The world in a tea cup

Some of the world’s most beautiful places are those where man and nature have both had a hand in creating the landscape. Now let us begin our journey from golden tips of the tea leaf to the subtle cup in our hands, this is the tale of the tea with a twist…I woke up feeling refreshed, there was a faint buzz coming from somewhere outside. When I glimpsed through the window it was raining. “What a lousy day for a visit to a tea estate, how can we explore anything in this rain?” I thought as I prepared myself for the trip. It was cold outside and the warmth of the blanket seemed to be the best place on earth at that moment. But since it was compulsory I dragged myself to the spot where the bus was waiting for us. We all boarded the bus, the inside was quiet warm as it was packed with forty four souls, couldn’t exactly call them as enthusiastic but hungry at the most. As the bus moved on the people inside gradually settled down and we began to move in a steady pace toward our destination. Along the route we all perceived the destruction left behind by last night’s storm as we saw trees uprooted and roofs of houses blown away. The journey continued and the people inside the bus started to show signs of life having had their breakfast, some started to sing and dance and slowly the journey came to live.

As we entered the tea estate we were greeted by an escort party and the bus followed their jeep as we all ventured into the tea estate. The tea estate was the boroi tea estate (BOROI tea estate District: Sonitpur, Area under Tea: 360.32 Hectares. Estimated crop: 1070000 Kilograms), which is s part of the McLeod Russel group which has been growing tea in India since 1869 and are today the largest tea producing company in the world. Mcleod Russel manages 47 tea estates in the Assam Valley, 6 tea estates in the Dooars region of West Bengal, 3 factories in Vietnam and 6 estates in Uganda. The tea estate has a golf course of its own at Boroi, TheEast Boroi Club.  As we followed our escort we ventured deep into the tea estate crossing the tea plantations and the houses of the people who work in the plantation.

“ Have we entered into an alien planet?”, perhaps was the question in all our minds, having been living in the university campus for some time now the tea estate felt different, the cement jungle was gone replaced with lush greenery and we found ourselves in unknown waters. The inhabitants of the estate came out to glimpse at the unknown creatures that have entered their paradise. Along the way we saw churches and temples which reflected the tolerance of these simple people. Our bus entered through a huge gate that stated “BOROI TEA ESTATE” and were all greeted by the manager and the assistant managers. The manager being Mr. Bidyut Bordoloi, an MBA from Guwahati University who joined the tea estate in the year 1990 having being a part of this industry for more than two decades he is the “Sahib” of this estate.

After getting off the bus we were briefed about the estate including its history and the plan of action to be followed for the day, which was followed by a short interaction with the students. From the briefing section we came to know that harvesting more commonly known as ‘Plucking’, the young fresh shoots are carefully plucked off the top most portion of the tea bushes. It is these young shoots that hold the key to quality and the highest level of care and supervision is required to achieve this.The company maintains a stringent quality control system that ensures only the very best plucked leaves enters the factory and therefore only the highest quality of tea is manufactured.Assam tea is generally harvested twice, in a “first flush” and a “second flush.” The first flush is picked during late March. The second flush, harvested later, is the more prized “tippy tea,” named thus for the gold tips that appear on the leaves. This second flush, tippy tea is sweeter and more full-bodied and is generally considered superior to the first flush tea.

As we moved on the process of tea making became clear to us.After the Green leaf has been collected from the plucked sections it arrives at our factories and is spread evenly in the ‘Withering Troughs’.By using fans that blow hot and cold air through the green leaf, their moisture is reduced by between 28%-32% (chemical wither), this process lasts for 14 to 16 hours. The green leaf is now limp and flaccid (physical wither) and can now proceed to the processing area.The withered leaf is either rolled or rotorvaned prior to CTC or Orthodox processing (i.e. preconditioning of the withered leaf).

A CTC (Crush, Tear and Curl) roll process lasts about 20-30 minutes whereas a CTC rotorvane process lasts for about 5-7 minutes. An Orthodox roll process lasts about 30 minutes. After this initial process, the withered leaf is subjected to CTC or Orthodox processing.

