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Visiting the Nilgiris Mountains in Southern India

I just returned to Oregon after spending seven months in India. Since I’ve been back, things have quickly started heating up as we transition from “planning” to “doing." But before the events of the summer get lost, I wanted to share what happened in the last few months of India. This is the first of two posts related to that time.
The day after the Tea Expo ended (see previous post) I went to visit the Nilgiris mountains south of Bangalore.  The mountain range is home to the least known of India’s three major tea growing regions, the other two being Darjeeling and Assam. My aunt and uncle, two fellow tea lovers, joined in the trip and as we climbed into the mountains, the tea started taking over the valleys. It felt like entering a candy shop; here was an entire economy and culture based exclusively on tea.
We began by visiting factories that were processing green leaves into the finished tea we drink. There are two general ways tea is processed; the traditional method, which is referred to as “orthodox”, and the more industrial “crush-tear-curl”, or CTC style. We met factory owners of both types and toured their factories.
I had romantic visions of orthodox processing being hand-done, and expected we would see rooms of people carefully rolling and twisting the leaves. The truth is that when estates process for export, both orthodox and CTC are almost entirely mechanized. The only obvious difference was that the CTC had one additional machine at the beginning.
As we learned, this factory-orientation made sense given the history of Indian tea. The British introduced tea in India during the 19th century to replace China as their supplier. From the beginning, therefore, Indian tea has been developed as a cash crop and oriented towards industrial-scale production. For example, more than 90% of tea produced in India is CTC and intended to be prepared with milk, spices, and more than one teaspoon of sugar.
As a result, the top-quality orthodox teas we are after are quite rare and will require a good amount of searching to find. This also means that if we focus on weaving artistry into the cultivation program we are planning in the northern state of Uttarakhand, we’ll be providing something truly unique. More details to come on that program in the next post.
While the CTC and orthodox factory owners differed in their approach to processing, they agreed that labor was increasingly an issue. The farmers who cultivate, pluck, and sell the green leaves to the factories are a dwindling group of aging women. Their children are migrating to the cities for jobs and easier ways of life, made possible by increased levels of education and India’s growing economy.
The factory owners all pointed out that from a societal perspective, these changes were good. However, for their business and the Nilgiri tea industry, it creates an uncertain future. The changes were already beginning to be felt and the factory owners seemed on edge about the situation.
For example, in the ideal, most teas are processed using only the bud and top two leaves and the bushes are kept to a uniform level called the plucking table. Without a large enough workforce to maintain the huge estates, the pluckers are unable to return to the bushes frequently. When they do, they have to pluck more than the top two leaves to restore the plucking table, which leads to a lower quality tea. This suggested that a small-scale approach would be more sustainable in the long-run, although it would also mean a radical departure from the way tea is grown and processed now.
Interestingly, because the south of India is more tropical than the north, tea grows year round in the Nilgiris. During the cold months, December through March, the growth of the plant slows and the polyphenols that give the teas their flavor become more concentrated. This leads to a superior tea, and the Nilgiri’s winter specialty is the Frost Tea, which was really something spectacular. We are looking forward to sharing this regional gem with you all soon.
Well, there was much more that happened on the trip, including visiting an auction house, exploring the local markets, and an argument between our driver and a bus that almost led to a fistfight. But since we’ll definitely be selling teas from this region, there will luckily be more trips and more posts to come.
In our next post, I’ll be writing about our tea cultivation program that we’re planning with an NGO in the northern Central Himalayas. Until then!

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