Veteran tea expert Sonam Paljor Lama was in Kathmandu recently and spoke with WOW about the need to celebrate the brews of Nepal. Here’s the story of a grandfather’s letter and a grandson’s adventure.
Sonam Paljor Lama’s love affair with the fascinating world of tea began in his early 20s. “I was in Delhi completing my graduation when a letter from my grandfather changed my life. He asked me to return home and work in a tea estate,” recalls Sonam. “I wasn’t prepared for it but followed what he said,” he recalls, adding that his family has a long history with tea culture. “My great grandfather was a Sardar of 70 tea estates in Teesta valley, Darjeeling. This is how our journey with tea began,” he shares.
Wanting to become a tea master didn’t come suddenly to Sonam. Tea was a part of his life and when he started working as an intern at a tea estate, his interest grew into a lifelong passion. “I had always loved teas but knew little about them. Suddenly, seeking that knowledge became important,” says Sonam, who was soon reading and experimenting with tea leaves. “For me, tea is not a commodity, it is a lifestyle product and an experience,” he states.
Born and raised in Darjeeling, Sonam studied tea rigorously as a researcher. But to find the very spirit of tea and tea making, he came to Nepal. More than two decades ago, he settled in the small town of Fikkal, Ilam. And over the years, he has been building a community of tea makers and tea lovers who create only the top-notch Nepali tea in Ilam.
With decades of experience now, Sonam is the Co-founder of La Mandala Specialty Tea. “I have two young partners,” he smiles. Established in 2016, it is the only carbon-negative factory in Nepal which has been actively producing specialty teas. “We make tea in very small quantities, in batches. And this is unique. Also, we don’t over price our product. It is affordable. We want people to enjoy good tea without having to pay a lot,” he says.
“We have a small tea garden in Ilam where we pick our tea and we also buy some from farmers who share the same philosophy as ours,” he adds. La Mandala is sold not only in Nepal but in Europe as well.
With joy and compassion, Sonam has also been pushing the tea culture in Nepal by organising various tea tasting events with and for the local youths. In collaboration with Nepal’s Tea and Coffee Board, La Mandala has also been providing a professional certification course on tea appreciation.
Starting his day with a cup of white tea, Sonam also runs a traditional tea school. “I pick my own students,” says Sonam. “The young people who want to have in-depth knowledge of tea and not just the technical part come from across the world and stay with me for a couple of months and I guide them, take them to the field, and teach them,” he says. Sonam allows each of his students to build a special bond with their brew.
Fifteen years back, when the Nepali tea industry was not introduced to the Chinese machineries and was functioning on traditional technology from India, Sonam decided to bring change. He wanted to introduce the concept of mini factory. “The mindset then was that the factory has to be big requiring huge investment. My learning in China taught me the concept of mini factory and I wanted to take this forward,” he shares.
Sonam worked on the concept ‘One Farmer, One Tea’ and travelled to different villages in Nepal where tea cultivation was practised. “I especially reached the remote villages where it was difficult for the leaves to be transported to the factories and introduced the concept of mini factory,” he says.
Sonam is always eagre to meet and pass the tea knowledge to the younger generation and this has led him to influence many youngsters from the nearby villages during his travels about the mini factory concept. “I was shocked to see some of these students having goals of becoming bus conductors or tractor drivers while being in a land where tea cultivation was immense. So, I decided to teach them,” he recalls. Many students stayed with him for a year and a few grew their interest in tea. This way out of 25 boys, 12 started their career as tea makers and are doing really well. “Taiwan, as a country, is doing excellent in tea as the young people are involved, I want to see this happening in Nepal as well,” says Sonam.
Talking about Nepali tea, Sonam says, “Nepali tea was not meant for commercialisation. It was an emotional thing when Jung Bahadur Rana asked his nephew to plant tea in Nepal.” He quickly adds, “Although, we don’t really have historical documentation on the tea culture of Nepal.”
Sonam has travelled across Nepal to experience the traits and characters of Nepali teas, and the tea from Dhankuta is among his favourites. “It is different and has very unique character. It can even be compared with world’s finest teas,” he claims.
Sonam drinks around 40-50 cups of tea a day and is the author of Tea Technology for Nepali Tea Makers. “My first book is a technical book dealing with tea and science, while my second book which I am yet to publish is about spirituality and tea. The book talks about tea as a tool to connect with nature,” he concludes.