Looking Back at Makaibari Estate Darjeeling Teas

The Makaibari Tea Estate in West Bengal, India, is often touted as producing some of the finest Darjeeling teas. Over the years we have had the pleasure of trying various samples from different vendors. It seemed quite fitting, also, to look into what this tea estate is all about. Both the teas and the research surprised us in various ways. Time to take a look back at those surprises and a relook at those teas.

The Teas

Over the years, several teas were tried. So no one can say we didn’t give them a fair chance. We must also note here that we had tried a number of excellent tea samples from Thunderbolt Tea, a small tea vendor right in the Darjeeling area with a personal relationship with several of the better tea estates. By the time we had tried these teas, our taste buds were accustomed to a certain flavor standard. The reputation of the Makaibari Tea Estate had also raised our expectations (sometimes not a good thing since one can tend to be more disappointed than if one had expected bad taste).

(“SFTGFOP” stands for “Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”)

Dry Leaves

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The Steeping & the Leaves After Steeping

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In the Cup

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Bottom line:

Our experiences with teas from this estate have been overall disappointing. So much for the estate’s reputation and high price. In addition, they seem to force various vendors to carry their teas, regardless of the quality. (They threaten the vendor with being shut out of future business dealings with them.) Not good business ethics, in our opinion. In fact, this tends to be one of these estates that people buy teas from by reputation more than by whether the tea is really any good, which as far as we’re concerned it isn’t – sigh.

About Makaibari Tea Estate and Some Thoughts on Those Record Tea Prices

The Makaibari (literally “Maize Land” or “corn field”) tea estate is the granddaddy of the Darjeeling tea estates (those within a certain specified geographical area) and was established in 1859. The factory at the estate is the world’s first tea factory and was established the same year.

The former owner (and now just the manager) is “Rajah” (an honorary title) Swaraj K. Banerjee, descended from the original owners. In 1996 the estate set a price record when it sold its best quality tea (Silver Tips) for $400 a kilo. The estate and factory are part of the trend toward tea tourism, a way for struggling tea estates to bring in something extra. They have a special visitor’s house called Stone House or you can stay with some of the tea workers in their homes.

Location, Climate, Etc.

The map here showing the location of the Makaibari Tea Estate is a still capture from the full map here: Darjeeling Garden Map on Camellia-sinensis.com Blog.

Darjeeling Map 034 Makaibari LYT

The estate is about 2 kilometers from the town of Kurseong and 40 kilometers from the town of Darjeeling (for which these teas are named) in the state of West Bengal, India, at an elevation of around 4,500 feet (1,500 meters).

Temperatures range from 2-6°C in Winter and 12-18°C in Summer. They have a monsoon season with about 250-450mm rainfall from July to August (teas harvested during this time are called “rain teas” and considered of inferior quality by most tea connoisseurs).

Estate Management

The Makaibari estate is said to be using innovative agricultural practices. By “innovative” they seem to mean nearly bankrupting the tea estate. Banerjee had about half the tea bushes ripped out, reducing tea acreage from 550 to 270 over the past decade or so, to let wild, dangerous animals roam freely. He also instituted “natural farming” methods, letting other plants grow among the remaining tea plants in the idea that this helps the tea plants (it actually makes it harder for them to get water and nutrients from the soil, as a grower here in the U.S. discovered). Without the infusion of new money into the tea estate, it would have closed, putting the families working and living there in financially desperate conditions.

On June 16, 2014, the estate ownership changed hands. The Luxmi Group acquisition of the estate ended family ownership that dated back to the estate’s founding. However, the family will keep a share in the business, with family member “Rajah” Banerjee staying on as chairman. Luxmi brings their business acumen to the arrangement, countering Banerjee’s seemingly irrational decision-making.

Luxmi has tea estates in Assam, North Bengal, and Tripura from which they produce 15 million kilos per year. They bring operating capital (a lot of it) and management expertise to the deal. The estate seems to need both. Some common sense would be useful here, too. Falsely inflating the prices of their teas (through a bunch of hyped up marketing and strong-arming tea vendors) can only last so long, and consumers like us have to see the value. Based on the teas above, we don’t.

Top: Rajah Banerjee (4th generation and currently the manager). Middle: Tea estate sign. Bottom: Sorting out the foreign matter (and hopefully the bugs) from the tea leaves.
Top: Rajah Banerjee (4th generation and currently the manager). Middle: Tea estate sign. Bottom: Sorting out the foreign matter (and hopefully the bugs) from the tea leaves.

