The classroom at 6500 feet

What if writing about tea was your hobby but you had never had a peep inside a tea processing factory? Well, we suffered from just this “character flaw” and that just had to be rectified. Oh, that image of Nilgiris in the monsoon – was that alluring or was it alluring.  We reached out to Harrisons Malayalam, explained our interest and before you could say “orthodox black tea”, we were on our way.

A wee bit of background. Harrisons is the largest cultivator of tea in South India. Their annual production is around 20 million kgs – and given that South India tea gardens pluck and process through the year, this translates to about 50,000 kgs every day. With their tea gardens spread over 6000 hectares – which is approximately 60 square km (and that is almost half the size of the entire city of Chandigarh), theirs is a mammoth operation.

Lockhart Bungalow

A short flight from Mumbai to Cochin. And then a four hour drive from Cochin gets us into the Idukki district. Discussions change color. Concerns on whether this year would bring adequate rain replaces the mundane traffic jam worries. The last few seasons have been unkind to the tea estates. Inadequate rains this year, floods last year. Between cursing El Nino and admiring Kerala bungalow architecture, we were there – Lockhart. Just ahead of Munnar and at a bracing 6500 feet above mean sea level. A stunning bungalow enveloped by evening mist.

Sakura orchid

Tea gardens form the backdrop.  The bungalow’s own gardens have green guavas vying with pink sakura orchids. A sight to behold.  This would be our classroom for the next few days. A strikingly picturesque school indeed.

Lockhart tea estate is about 600 hectares. One of the oldest tea gardens, Lockhart makes orthodox black, green and white teas. So what does it really take to produce orthodox black tea. Let us step into school or in this case, the Lockhart factory.

Lockhart estate
Clippers in action

The estate hums with activity early in the morning. Plucking, which used to be manual, is increasingly being done with tea plucking machines. The first batch of cut tea leaves make their way to the factory within three hours of being bagged.

Withering trough

The plucked leaves are placed in long open troughs to wither. The leaves stay here for close to 18 hours – it takes that long for the moisture content in a leaf to drop to 60% from the 85% that it starts with. Chemically, complex compounds break down into simpler compounds. Proteins break down into amino acids giving off aroma. Carbs break down and react with amino acids to give flavor. The enzymes, crucial to color and strength, theaflavin and thearubigins, are produced.

Roller in action

After the leaves are sufficiently withered, it is time to move to the Rolling section. The leaves are macerated by rollers moving in eccentric circles. Juices get expelled and these cover the leaves.

Leaves fermenting

Rolling is followed by fermenting. The rolled leaves are left in troughs to oxidise. No additives added. Just left in mildly humid air. The fermented leaves are then dried by passing hot air over them. The drying stops the oxidation process. All that is left now is to remove twigs, sort the leaves by size and pack them.

Summary

Most factories have an on premise tea taster. He or she would taste and rate the cup made that day. The tea would find its way to the central team which would again taste and rate it. Large brokers and buyers too would do the same. All use a standard grading structure and compare all taste ratings done. This ensures that all are in sync on the tea ratings. Look out for the tea tasting rating scale article – coming soon!

Only buds for white tea

For white tea production, the process is simpler. Only buds are plucked and these are left in troughs to wither. The buds are then dried under infra red lamps to stop the oxidation process.

It was time now to make and taste a cup of orthodox black and a cup of white tea. We did just that. The panoramic environs added to the taste. We had managed to travel with the leaf as it made its journey from the estate to the cup. A thoroughly edifying journey.

Buds drying under infra red lamps

Voila, white tea is now ready. Given its manual nature of plucking and tiny production run, white tea is rather expensive.

We also get an insight into the famed planter’s life. Managing large teams, coping with the vagaries of weather, confronting new challenges and changing consumer tastes – it might not be easy but the captivating environment, soothing surroundings, incredibly riveting architecture – do check out the Pattumalay church – a stone’s throw from Harrisons’s Pattumalai estate and you understand why a planter always has a smile on his face.

Pattumalai church

It is with a lot of respect for the leaf and for planters that we leave Cochin. Too short a trip, we say. Will be back for more. Thanks to the Harrisons team for being wonderful teachers!

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