Some time around 1873, Colonel Gajraj Singh Thapa, son-in-law of the famous Rana Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur, was on a tour of Darjeeling. He was impressed by the sight of the young tea plants and the tasty drink he was offered everywhere he went. Having a fond travel memory was not enough, so upon his return he was determined to grow the beverage in his own. The colonel soon set up two plantations - the Ilam and Soktim tea estates, 103 acres each - and so began Nepal's tea industry. The first production of Nepalese tea was Orthodox. And for more than 100 years, Nepal's tea industry remained largely under government/ruling class domain.
Over the years, Nepal's tea industry has grown steadily. In 1920 there were only two estates occupying 233 acres producing a little over two tons. Today's tea gardens are situated at an elevation ranging from 3000ft to nearly 7000ft above sea level producing some of the most exquisite teas in the world. However like all precious things, the tea available, is in small quantities. The total area under the hill plantation is estimated at 2,153 hectares consisting of 300 hectares of public estates/gardens, 700 hectares under private estate/garden and 1,153 hectares under small holders. At present, the national production volume of the hill orthodox tea is estimated at about 2,44,000 kg per annum.
Nepal offers a diverse range of teas including seedling and clonal varieties. Greens and blacks are mostly manufactured in CTC style however, Orthodox styles, with a very few gardens producing organic and Fair Traded teas are becoming increasingly more prominent. The high altitudes of the Himalayas and the close proximity of Darjeeling across the Indian border means Nepal teas have Darjeeling-like characteristics. Of unique distinction to Darjeelings, Nepali tea liquor can be darker and typically offers a more delicate and very lightly sweet flavor.
With reform in the early nineties, Nepalese tea is being grown by primarily by small holders unlike tea grown in some other countries. The benefit of small producers is artisan quality and care. However challenges like the lack of industry infrastructure and dependence on exportation out of Calcutta have produced challenges that have limited the ability of Nepal teas to gain consistent access to international markets and to protect their unique identity.