More Than Just the Taj Mahal -
Tea & Coffee Pilgrimages in India
By Alexis Rubinstein
For most visitors to the November 20-22 Tea & Coffee World Cup/ASIA in Hyderabad, India the experience of the location alone is worth the visit. For most tea and coffee professionals, it may be a valuable decision to extend their trip and incorporate industry-related activities within the country that truly has everything to offer.
Most of India’s tourists
fly into Kolkata (formally Calcutta) or Delhi, both cities located in the northern part of the country. However, there are connecting flights to most other cities, including Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad, home to the Tea & Coffee World Cup. Intra-India travel is efficient and affordable, with both major and independent carriers servicing the area. Hyderabad is centrally located and an ideal point to begin or end your travels.
Located in the Northeastern section of the country, the Assam and Darjeeling regions are perhaps the most famous for tea. Geographically separated, Darjeeling is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, where tea grows at elevations of 1,000 - 2,000 meters above sea level, while most Assam tea is grown in the Brahmaputra Valley at a lower 90 - 230 meters above sea level. The climate, elevation and soil differences account for the surprising dissimilarity in taste profiles.
A visit to either of these regions would be incomplete without a trip to one of the many beautiful tea estates, most family-owned and operated and the driving force of the local economies. “Signature Estates is a fourth generation owned tea company that traces its tea growing roots to the beginning of the 20th century,” says Anand Chatterjee, president of the company. “We began as a single estate adventure in 1912 and now consist of 14 tea plantations covering 18,000 acres and include a packing facility.” As part of a new trend in tourism, Signature Estates has opened its doors to visitors, welcoming them into their tea-infused lives. “All of our tea plantations [located in the states of Assam, Dooars and Tripura] are open to the public,” Chatterjee continues, “and we provide free estate tours and complimentary tea tasting sessions. Overnight accommodations and meals can be arranged but we encourage guests to call us in advance. We will also gladly pick up and drop off guests at the train station or airport.”
Travel Tips from |
the Friends of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Visit www.travelguru.com for Intra-India travel arrangements.
Travel with bags that are compact and pack light.
Take a digital camera that runs on batteries. You will not be able to charge your camera unless it has a built-in converter.
Drink bottled water. It is readily accessible. Steaming chai is a great option.
Because of the British influence, people tend to dress more formally. Be aware of this for dining out.
Come with an open mind. India is full of contradictions, but these aspects are what make this country so unique and dynamic to visit.
As for tea activities while on site, there is surely no shortage. Guests can arrange a jeep or elephant tour of the plantation, learn to pluck two leaves and a bud and visit a factory where they will be exposed to withering, machine and hand rolling, fermentation/oxidation, drying, sorting and packing, not to mention the numerous cupping and tastings. “There is no better way to understand the nuances of the tea industry than to visit the plantation. Visitors learn about the people, places and rituals of growing and tasting tea that stretch back hundreds of years,” notes Chatterjee. “They experience first-hand the secrets of ‘terroir’ - that mystical connection between soil, climate, plant genes and human activity that defines a ‘vintage.’”
If, after the tantalizing tastings and educational tours, you feel the need to break from tea (although, how could you ever get enough Indian tea?) the region is abundant with exciting activities, and Signature Estates will helpfully aid in your planning. If you choose to stay at Matelli, one of Signature Estates’ tea plantations located in the Dooars region of West Bengal, you will be bordering the Gorumara National Park, and are within driving distance to the Chapramari and Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuaries and the Buxa Tiger Reserve. Here you will revel in the rare flora and fauna, glimpse sightings of the Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros, the Indian Elephant, bison, leopards, rock python, barking dear, wild boar and the Malayan Giant Squirrel. Whether enjoying these sanctuaries by foot, vehicle or elephant, the staff at Signature Estates will ensure a memorable expedition.
World-class bird watching, white-water rafting, an overnight eco-tourism stay and trekking (with views of Mt. Everest) are all within a short distance of the plantations of Signature Estates and can easily be arranged.
When leaving this region, you will most likely have to go back to Kolkata for a flight to your next destination. Chatterjee suggests “spending a night in the chaotic and enchanting city. Do a tea tasting at Carritt Moran and JThomas, attend a live tea auction, spend some time at Mother Teresa’s home, walk through the Victoria Memorial, drive to the Belur Math and do some great shopping. Kolkata has excellent hotels, with fabulous food and a decent subway/metro system.”
For those looking for an inclusive tour of the Southern tea-growing region of India, Nilgiris, the company ExplorIndya is a valuable resource. Founded by Rajat Kumar, the “personalized road trip travel services company” came into operation in 2007. “ExplorIndya is based out of the scenic forested and tea-sloped hills of Nilgiris; the former summer capital of the British while they governed from the Madras province,” explains Kumar. ExplorIndya was founded as an extension to a pre-existing, family-owned and operated “Eco-Homestay” called Aakriti, a Sanskrit word that means “a form of living,” located in the Nilgiri Hills. “The homestay is set amidst our four-acre tea garden that borders a reserve forest close to the town of Ooty,” explains Kumar. “Our guests stay in their private cottages nestled between this tea garden.” The cottages are designed with an eclectic mix of ethnic Indian artifacts and furniture and are situated at altitudes of 2,120 meters and 2,200 meters above sea level. Along with breathtaking lodging, visitors can expect an all-vegetarian culinary experience and safe and comfortable transportation throughout their trip.
