Set on the banks of the formidable Brahmaputra river, the Upper Assam region of India is filled with acres of lush tea bushes, stretching as far as the eye can see. While the British colonial government in India was instrumental in the development and expansion of tea growing expertise, few Indians were also involved in starting tea estates in the regions. The Chota Tingrai tea estate is the legacy of one such tea grower, Murleidhor Jalan, who was one of the first Indian founders of a tea estate. The estate in the present day is overseen by Avantika Jalan, his great-granddaughter, who is determined to produce exceptional Assam tea. Avantika and her partner John were my gracious hosts at Chota Tingrai and I feel fortunate to have spent a couple of days chatting and drinking cups of fresh tea with them.
In addition to land that is populated by tea bushes, Chota Tingrai is also a home to tea tribes which comprise people of various ethno-linguistic origins brought to the region by the exploitative plantation systems established by the British colonial government in India. The estate houses two worker’s villages, an elementary school and a hospital within its boundaries. There’s also a clear division of labor with respect to the operations at the estate. Tea pickers are overwhelmingly women and the majority of factory workers are men.
Pictured: Leaf picking on a rainy day by the women of tea tribes
My short trip to the estate coincided with the first flush season, heavy rain and soaked bushes. The pouring rain was not a detriment to the women working in the fields picking with utmost care the best of two leaves and a bud. I listened to them as they shared insights on the various techniques behind plucking the bushes and the strategies they use to get the bushes ready for the next plucking season. Alongside picking activities, land is also prepared for new tea saplings and some already existing bushes are pruned to develop branching. Chota Tingrai has dedicated a significant patch of land to practice in-house composting and strengthen their initiative of organic farming.
Pictured: Leaf collection after a day of picking, ready to be transported to the factory
A trailer comes to gather the leaf collections of the day and transport them to the factory where the processing of leaves takes place. The black and green tea factories at Chota Tingrai are separated as processing tea is time consuming and necessitates distinct approach and machinery for each type. The green tea factory is fairly new with machinery and expertise from a Japanese tea grower. On the day of visit, I got to witness the quintessential processes for the production of Assam orthodox teas at the black tea factory. This included having a closer look at the withering of leaves in large troughs, their circular movements in big rolling machines, processes of drying, fermenting and sorting of the leaves into different grades based on their size. The leaves have to be processed within 12 hours of plucking to retain maximum flavor and freshness. In addition, the crush-tear-curl (CTC) machinery also popularly known as the Rotorvane was seen in action. Some of the CTC machinery, tea rollers and dryers at the black tea factory are as old as when the factory was established in the year 1943. It was fascinating to observe fresh leaves subjected to crushing action, being reduced in size and curled into shapes that would be attractive in the tea market after drying.
In the final part of my tour, all the tea offerings of Chota Tingrai were cupped for me and the metrics of good tea were laid out. In addition to the taste, the quality of tea is measured as a “bloom” in its appearance, which essentially means a sheen that does not go away by over handling and over sorting and is regarded as a sign of good manufacture and sorting.
Pictured: Tasting the various grades and types of black and green tea
Chota Tingrai was a humbling experience and a gentle reminder of the fact that making good tea takes the skill, care and love of the people involved. Back in New York City, as brew a cup of my favorite tea from the estate, I think about the beautiful tea bushes basking in the sun and washing in the rains of Upper Assam and the worker tribe of the region along with the Jalans, performing everyday to achieve a balance between tea, nature and people.