delhi. She reached out to Tealet for an opportunity to learn more about the global economics of the Indian Tea industry. She was connected with Rajiv Lochan who manages Doke Tea Garden and Lochan Tea. Elizabeth tells a beautiful story of her experience with the Lochan Family.
When you first walk into Rajiv Lochan’s office in Siliguri, you are struck by how meticulously arranged his library is. He has hundreds of books on shelves surrounding his desk, and you get the feeling that he’s read most of them. After discussing business, he then might show you to his Tea Sampling room and invite you to try tea from his personal collection. On showcase are tea sets from all around Asia, tea-brewing machines from China, tools and teapots from Japan and London, and, of course, a vast assortment of teas the names and histories of which Rajiv will explain with a delighted and insightful enthusiasm. If you’re extremely lucky, Rajiv might let you try a sample of his favourite Pu’er tea, a specialty Chinese variation which is black, aged for several years, and for a more acquired palate than mine.
Thus went my first hour visiting the Lochan Tea at their head office in Siliguri in West Bengal, India. Although I had done research on the topic, I had had little practical background in the tea industry and only forty-eight hours in the region. When Rajiv hears this, he solemnly shook his head and said “Forty-eight hours is a very short time. Too short. But we shall do what we can.” Abruptly perking up, he called in his daughter Neha “Dolly” Lochan and introduced us. Dolly is Rajiv’s middle child and, as Rajiv proudly proclaimed, the next generation of Lochan Tea growers. She is personable with a smart, snarky sense of humour, obvious despite her shy reluctance to speak English. As Dolly ushered me into the tea tasting room, she said, half-laughingly “You know, I’m never in this office. I’ve been working on a green tea recipe for the past six months, and I’m usually up at our Tea Garden. I go about 3 times a week. That’s where we’re going tomorrow” Dolly showed me to a room with one wall filled with various tea sets from all over the world. We sit down at a desk with a wooden tray, and I presume it – like the rest of the foreign machines and paraphernalia – is specifically used for making tea. Next to the tray is a small cooking apparatus with two hobs, a teapot, and buttons listed in Chinese. “My father’s little souvenir from China,” Dolly smiles dryly. “I broke it the first time I tried to use it.” She carefully selected two cups from the array of tea sets and asked “So what do you want to try first?”
Between the two of us, we select five teas to try. The first one, suggested by Rajiv, is an Oolong from their Gardens near the river Doke – or, sensibly called, a Doke Oolong. Dolly pours hot water over the blackened tea leave, and we wait a couple minutes as it brews. The tea tastes like, well, tea to me. Slightly woodsy-bitter with an almost sweet aftertaste. I ask Dolly which is her favourite. “You know, I don’t even like tea, really. But there is one I like quite a bit”. Her choice is a Jasmine Green Tea from China, and ends up being one of my favourites as well. In our first round of tea testing, we try the Doke Oolong (which I later try cold, and is fan-freaking-tastic), a handmade Darjeeling, a Black Assam, a batch of Dolly’s tester Green Tea, and a Chinese White Tea.
Just as we’re finishing the first round, Dolly’s younger brother finds us. While Dolly cleans the tea set and prepares the next round of tea testing, Vivek “Vicky” Lochan explains has taken over managing the sales and marketing for Lochan Tea. Vicky is smart, quick young man. He is fluent in English and takes a brotherly joy in correcting Dolly’s English (in response to which Dolly rolls her eyes and yells at him in Hindi). Vicky suggests we try a CTC (i.e., low quality tea) at some point. In the next round of tasting, the three of us sampled the Pu’er (Rajiv’s favourite), a Chinese diet ‘tea’ of herbs, a Chinese Ginseng Black tea in which the leaves are rolled up into small balls, a Jasmine Black Assam, and a CTC. As we’re finishing, Rajiv joins us and gives me a thorough history on the cultivation of the tea plant. True to his passion, Rajiv knows the cannons of tea history, from the plant’s prehistorical evolution to its early usages, migration to Japan, to the plant’s Indian renaissance. We conclude my first day by trying four last teas; a Jasmine Pearl tea, a Genmaicha from Japan, a Chinese Green Tea from the Yuan Provence, and a Green Dragonwell from China.
Day two started sharply at nine in the morning. Vicky, Dolly, two other workers from Lochan Tea, and I pile into a small SUV and head up to their Tea Garden in Bihar. The journey takes us two hours, little of which I remember (I slept the majority of the drive). The Lochan Tea Garden is located in an area where West Bengal (an Indian state) meets Bihar (another Indian state) which is all near the Nepalese and Bhutan country borders. Darjeeling, the well-known tea producing region, is the next valley over from the Lochan Tea Garden.