“We basically offer our knowledge right from the process of cultivation, harvesting through final production,” tells Kumar of what guests can expect during their stay. “As plantation owners for the past 18 years, we not only offer our guests unique insights and knowledge of the process of tea production, but also talk about how this economy has impacted the lives of the local tribes.” Similar to Signature Estates, Kumar and the rest of the family at Aakriti homestay find equal importance in exposing their guests to the culture and natural wonders of the region. “Apart from providing our guests with tours of tea plantations and factories, exploring the Nilgiris with us is all about nature walks, both long and short, through this diverse biosphere, wildlife safaris into the neighboring wildlife preserve, bird-watching, insights intro tribal ways of life, discovering the ancient art of tribal wild-honey hunting, an Indian family experience at our eco-homestay and cooking classes on Indian cuisine, taught at home to our guests personally by us in our own kitchen,” tells Kumar.
The sprawling space of India is not just for the tea professional or enthusiast, but can accommodate the coffee connoisseur as well. With coffee plantations scattered throughout the central and southern states, of both the Robusta and Arabica variety, Indian coffee and related tourism is gaining in popularity.
“Balanoor Plantations and Industries, Ltd comprises 2,000 acres of coffee, tea, rubber and other agricultural products,” notes Ashok Kuriyan, owner. “The company was started by the late K.C. Mammern Mappillai, my great grandfather. The coffee plantations are located amidst the rolling greenery of the Sayadri ranges of the Western Ghats, in the district of Chikmagalur, Karnataka. These estates were purchased from the British pioneering planters during the depression in the late 1920s.” The estate’s activities of processing and cultivation practices are open to visitors and coffee importers alike. “Visitors to Balanoor Plantations will be provided with transportation, accommodation and meals for about 12 people on a twin sharing basis,” says Kuriyan. “This will be a home stay with the estate managers and their families. They will learn the plantation lifestyle and sustainable cultivation processes that are practiced on the estate.” Kuriyan continues, “Our estates are located about 30 km from a very popular Hindu Temple. The surroundings are ideal for trekking and bird watching. On the way to the estate, you pass many historical sites and ancient temples.” Kuriyan recommends two full days minimum on the property and two days for travel.
Cheryl Burn is director of quality and product development for Good Earth Coffee, an organic coffee line owned by the Indian enterprise, Tata Coffee. Burn was invited as a special guest of Tata Coffee to visit India, tour their many coffee plantations and get an in-depth look at life at origin. After flying into Bangalore and enjoying a pleasant stay at the Tata Coffee Guesthouse, she then traveled five hours by car to Plantation Trails in Polibetta, within the coffee-growing region of Coorg (making time in Bangalore to snap photos of the monkeys and cows roaming the crowded streets). “The plantations are in a very remote and beautiful part of South India,” recalls Burn, “and staying on the plantations was a peaceful oasis where you wake up to the sounds of the birds in the trees above the coffee.” Here, Burn was fortunate enough to not only view the shade-grown coffee estates, but the schools and clinics that Tata has built for its workers who perform year-round, labor-intensive tasks. “One of the bungalows [once occupied by British eschelon] was my home base while I visited local estates of Jumboor and Polibetta, and visited the mill and coffee roasting plant in Kushalnagar in Karnataka,” she states. The staff was also there to take guests on a tour around the estate or arrange for sightseeing at local attractions. Just as in the North, the Southern states of India offer activities for the nature lover and adventure seeker alike. The nearby Nagarhole Game Sanctuary is rated one of the best tiger reserves in the country and can easily be visited while staying at Plantation Trails. Boating, rafting and even a nine-hole golf course, owned by Tata Coffee are all within the area. Also in close proximity is Bylakuppe, which houses Namdroling Monastery, the second largest Tibetan settlement outside Tibet. If you wish to steep yourself in history, you can visit places such as Mercara Fort, Raja’s Seat, Gadige (Royal Tombs), Omkareshwara Temple and Nalknad Palace.
During her time of travel (early April), Burn was fortunate to see the hand-picking of the cherries, some picked three times off the same trees, as well as the next crop of cherries forming, which, she observed were “surprisingly large.” The tour also included a visit to the QA lab and cupping room, where she tasted Arabica and Robusta, washed and unwashed of multiple varieties - two of the standouts being Monsoon Malabar and Mysore Extra Bold. The equipment was impressive and efficient, Pinhalense at the mill and Neotec at the roasting and packaging facility.
From Plantation Trails, Burn (now with the accompaniment of her family) traveled to Chickmalgur to see the Arabidicool and Mylemoney estates, which are higher up in the mountains. “We toured the estates on an exciting jeep ride with the estate manager, Mr. Sampath, and saw the newest and oldest of milling equipment,” describes Burn. “The old style pulper, installed by the British, worked in contrast to the modern Brazilian equipment at Jumboor estate.” Along the way, the Burn family viewed some of the many temples of South India, in Belur and Halibid, where the intricate carvings “were amazing.”
R & G coffee is called “filter,” and is actually enhanced with chicory. Burn recommends ordering “pure filter” if you would like coffee without this addition. “However, most of the coffee sold in India is soluble, with the Tata Coffee Company having two soluble plants.” Burn visited the one located in Theni, within the state of Tamilnadu. “I was very impressed with the food safety standards and practices of the plant for being in such a remote part of the world.” The other Tata Coffee soluble plant is located in the city of Hyderabad.
The Tea & Coffee World Cup/ASIA is the ideal opportunity to explore the tea and coffee regions of the mass country of India. Late November, the time of the conference and symposiums, is the most pleasant time. This period offers a traveler a dry yet cool time of year to plan travel and is in a period right after the monsoons so everything is bright, fresh and green. Whether extending your trip for tea tours, coffee tastings or even beach dwelling in the popular area of Goa and Kerala, India assures a lifetime of memories.
Tea & Coffee - September, 2008
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