My eyes are keen on Abu’s elastic moving hands as he effortlessly pours the liquid from the steel glass lifted above his head, and catches it in the vessel held in the other hand. After repeated sessions, he carefully transfers that golden brown brew to a white ceramic cup and gives it to me, “Chai, Madam.”
I slowly sip the steam rising black tea in fear of burning my tongue. But the aromatic elixir slips down my throat smoothly, leaving a sweet tinge. Fresh tea will activate different flavor sensations of the tongue as we drink. Overly astringent or unpleasant chemical taste is how to identify low-quality tea.
Abu is the caretaker of Kolukkumalai Mountain Hut, the guest house of Kolukkumalai tea factory where I’m staying. He hands me over a tea packet which reads, ‘Kolukkumalai Tea – World’s highest organic tea.’
Kolukkumalai tea estate, nestled peacefully on the blue mountain terrains of Tamil Nadu, is the highest tea estate in the world at 7900 ft above sea level. But it takes a 14 km off-road bumpy uphill ride through the Suryanelli tea estate of Munnar in Kerala to reach the top. But for the same reason, this is one of the most scenic destinations in south India, and its remote location is usually too far afield for the tourist crowd, keeping it a hidden secret among the trekking enthusiasts and a favorite shooting spot for filmmakers.
But things have changed ever since the region witnessed the bloom of the Neelakurinji flower (carpeting the landscape in beautiful purple once in 12 years) last October. Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest organic tea estate, is not a secret anymore.
A white three-story building roofed with a green sheet interrupts the view of rolling hills on the tea estate. Walking near to the main gate reveals more details of the Kolukkumalai tea factory, oozing nostalgia of the colonial era of its construction. The fading marble pasted on the factory wall, etched with black old-styled block prints, reads ‘BUILT 1935’.
The history of Munnar tea plantation dates back to the colonial era when the British resident John Daniel Munro leased land from the Travancore Kingdom, where tea cultivation later started under European resident A.H.Sharp. The initial 50 acres of leased land was gradually extended up to reach Kolukkumalai by 1932. It took a grueling effort from hundreds of workers and ponies to build the tea factory back in 1935, carrying the building materials and factory equipment to the utmost height. Conditions were much worse without the present-day unpaved trail.
Climbing the wooden stairs of the old tea factory, its roof also made of wood and walls painted with the stains of the tea leaves, I contemplate the effort taken by the workers to develop the tea habit among Indians. Contrary to the white exterior walls, the tea factory is dark on the inside with a pungent smell of tea leaves and old British machinery, the English manufacturer’s names ubiquitous.
In fact, the mountainous terrain and muddy roads to the factory still make it challenging to carry modern machinery using trucks. As such, the factory still uses the old and slow method of Orthodox traditional tea making.
Mani, one of the factory workers, leads me to see the 7-stages of tea processing. Withering is the first step, in which the tender green leaves are spread on a long mesh screen where the moisture is dried out with hot air. Having turned a light brown, the tea leaves are then taken manually for rolling, when the bigger leaves are broken down and rolled until the desired size is obtained. The smaller leaves are taken for further oxidation, whereupon the green color of the leaves turns totally to a coppery brown.
I collect a handful of the brown leaves to smell, only to realize that I’ve been smelling them the whole time — the oxidized leaves are responsible for the pungent odor hanging throughout the tea factory. They’re soon dried using the heated conveyor belts, and then the fibre from the processed tea is removed to collect a high-quality tea powder.
The tea is later categorized into one of five grades based on the size and texture of the tea powder. The finer the tea powder, the better the quality.. The graded tea powder stored in a wooden cabin for a week helps to improve its flavor.
Mani accompanies me to the factory outlet 100 meters from the factory to have a look and purchase the tea packets if interested. The five graded tea packets with cartoonish names unfolded before me:
Flowery orange pekoe – best for light black tea.
Broken orange pekoe – best for dark black tea.
Broken orange pekoe granulated – best for a light tea with milk.
Broken orange pekoe dust – for dark tea with milk,
Special broken orange pekoe – finest of all the above.
I settle on the Broken orange pekoe granulated tea and walk out to the fields of Kolukkumalai tea estate itself. The incredible shades of green from the tea leaves blend with the blue of the mountains to draw a picturesque landscape. The neatly laid rows of tea plants are lined with women plucking the leaves, all of them wearing colorful shirts and lungis (skirts) with a gunny bag extending from their heads for carrying the tea leaves, while men find their job mostly in the factory.
Back at the guest house, I find Abu chattering non-stop when speaking about Kolukkumalai. According to him, Kolukkumalai has different surprises in each season. “Cloud beds” can be seen on the Kolukkumalai peak during February, blinding you completely to the land below the tea estate. Occasionally, herds of elephants, sambar deer, Nilgiri Tahr (a relative to goats and antelopes), and Indian bison can also be sighted in the area. The winters bring beautiful fog-capped mountains, and the rolling clouds of rainy season wash the peaks.
My trekking guide Charles escorts me in the cold to Kolukkumalai peak at five o’clock the next day morning. I see all the beautiful tea plantations soaking in the rising sun, with Tamil Nadu on one side of me and Kerala on the other. Charles tells me, “as the height increases, the tea quality improves and less pesticide is used. And that makes the leaves of Kolukkumalai tea estate different from any other in the world.”
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