Honestly, it is all just as beautiful as you hope. The youthfully green fields of rice, tea, and jute sprawl for miles in every direction. The land is unlike the organised and efficient agriculture fields of Europe and America – the fields are not perfectly manicured but instead bend around the sporadic tree and dilapidated farm vehicle. Everything is bright green and just imperfectly overgrown enough to feel completely healthy. The region is largely used for tea gardens, and the people who populate the area are a mixture of Nepalese, locals from other places in India, “aboriginals”, Bhutanese, and some Chinese. In the River Doke that runs next to the Lochan Tea Garden, locals catch fish in large, square nets and bison bathe in the middle of the day when it is hottest. The Lochan Tea Garden is off a dirt road off a little road off the main road, and the first thing I notice is the lack of ever-present motorbike engines and car horns. The Garden is a series of plots on the Doke River bank, adjacent to pineapple and fallow fields that runs for about a half mile. They have about 15 tea pluckers – almost exclusively older, village women – and four male labourers who work year round. The Lochans hire more during harvest times. When we arrive, the tea pluckers are eating a lunch of dal and naan on picnic blankets next to the tea bushes. Both Dolly and Vicky explain that working with the local community and ensuring the happiness and health of their workers is essential (“Or else, the workers would just move to a large city, and we’d have no one to work for us.”).
Dolly gets to work experimenting with her green tea recipe right away. While the workers in the field have plucked the tea, Dolly carefully shifts through the couch-sized pile of leaves back at the Garden’s “base camp” and selects the youngest buds. Meanwhile, a worker starts a fire in one of the makeshift ovens created specifically for the experiment. Dolly carefully chooses some leaves and creates a pile about the size of a pillow which she then boils. Vicky, like me, has never seen his sister in action. We both sit mystified over the next few hours, snapping pictures while Dolly boils, rolls, dries, and waits for the buds to become tea in front of a hot, coal burning oven. In between watching Dolly work, I am shown the tea bushes, irrigation system, and explained how the Lochans maintain their fields.
As the Garden is on a riverbank, the Lochan’s rarely use their irrigation system. Usually the natural rain and river provide enough water, and a pipe that is connected to a nearby well is only used in times of serious drought. Likewise, the Lochans use a minimal amount of pesticides on their tea leaves. The favourite moment of my visit happens when I ask about non-organic chemical usage. It was later in the day, and everyone was exhausted. Despite being next to a river, it felt about 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and humid. Everyone was sweaty and tired. Dolly in particular was exhausted as tea-making kept her on her feet next to an open oven most of the day. In a rare moment of respite, and Dolly sat slumped down in a plastic chair and absent-mindedly sipped water from a tin cup as she waited for the leaves to be done drying. Vicky and I were likewise sitting, waiting, checking our cameras, and discussing softly about how the Garden impacts the local environment. Although we could hear the children from the village playing in the distance, the subdued pulse of the river, birds chirping overhead, and an occasional motorbike, the afternoon was calm, quiet. Without warning, Dolly perked up. "You know, the way to tell about whether or not a Garden is using pesticides - " and here she started to speak up as chirps overhead became noticeably louder " - Is If You Can Hear Birds!" At this point, the birds broke out into a loud fight overhead - "IF YOU CAN'T, IT MEANS EVERYTHING THE BIRDS EAT IS DEAD. THAT MEANS THE GARDEN PROBABLY ISN'T VERY HEALTHY EITHER."
At the Lochan Tea Garden, I watched as the workers, dressed in bright orange saris and chatting happily, worked until a truck from a local factory came to pick up the bulk of the leaves around six pm. By this time, there were enough tea leaves to make two huge, king-sized bed (frame included) piles. Men shovelled the batch into the bed of the small pick up truck. The stacked grew higher and higher with tea leaves, and men stood atop the pile and crammed as much in as possible. By the time they were done, tall metal fencing had been added to the sides of the truck bed, making the collection of tea leaves about eight feet high and thick enough to support several grown men. Dolly finished brewing around seven pm as the sun started to set, and we piled back in the car and drove back down to Siliguri.
On my final day with the Lochans, Rajiv met with me to answer any left over questions and to show me Darjeeling. My visit occurred while a political strike was in place in Darjeeling, and the local has shut down virtually all businesses and roads for the month. As Rajiv and Vicky drove me up to the periphery closed town, I peppered the two with last minute questions on governmental policies that hinder the business, about the politics of the region, and the future of Lochan Tea. Rajiv was very patient with me and most of my questions were answered with “We go with the flow”. It is this ease with change, this flexibility, and this appreciation for a larger picture that has ensured the twenty-plus-years success of Lochan Tea. What started as a serendipitous opportunity to grow tea the early 90’s has turned into a multigenerational enterprise. The upcoming Lochans tea makers Vicky and Dolly are taking up the reins and playing to their strengths. It is no stretch to say Rajiv is leaving his empire in good hands – all three of his children were literally born on tea gardens and know the industry inside and out. Before dropping me off at the airport, Rajiv, Vicky and I conclude my trip with a taste of the tea Dolly had brewed the day before. Although not quite perfect yet, the tea verges on being that delicate, slightly peaty taste of a quality Green. Given the dedication, knowledge, and passion for tea all the Lochans share, I left without a doubt of its imminent success.
The Doke River alongside the tea gardens built by the Lochans