By David Lyons
During late January and leading into early February, I was once again privileged to be back in India visiting areas that pluck at my heart strings: Assam, Darjeeling and Sikkim. This time I was able to spend more time investigating and understanding the tea trade, especial y in Assam, the world’s largest tea producing area.
On my trip, I visited Darjeeling and the Makaibari tea garden, where the Banerjee family are creating organic and biodynamic teas, plus encouraging community tourism at their planter’s cottages. Taking tea at the old and somewhat derelict Darjeeling Planters Club allowed me a glimpse in to what club life may have been like, and presented me with a moment of sadness that these old and somewhat romantic establishments are unable to survive in our modern world. This bustling hill station perched on the foothills of the Himalayas, is a busy, vibrant place. With an operating 'toy train' and an abundance of tea and craft shops, it’s a great place for a little gift shopping. A visit to the old Oxford Book and Stationary shop in the center of Darjeeling town also allowed me to stock up on Indian published books on tea.
Sikkim and Darjeeling tend to blur in to each other for the tea explorer, with many Darjeeling teas being offered in Sikkim due to their close proximity to each other. All teas produced in the state of Sikkim are sold under the one name of Sikkim Temi tea, which is a pleasant, almost Darjeeling-like brew.
Assam welcomed me with open doors as I visited many tea estates and their factories, including the home of a tea beloved by many of our customers and staff, Joonktollee. Having lunch with their management team, after a tour around their tea factory, was certainly a highlight for me. One thing that really stuck out in Assam was the dramatic increase in tea consumption of their domestic market. Indians are drinking more tea today than ever before, with high demand for strong malty teas from Assam cut in a CTC or BOP style. CTC stands for cut-tear-curl – a process which creates a small round, rolled looking leaf, and a positively strong brew. BOP stands for Broken Orange Pekoe - a small sized leaf, which also creates a lovely strong brew. Hathikuli CTC, Dimakusi BOP, Banaspaty GBOP and Rani BOP are perfect examples of deliciously powerful and strong Assam teas.
Tramping the streets of Kolkata, not only allowed my son James and I to eat an extraordinary range of fabulous street foods, but to test out the local masala chai vendors. Kolkata is synonymous with this sweet, milky style of consuming tea, and vendors ply for your patronage on every street corner. One sure test of a good street vendor is the amount of customers mulling around and purchasing from a stall, especially if those customers are the local police officers. After all, you don’t want to poison the local “bobby”, do you?
A visit to India is always going to be confronting, exciting, even inspirational, and everyone’s experiences will be slightly different. For me, my excitement and inspiration came from a small artisan green tea producer located near the Assam-Nagaland border, who is creating a hand rolled, bio-dynamic leaf. The scientific tea research projects at the Tocklai Research Station, near Jorhat in upper Assam. Also a visit to the scientists here are looking to protect the tea plants in a far more natural way, trying to understand how climate change is affecting the tea bushes and teaching TE managers to be far more professional in their work. Despite the beauty I experienced in India, I also shouldn’t ignore the confronting. The poverty on Kolkata’s streets is heart breaking, and the pollution that comes with a quickly developing economy is distressing. But the people of India that you meet along the way, from every level of the caste system, are incredibly hospitable, inquisitive and downright friendly. They are India’s untapped wealth.