Imagea by Anita Satyajit
Orthodox tea at Kolukkumalai Estate
by Anita Satyajit
8 March 2010
It was obvious that I had tea on my mind when I went to Munnar, a hill station in Kerala famous for its tea plantations and estates. After all, tea drinking in India is an intrinsic part of our routine. Tea is the initiator of conversations, convenor of friendships, and the absolver of grouses. But in Munnar, I was on a specific mission.
Kolukkumalai plantation at an elevation 6675 to 7980 feet is said to be highest orthodox tea manufacturing plantation in the world. Orthodox or the traditional method of tea manufacture, used since the 1800s till around 1930s, results in a unique brew. The process is labour-intensive and so during the early 1900s, to meet the growing demand for tea, factories began to adopt the quicker and cost-effective crush-tear-curl (CTC) method of tea manufacture. But aromatic orthodox teas have lately become popular once again, thanks to the trendy tea parlours that have sprung across the country.
An ardent orthodox tea fan, I wanted to visit Kolukkumalai to see for myself how tea was produced and more importantly to buy some tea to sate my gluttony. Located at the base of the Kolukkumalai peak, the 25 kilometers journey from Munnar to the estate takes you through some popular tourist spots and trekking routes, and because the final stretch to the Kolukkumalai estate is via a private estate, up a road rocky enough to rattle every bone in the body, only local jeeps ply this route. But the sight of undulating oceanic mountains, speckled with the green of tea bushes more than makes up for the bumpy ride.
The 500 acre Kolukkumalai estate spread across the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu planted its tea shrubs sometime before the 1930s. By 1935, the factory was producing orthodox tea that became instantly famous. Peering out of the jeep, I passed some tea pluckers busy at work harvesting the top three leaves of the mature tea bushes. Soil, weather, light and the elevation at which the tea is grown, all contribute in imparting a distinct flavour to the tea, and the freshly plucked tea leaves carry all these natural influences with them to the factory.
Passing by a woman carrying a gigantic load of tea leaves on her head, our jeep rattled to a halt in front of an old-fashioned, two-storey steel and asbestos factory. While I had expected a massive structure, in front of me was a fragile small building. But the factory sits on the edge of a cliff and the views of the mountains and the valley below are magical.
Outside the factory women sat removing sticks and twigs from the plucked tea leaves. Some men were busy weighing huge sacks of leaves. Then a guide stepped up and we were taken inside the factory to witness the process that turns green leaves to delicious black tea.
The factory was visibly old and the machines, which had been producing tea for decades, looked weary. But the process of orthodox tea making itself is fascinating. Withering, the first process, involves spreading cleaned tea leaves over a withering trough with a mesh bottom. Through this, hot air and cold air are alternatively blown using high velocity fans and the leaves end up losing over half of their moisture. A rolling machine then twists and crushes these withered leaves, and during this second process juices containing tannins, caffeine and other components are released, coating the entire tea particles.
Then the leaves are sent for fermentation, which exposes the rolled leaves to air resulting in oxidation. This step determines the colour, flavour and aroma of the leaves. Next, the leaves are passed through a dryer machine and then dried leaves are sent to the fibre extractor which removes from them all fibre and waste and cleans the tea.
Finally the black tea leaves are sent to the grading machine, which separates the tea based on the size of the tea particles. The end products are tea leaves which fall under the four primary categories of leaf, broken, fanning, and dust; each with a different size and possessing a different flavour.
After letting us savour the fragrance of the freshly produced tea, the guide took us back to the office where we were offered an invigorating cup of lemon tea. Sitting there, tasting the earth and wind in my tea, I felt thrilled with my decision to come there. The factory threw no life-altering surprises. But the trip was worth the scenery, the interactions with the people who work there, the lesson in orthodox tea making, and most of all the chance to buy some precious award-winning tea.