A sojourn across chai land
When experiments in tea cultivation undertaken in Darjeeling and Assam succeeded, they encouraged similar endeavours in other parts of India that had similar natural conditions. These efforts have led to a thriving tea industry in parts of the Northeast and South India. At least ten distinct tea producing regions can be identified.
Darjeeling has been growing the Chinese variety of the tea plant since 1841. But unlike other regions that grow this variety, the environment of Darjeeling has a unique and magical effect on the tea bush. Part of this magic can be explained by science, and part of it remains an endearing mystery. Tea from Darjeeling is sold at very high premiums in the international market because of its Muscatel flavour (in reference to Muscatel grapes). This flavour cannot be replicated in tea across any other market and this is why Darjeeling tea has a geographical indication (GI) status that is protected across the world. The GI status has been provided only to 87 tea gardens in the region that produce around 10,000 tonnes of tea annually.
Plantations in Darjeeling are situated at altitudes between 600 metres and 2,000 metres above sea level. The region gets adequate rainfall and the location of the plantations at these altitudes across steep slopes ensures excellent drainage. The soil, the intermittent clouds hovering above the mountains and the bright sunshine – all contribute to the Darjeeling magic. Plucking is slow and time consuming. The leaves are made to undergo severe withering and are processed through the orthodox method.
The state of Assam (name derived from ‘Asom’, meaning one without equals), which includes the northern Brahmaputra valley, the middle Karbi and Cachar hills and the southern Barak valley, is home to the single largest contiguous tea growing region in the world. The region goes through extremely humid summers and heavy rainfall from March to September. Among its many reserved forests, Kaziranga is the most popular, being home to the Indian rhinoceros, also known as the ‘greater one-horned rhino’. Assam is also home to India’s largest tea research centre, which is located at Tocklai in Jorhat, and is managed by the Tea Research Association.
Tea plantations in Assam grow the Camelia Sinensis var Assamica variety of the tea plant. Assam is the only region globally where tea is grown in plains, and also the only other region apart from Southern China, which grows its own native tea plant. Tea from Assam has a rich, full bodied, deep-amber liquor with a brisk, strong and malty taste, making it ideal for the early morning cup. Second flush orthodox Assam teas are extremely popular for their distinctive taste and bright liquor. Orthodox Assam teas have been registered as a geographical indication (GI) in India.Top
Dooars and Terai
The first plantation in Terai was named Champta, and it was set up by James White in 1862. Subsequently, the Dooars region saw its first tea plantation in the form of Gazeldubi. In Dooars, the Assamese tea plant was found to be more suitable. Today, Dooars and Terai have a combined annual production of 226 million kg of tea, which accounts for around 25 per cent of India’s total tea crop.
The name ‘Dooars’ is derived from doors, highlighting the region’s significance as a gateway to Northeast India and Bhutan. With elevation ranging from 90 m to 1,750 m, Dooars is a nature tourist’s paradise, with its rich tropical forests, streams meandering across tea gardens, low hills and undulating plains. Thre region receives average rainfall of around 3500 mm and the monsoon season stays from the middle of May to the end of September.
Tea from Dooars is described as clear, black, heavy with good volumetric count. The first flush has a fresh virgin flavour, good brightness and fragrance while the second flush is more brisk. This tea variety also plays a reducer role in very strong blends. Terai tea on the other hand is known for its spicy and slightly sweet taste.Top
The Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh was deemed as a potential tea growing region by Dr Jameson in 1829, following a feasibility survey. He brought in Chinese tea plants from Almora and Dehradun and had them planted at Kangra, Nagrota and Bhawarna. Tea is now cultivated across an area of 2,063 hectares in Kangra and Mandi districts. The Kangra valley is located on the foothills of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains, at an altitude of around 1,500 m above sea level and an average rainfall of 230-250 cm. It has a temperature range between 13oC and 35oC for the cropping season from March to October and is also blessed with uniform rainfall. Due to the favourable natural climate that’s free of pests and insects, tea is grown organically in the Kangra valley.
The Kangra region is famous for its range of green (Hyson, Young Hyson and coarse grades) and black teas (Pekoe, Pekoe Suchong, Coarse teas and Fannings) with their exquisite flavours.Top
In 1823, John Sullivan, who was then the British Collector of Coimbatore, built his stone house in Ootacamund. Subsequently, Europeans made a beeline for the Nilgiri Hills, or Blue Mountains, in their quest for a retreat to escape the summer heat. Initial experiments for tea cultivation commenced in the Ketti Valley in 1853, and commercial production was first undertaken in the Thiashola and Dunsandle Estates in 1859. Over a century later, Glensmorgan emerged as the first estate in South India to produce green tea in 1969.
