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The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee
 

Planting times
 

Elite Clubs of India
On the Indian specialty tea trail

By Aparna Datta

It’s called a Peony Rosette and a single piece costs Rs. 50 – a little over a dollar. Made from specially grown tea leaves, delicately woven into a rosette, it comes to you in a transparent glass cup. You pour in steaming hot water, and simply watch while the rosette unfolds: the clear liquid turns amber, and a subtle fragrance awakens your senses. It’s your moment of Zen.

Consumer delight in such sensory pleasures has prompted Infinitea, purveyors of fine teas, to experiment with yet another hand-crafted tea. They call it the Stupa-A, and it’s a tiny monolith of enchantment.

But then, to the owners of Gopaldhara Estates of Darjeeling, such specialties come naturally. Darjeeling orthodox teas have a 150-year reputation to live up to, and for the inheritors of this legacy, there’s no stone, or leaf, left unturned in the pursuit of excellence in tea-making.

Starting in the early 1990s, first Darjeeling, and then the Nilgiri region have quickly moved up the value chain. Conversion to organic was simply the beginning of other explorations into the world of specialty teas. Take Ambootia, where biodynamic cultivation forms the basis. At this Darjeeling estate, tea-making is a passion, which finds expression in specialty varieties such as ‘Millennium Tea’, a brisk tea tempered with the ambrosial fragrance of tea flowers, and ‘Moon Tea’, in which cosmic forces harnessed on a full moon night produce a sparkling and enlivening tea, and ‘Snow Mist Tea’ where the delicate Pak Ho leaves produce a mellow, sweet and aromatic tea.

But the real revelation in Indian specialty teas comes from South India. Amidst an ocean of CTC, an entire planting fraternity is set to raise the quality bar. The Nilgiri Planters’ Association lists among its members certain estates and factories that are producing orthodox teas that deserve, nay, demand a second, serious look.

Glenmorgan Estate has perfected its line of green teas, making pearl, gunpowder and oolong varieties of outstanding character and taste. At Chamraj estate, Earl Grey, white teas, golden tips are par for the course.

While sourcing from South India, it’s worth bearing in mind that this region gets both the South-West and the North-East monsoon, which impart distinct flavors in different months. In South India tea is picked throughout the year, unlike North India where production shuts down during the winter months of December through February, so Nilgiri specialty producers can ensure a steady and continuous supply, an important aspect for buyers.

So, how to navigate the Indian specialty territory and trace those rare teas? Actually, the signposts are self-evident, the markers part of the landscape. Look out for heritage estates with consistently high standards of cultivation and manufacture – many are now ISO-certified with HACCP in place. An onsite tea factory is a given; indeed most tea companies are into continuous improvement, and have well-equipped establishments with cupping facilities. Social infrastructure is visible in schools, hospitals, rural telecom and post offices even in remote locations. The organized plantation industry in India is regulated through legislation that ensures good wages, perquisites, workers’ rights and job security; ‘fair trade’ is implicit in the system. In India, producing premium tea is a holistic approach, a 360 degree concept of cultivation and manufacture, combined with sound social and environmental processes.

Black or white, gold or silver tips, Earl Grey or oolong, green leaf or gunpowder, seek and ye shall find the finest grades and specialty teas. Tea trails in India offer serendipity – the more you explore, the more gems that surface on your cupping table.

PENSCAPE January 2005

 
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