A Final Word or Two

Having detected nothing too spectacular in the tea and being quite bothered by that corn character in the aftertaste, we have to go with a big thumbs down here. The thing that made Darjeeling tea famous and worth that special designation was that “muscatel” quality. Without it, this tea might as well be from some flat tea garden in one of the nearby states in India. And no matter how fancy you dress a pig, it’s still a pig, that is, they dress up the tea estate in various eco trimmings, returning much of the acreage to the wild so their production drops dramatically, and adding lacy touches to their reports about their tea with stories of how the workers pluck the tea by moonlight (for the Silver Tips). But the flavor is far below other Darjeeling teas that don’t have that falsely inflated pricing. Small wonder they need better business managers.

In the end, though, it’s you, the consumer, who sets the price. If you want to pay more because the Queen of England drinks tea from this estate or because they sent some to the Olympics in Brazil, that’s your choice. We liked other Darjeeling teas better and see them as more worth your hard-earned dollars.

Disclaimer: The teas named in this article were  provided by the company named. However, any opinions concerning this tea and the company  are always strictly objective. Information on where to buy is presented as a courtesy only.

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5 thoughts on “Looking Back at Makaibari Estate Darjeeling Teas”

  1. This blog clearly suggests that the blogger has SOMETHING PERSONAL with Mr. Banerjee.
    Also I would like to know

    HOW MANY DIFFERENT TEAS FROM MAKAIBARI has the blogger tasted in her entire lifetime (approx)??

    Has the tea been directly supplied from the garden for this botched up manipulated review. We request to share the INVOICE NO so an investigation can be made. Also how is the blogger so sure that the tea from the vendor is genuine.

    LASTLY, I AS A TEA LOVER CAN ONLY SAY THAT MAKAIBARI IS WELL ESTABLISHED AND REPUTED GARDEN IN DARJEELING WHICH DOES NOT REQUIRE APPROVAL FROM BLOGGERS. Also I personally feel you should keep better friends in Darjeeling to update you with stats of this area. It seems your so called SOURCE / FRIEND from Darjeeling is settling his personal score through you. Beware AC!!!

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    1. This is NOT a blog. It is a professional ezine. So sad, Mahi, that you are being paid to post attacks like this. And your final words sound like a threat. I am posting the entire comment here so people can see how corrupt the tea industry in West Bengal has become. Very sad indeed. If you further threaten this ezine or me, I will report you to the Indian government. Makaibari may have been a tea garden of good reputation a century ago, but it is no longer. Buying into all the whacko ideas currently in vogue is part of the reason. You should raise issue with Bannerjee, not me.

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    2. Mahi, you do realize, don’t you, that almost nothing in life gets the benefit of a second chance? If you test drive a Porsche based on its reputation and find you don’t like it, do you repeatedly test drive more Porsches or do you move on? It’s no different with tea. Perhaps, instead of being so defensive, you should accept that there is truth in this article whether or not you agree with that truth. The entire Darjeeling tea industry is based on the reputation of its estates, so it stands to reason that people WILL purchase by name alone after a while, simply for the prestige. It’s this way with cars, wine, stereo equipment, televisions….the list could go on forever. A name sometimes gives vendors an easy way to sell a product whether or not it is the same quality every year. You’re a fool if you think EVERY flush EVERY year is exactly the same. So, yes, the quality CAN and DOES change from year to year, and in the short term, even if the quality starts going downhill, the NAME is still there to carry the product for a period of time until people begin to realize that the quality is going away.

      For what it’s worth, estate names mean NOTHING to me. Either a tea is good, or it’s not. It’s that simple. Oh, and Mahi, perhaps instead of complaining about this article, you can do something to help the shady practices that lead to BAD tea coming from Darjeeling. What do I mean? Most of the tea labeled as Darjeeling is fraudulent. That means you’ve got unscrupulous dealers in India. Gosh, what a shock! So when Indian dealers rip off Western vendors just to make more money, don’t be surprised when the fake tea, supposedly from (insert estate name here) is not hailed as the best tea on the face of the Earth. To be fair, this is a tea industry-wide problem, not just in India.

      Why do I bring that up? Because of the vitriol you spewed at the author of this article. Take your anger out on the growers of this tea, not on the person who sampled the tea and didn’t like it. If you can’t handle opinions different than your own, you have no business reading reviews of any sort.

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