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You Mean Tea Doesn’t Come from Teabags?
By Alexis Rubinstein, Photos by Ruth Bowman

In a most challenging task, I have managed to summarize my amazing two-week tour of India’s most well-known tea producing regions. Stay tuned for more articles throughout the next few months, highlighting independent estates, notable tea towns and the future of India’s tea industry.

When I first got the email that the Tea Board of India had generously offered to send me on a trip of a lifetime, my initial reaction was pure fear. Would India be as overwhelming as I imagined? Would the food be too spicy for my American palate? Do I know enough about the tea industry to keep up? There would be only one way to answer these, and the thousands of other questions running through my mind. So I boarded my Lufthansa flight to Mumbai via Frankfurt, and wished for the best.

In two weeks, I would see as much of tea-producing India as possible. I had done my research; studied up on the political climate, the infrastructure, the geography. I had dusted off my old atlas and marked my route - impressed with the amount of the country I was going to see. But no amount of investigating, googling and searching could have prepared me for the sheer beauty that is India’s tea estates.

Having put all my trust in the Tea Board of India, I knew the trip they set up for me would be flawless. These are the professionals, after all, and if they say that Darjeeling is risky at the time, then Darjeeling I would avoid. They had me covering the country’s most well known tea-growing regions, from Nilgiris to Assam (stay tuned for upcoming articles on each region); visiting estates that ranged from large, corporate gardens to small, independently run gardens and everything in between. From this strategically planned itinerary, I would be able to identify the contrasts between each place…the aesthetic differences of the grounds, the dissimilarities in the governance and the distinction in the manufacturing processes (orthodox versus CTC). With the slew of tea estates that I visited, no two were exactly alike.

Southern India: Tamil Nadu and Kerala
A closer look at a CTC factory.

We first arrived in Coimbatore, the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu. We were greeted by a representative from UPASI (United Planters Association of Southern India) and our driver, whom would remain with us for the first portion of our trip. From Coimbatore we began our long drive to Coonoor, passing small towns and banana fields, dodging cows and pedestrians and we zoomed our way across the flat lands of Southern India. In the distance, we saw an impressive mountain range that became increasingly closer as we drove further and further into what seemed like the rural depths of the country. “Please do not feed the monkeys” read the large sign situated on the side of the road that marked our ascent up the mountain. “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought. In our comfortable air-conditioned van, we weaved through the winding roads, laughing at the understatement of “caution: hair pin turn” signs every couple of feet. Driving on the left, passing cars on the right and monkeys everywhere…now this is what I had pictured India to be. As our skilled driver manipulated and maneuvered, I was bursting with anticipation.

The higher we went, the air smelled sweeter and fresher, the landscape got more and more lush and the views were astounding. But where in this jungle could the tea be hidden? I peered off the road, catching only glimpses of palm trees and crawling vines in between opening and closing my fearful eyes. And then, like an oasis in the desert, the flora and fauna seemed to magically transform into perfectly manicured tea gardens as far as the eye can see. Working at Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, I had obviously seen hundreds of photos of tea estates…some Indian, some Kenyan, some Sri Lankan, but none this beautiful. Proof that seeing the world through your lens is nothing like seeing it through your eyes. The beautiful Indian hills were covered in a blanket of green that molded to the contours of the range. Each bush carefully pruned, extraordinarily symmetrical and an impressive example of what tea means to the country. I had never before been witness to such artful perfection. While in Coonoor we visited three tea estates: Glendale, Craigmore and Chamraj. The facilities and grounds were impressive, the teas were fragrant and the staff was hospitable, informative and enthusiastic about the industry. As an Editor of a tea trade publication, I assumed the emphasis would be on the product itself - and while the tea was, for the most part, the main focus, the tea estates stressed their commitment to corporate social responsibility. Our tours consisted of four-wheel-drive treks down the bumpy, and often unpaved, tea estate roads. The massive gardens sprawling beneath the roadways, sprinkled with shade trees and speckled with tea pluckers in their large hats and backside bundles. The estates, like small, self-sufficient communities provide shelter, education and medical care for the workers and their families. We visited schools - impressive educational institutions with proper supplies for the young ones and textbooks and even (in some cases) computers for the adolescents. There were crèches, or nurseries, for the babies whose mothers were most likely plucking away under the warm Indian sun. State-of-the-art hospitals with basically everything one would expect at a medical center; operation rooms, a functional kitchen, a pharmacy, maternity wards…the list goes on. It was also in Coonoor that I visited my first “tea estate bungalow,” usually home to the manager and his family. The term “bungalow” strikes up images of modest cottages with décor and amenities circa 1950 - broken screen doors and bunk bed lodging. On the contrary, the manager’s bungalows were massive colonial residences with soaring ceilings, colorful gardens and old world charm. Coonoor, in all its splendor and glory, was the ideal place to begin my tea journey.

School children awaiting their bus on the tea estate.