Fermentation is the oxidation process for both the CTC and Orthodox Mal and lasts between 100 to 180 minutes, depending on the colour and the smell (nose) of the fermented leaf and which process has been used. It is at this point that the green mal turns a coppery red or rust colour.

To halt the natural process of fermentation and to displace moisture, the mal is fed into dryers in a regular manner and is subjected to temperatures of between 121-127 degrees Celsius with controlled through put time of 22 to 25 minutes. All the fermented CTC tea is dried in VFBD’s (Vibro Fluidised Bed Dryers). Orthodox teas are dried using conventional driers that convey the leaf on slow moving, perforated trays through the drying chamber, so preserving the natural bloom, liquor and taste of the tea.

The ‘black’ teas can now be sorted into primary and secondary grades by passing them through sorting machines that use meshes of various sizes.  CTC teas are also passed through Fibre extractors to remove excessive fibre and the sorting of these will produce Primary and Secondary grades. Primary grades comprise 90-94% of the product line, the remainder as secondary. The Primary CTC grades are – BPS, BOP, BP, PF, PD, D and CD (secondary CTC grades are BP1, D1, CD1 and RD). The Orthodox grades include TGFOP1, TGFOP, GFBOP, FBOP, GBOP, BOPF, OP, OP1, BOP1 and BPS1.

Following the Sorting process a grade of tea is bulked together and stored in climate controlled bins. The packing process involves the transfer of a single grade of tea that has been bulked, to be released from a storage bin and conveyed to the packing area.

The tea is then carefully measured and funneled into large Kraft Paper sacks (other variations of packing material also exist), sealed and gently placed on wood pallets.  Through containerisation, the paper sacks can be stacked on top of one another totaling 20 sacks per pallet (ten layers of two sacks).

Thus, the tea is ready to be served to us simple folks without ever having the knowledge of how it came to our cups.

After this educational insight on production of tea we were marched off to the tea garden to have a firsthand experience of the tea estate. Everything around us seemed like it has just received a fresh coating of green paint by the life providing hand of Mother Nature and I couldn’t help but guess that perhaps the best time to visit a tea estate was indeed a rainy day as I regretted my earlier notion; the rains seemed to transform the entire place into an enchanted world and left us mesmerized. After interacting with the laborers we were invited to the manager’s bungalow for some refreshment. The manager’s bungalow or ‘the sahib’s bungalow’ as I call it, was a quintessential British bungalow. It can be called palatial and regal in its own rite. For once you feel transported to a different era in time, a feeling of being an English Sahib. The white suited help, the tree house and the sprawling verandah with an expansive well maintained lawn and garden finished the `awe-some’ picture. The green lawns lie spread across the open courtyard like a proverbial carpet. Ah! what wouldn’t i give up to wake up and sip the early morning tea, served in bed as is the tradition, and wait for the sun’s rays to warm up the ground and flood the flower beds with light. It made us all think, at the least for a moment of a career in a tea estate, of being a “sahib” too.

After the delicious refreshments served to us by the ‘home manager’ of the sahib of the tea estate, that is, his wife, we sat in the lawn relishing the beauty surrounding us. Evening was dawning upon us by now and the tea plantation seemed to have been gifted with a second life by this time. The day’s work was almost done, the temperature was (slowly) starting to drop and the sun was hanging low in the sky. To make the setting even more idyllic, trees growing amidst the tea bushes gave the plantation a romantic feel. Finally the tea was served to us, the one thing we cannot afford to miss having come to this place. The tea was malty, smooth and sweet. It is said tea sparks a good conversation and also relaxes the mind and body. As we were all lost in the serenity of the place, it was time for us to return so we thanked our hosts for their generous hospitality and returned to our piece of earth, writing this write up from all the pleasant memories gathered in the hope that we all will get an opportunity to relish this piece of paradise once again and question ourselves have we been missing out on the gifts of nature so I quote W.H. Davis’s poem “Leisure”
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
-W. H. Davies

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