Nilgiri tea is named after the Nilgiris, or Blue Mountains, where it is grown at elevations ranging from 1,000 metres to 2,500 metres. The mountains get their name from the saxe-blue kurinji flower, which blooms once every 12 years. The region receives annual rainfall of 60 inches to 90 inches. The weather conditions provide Nilgiri teas with a characteristic briskness, exceptional fragrance and exquisite flavour. The liquor is golden yellow in colour, provides a creamy taste in the mouth and has notes of dusk flowers. Nilgiri tea has also been registered as a GI in India, and around 92 million kg of this tea are produced every year – around 10 per cent of India’s total tea production.Top
Today, the Annamalais, a range of hills with altitudes from 900 to 1,600 metres between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have around 12,000 hectares under tea cultivation. The mountain range is also home to the Tea Research Association, which is managed by UPASI. Until the late 19th century, this area was largely inundated with tropical forests. Two enterprising individuals - Carvesh Marsh and C.R.T Congreve – first visited the Annamalais in 1857 and attempted coffee cultivation at Paralai. Tea plantations started much later in 1908.
The tea from Annamallais generates a brisk and bright golden saffron liquor in the cup. It has a strong flavour and a medium to high tone fragrance with biscuit to floral notes. It is regarded as the ideal refresher early in the morning.Top
Like Annamalais, planters started with coffee cultivation in Wayanad in 1845. The first tea plantation was set up over a few acres at the New Hope estate in Ouchterlony Valley in 1874. A gold rush commenced in Wayanad in 1880s, which lured overzealous speculators into buying out coffee and tea plantations in Cherambadi, Devala and Pundalur and setting up mining companies. The mining companies went bust eventually and tea cultivation was back in the reckoning in 1897 at the Wentworth estate, which was previously owned the Wentworth Gold Mining Company. Soon, the business begin to revive and Wayanad is now well known for its tea plantations.
Tea from Wayanad is medium toned with a clean fragrance and produces an earthy reddish, full bodied liquor in the cup. The liquor is light on briskness and mild and mellow with biscuit notes.Top
The state is the coffee hub of India, but also produces around 5 million kg of tea every year. Tea plantations are mostly located around Chikmagalur, which is located in the Baba Budan Hills of the Sahyadris range. It has a clean and healthy climate that’s ideal for tea plantations.
Teas from Karnataka produce a golden ochre liquor with a fair amount of briskness and body. They have a simple, balanced character and are medium toned. You can consume these teas multiple times a day.Top
Situated at a height of 6000 feet in Idukki district, the quiet, serene and beautiful hill station of Munnar is viewed as a dream destination away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It has beautiful valleys, mountains, waterfalls, and forests and wildlife sanctuaries teeming with exotic species of flora and fauna.
Tea was first grown in Munnar by A H Sharp in the 1970s. European company Finlay took over 33 tea estates in Munnar in 1895, and transferred management control to Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company in 1897. Tata Group and Finlay formed a joint venture in 1964, and tea plantations under the Tatas were transferred to a new company - Kannan Devan Hills Produce Co Pvt Ltd in 2005. This company now manages 16 estates over an area of around 8,600 hectares.
Tea from Munnar produces a golden yellow liquor with strong body, refreshing briskness and a hint of fruit. It has a clean, medium toned fragrance, which is described as being akin to that of sweet biscuit in a dip of malt.Top
Vast expanses of plantations of tea, coffee, coconut, rubber, pepper, cardamom, rubber and eucalyptus are visible in the periphery of a high altitude region near Travancore – consisting of Peermade (which lies 85 km east of Kottayan), Vagamon, Thekkady and Vandiperiyar. The Periyar river flows through this region and it was once the summer retreat of the Maharaja of Travancore.
Coffee production was started by J D Monro in 1862, and tea production started two years later. After the dreaded leaf disease began to hit coffee plants in 1875, the focus shifted rapidly towards tea cultivation. By 1906, tea plantations covered 8,000 acres, while coffee farms were reduced to just around 500 acres. This tea has medium fragrance with reddish liquor and yellow tinge. It has a balanced body and briskness – ideal for the elevenses (the British urge for tea and a light snack at around 11 am) and also for evening time.Top