From Coonoor, we would make our way around six hours by car to Munnar, essentially a “tea town” situated in the Southwestern Ghats in the state of Kerala. Again, we drove through flat landscapes, passing tiny towns and villages, cardamom fields and the occasional wild peacock, when we saw the mountains standing majestically in front of us. This time however, instead of being greeted by a humorous road sign (remember, “do not feed the monkeys”), we were stopped abruptly by a security checkpoint. This marked our entrance into a wildlife reserve, which we drove through slowly, gawking at the difference in scenery from what we had been seeing. As we reached the town of Munnar, I became intrigued by the large Hammer and Sickle statue as the focal point of the main intersection. While India is the world’s largest democracy, currently, two of its states, Kerala and West Bengal are Communist. We made our way to the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation estate, previously owned by Tata Tea, but now a model for future tea estates. With their “bottom up” philosophy, every worker employed by the company is a share-holder. Aside from being the first property to institute such a policy, Kanan Devan is also devoted to its mission of social responsibility and works closely with the surrounding wildlife organizations to help protect and conserve the animals in the area. Their gardens were breathtaking, with the sprawling tea bushes molded to the gentle slopes. Tea grew delicately around large boulders, reminiscent of how tea would look if it grew on Mars. Because of its proximity to the wildlife preserves and its sheer size, Kanan Devan offers tourist cottages and lodging packages. Our two days at the estate were spent visiting the facilities - the factory, old lodges, a special school for disabled children, the research and development center - all the while keeping my eyes peeled for the elusive wild elephants. In this town, on these mountains, at this estate I could have stayed another two weeks…but it was time for our drive to Kochi for the 2009 International Indian Tea Convention.

The convention, held at Le Merdien Hotel in the seaside town of Kochi was a meeting of some of the tea industry’s most well known players. According to the website, www.iitc2009.com, “Encouraged by the splendid success of previous conventions held at Kochi 1999, Delhi 2000, Kolkata 2003 and Guwahati 2007, and realizing the need to sustain the momentum, the Kochi convention offered yet another opportunity of global interaction among tea the fraternity.” Symposium topics included “Key Markets- Global Scenario” and “Health Benefits of Tea.” Speakers came from the four corners of the world. Joseph Simrany of the U.S. Tea Council spoke on the U.S. market, and representatives from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, the UK, Germany and of course, India, were all present. Wonderfully organized social events (cultural dancing and lavish water-side luncheons) and a warm and welcoming crowd only enhanced the overall success of the convention.

The Streets of Kolkata to the Plains of Assam
“India is so beautiful and peaceful,” I would say to the resident Indians I was meeting. They would smile and nod in minimal agreement and reply, “you haven’t been to Kolkata yet, have you?”

A canteen on-site for workers to buy their supplies.

We arrived in the smog-covered city just before sun down. Almost immediately I was beginning to see how my experience thus far in India could be deemed as “jaded.” We drove through rundown residential neighborhoods, crowded commercial rows and dilapidated enclaves. I opened my window to take in the sights (beggars and bats) and smells (burning wood and spices), but was all the while secretly relieved I would only be spending one full day in this intimidating metropolis. The next morning, we met with Anindita Ray of the Tea Board of India at their headquarters in the heart of the city. After a pleasant meeting with Mr. Basudeb Banerjee, chairman of the Tea Board, we headed over to J. Thomas & Co Pvt. Ltd., established in 1861 and the largest tea auctioneer in the world, according to the company. While the company is based in the auction house, we were unfortunately unable to see an auction in progress, as they were canceled that day due to a prior “disturbance.” Instead, director, Mr. K Katyal arranged a tea tasting and private tour of the company’s historic boardroom. For someone who fears they don’t know enough about tea, there could have been no better afternoon. With a staff comprised of some of the most knowledgeable individuals in the tea trade, no topic went untouched: we discussed everything from taste profiles, regional characteristics, adding milk to tea and the great teabag debate. The tone was optimistic, an encouraging difference to the dreary outlook I had been experiencing in the U.S. They were expecting a good year for Indian tea prices and the offices were a buzz with the conversion to an electronic trading system. “New software for electronic auctions is currently under development under the auspices of the Tea Board,” states the J. Thomas Tea Market Report 2007 (the most current issue at the time of my visit.) “It is expected to address the deficiencies of the earlier electronic prototype and facilitate wider participation in the auction process to both buyers and sellers.”

From Kolkata we caught a regional flight to Dibrugarh, a city in the state of Assam. Known for its fertile soil, ideal weather conditions and relatively low elevation tea estates, Assam is also one of the few locales in the world where tea grows wild (native tea plants). In stark contrast to the South of India, where the tea grew methodically up and down the mountains, in Assam, the fields were flat and seemingly endless. Here, we visited the Sessa, Dikom and Chubwa Tea Estates, the latter of which, despite their success in the tea industry had begun to branch out to other lucrative ventures, such as fisheries. After an inspiring presentation at the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association, highlighting the organization’s efforts towards corporate social responsibility, we departed for Jorhat, a few hours south. In and around Jorhat we visited the tea estates of Behora, Hunwal and Duklingia. The modern, spotless factories, the nurseries for seedlings and clones and the rows upon rows of pruned bushes were all on much larger scales than those I had seen on my previous tea tours. But the most amount of pride was taken in the quality of the cup. “This is the best tea in Assam,” I was told repeatedly by the estate managers. But, oddly enough, they were all correct. All the teas were the best in their own right. The characteristic brisk and malty flavor immediately had me a believer. The body and strong, bright color could make any coffee drinker a convert.

Tea in India is more than just cultural, it’s more than habitual, it is a livelihood for thousands of Indians and their families. It is a lifestyle that is passed on through generations, evident in the care and attention that is given…from seed to cup.

Tea & Coffee - April, 2009

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