Think tea and two names come to mind—Assam and Darjeeling. If you are from south India, Nilgiri could be the third. But Kangra tea? There was a time when tea from this part of Himachal Pradesh ranked among the best in the world. In 1883, the Gazetteer of the KangraDistrict noted that tea produced in the region was “probably superior to that produced in any other part of India”.
In the 1890s, almost 10,000 acres in the Kangra valley was covered by tea plantations. In 1892, the Kangra Valley Tea Company Ltd sold more than 20,000kg of tea in London. Between 1886 and 1895, Kangra’s tea won gold and silver medals for quality in London and Amsterdam.
Yet, it slipped virtually into oblivion. How did that happen? It’s a long story, but let’s begin from when Kangra had its first bush—sorry, brush—with tea.
William Jameson, superintendent of the Botanical Gardens at Saharanpur and the Northwest Frontier Province, was the man who brought the tea plant to Kangra. In 1849, he planted Chinese hybrid shrubs at three places in the valley: Kangra town (altitude 750m); Nagrota (870m) and Bhawarna (960m).
Kangra town was too warm and dry, but the plants did well at the other two places. This was all the encouragement the local administration needed. Three years later, in 1852, it set up a commercial plantation at Holta near Palampur, at an altitude of 1,260m.
In the next seven years, a number of private planters, both locals and Europeans, got into the business. They set up 19 tea estates in the region, covering a total of 2,635 acres. In another 15 years, the area under tea had increased to 7,994 acres, and by the end of the 19th century, it stood at 10,000 acres and produced almost 1,000 tonnes of tea annually. At least 80% of these plantations were around Palampur, which had a congenial climate and abundant water.
In the space of half a century, Kangra had entrenched itself on the world’s tea map. Its black and green teas were travelling to Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asia via Amritsar. On the other side, it could hold its own among teas from Assam and Darjeeling in the Kolkata market, from where they were shipped to Europe and America.
The devastating earthquake of 4 April 1905 reduced the entire valley to rubble, crippling Kangra’s tea industry for years to come. The English planters, who had till then led the way with new techniques, machinery and marketing, left the valley for good.
The locals who took over the abandoned estates were unable to meet the same standards of quality and productivity, and Kangra’s tea started losing ground. In 1980, Kangra’s estates produced only 132kg of tea per hectare, the lowest in the country, and well below the 284kg that the English planters averaged in 1892.
Happily, the worst seems to be over for Kangra’s tea. In the past two decades, the acreage under tea has started increasing, production is up, the quality of tea is much better, earnings are higher, even the estates are now a sight to behold.
Prizes, even if only national ones, have again started coming Kangra’s way. In 2006, Kangra also won recognition as a “geographic indicator” for tea (like Champagne is for wine and Chanderi is for cloth). Today, Kangra tea has its own significant symbol: two leaves and a bud.
Why significant? Because two leaves and a bud are ideal for plucking. As Hiren Mittra, manager of the Palampur Cooperative Tea Factory, explains, “When two leaves exist along with a bud, they are small, tender and pale green. At that stage, they are rich in flavour and ideal for rolling.” So, now you know that all tea leaves are not equal and the pluckers are after a certain kind of leaf combination.
Flavour is the unique selling proposition of Kangra tea. The Chinese hybrid variety grown here produces a very pale liquor, which is the reason why Kangra does not produce any CTC (crushed, turned, curled) tea—the staple tea of India.
All you will find in any of the several factories that dot the countryside are leaf teas—either green or black orthodox. And you can see them being made in any of these factories. The cooperative factory in Palampur makes only the black orthodox variety, but it is a tourist friendly place and you can spend an enjoyable half-hour there.
A tea factory is a heady place to be in, thanks entirely to the tonnes of fresh, aromatic produce around you. Used as we are to buying tea in 250gm or 500gm packs, the sight of mounds of tea on the floor is bound to surprise. Inside the Palampur factory, which has an annual capacity of 500 tonnes, you will find freshly plucked leaves withering on the first floor.
The process is meant to reduce the moisture content of leaves before they are rolled. By the time withering is over, the leaves would have lost around 70% of their moisture.
The withered leaves are then poured into large rolling machines that roll the leaves into the characteristic leaf tea shape. But, is that the only purpose of rolling? Mittra says rolling serves a more important function of breaking leaf cells and initiating fermentation. Each batch of leaves is rolled twice for 45 minutes at a time, and then allowed to ferment before a humidifier for a couple of hours.
After this, it is quickly passed through a drying machine to stop fermentation and reduce moisture to a meagre 2%. This ends the process of manufacturing black orthodox tea, and all that remains to be done thereafter is the grading and packaging.
The tea is sorted into three usual grades: leaf, broken leaf and dust; the leaf grade sells for the highest price. That’s one reason why managers place a premium on small and tender leaves—they don’t break during rolling.
There are few sights as beautiful as a well-maintained tea estate. The acres of uniformly trimmed tea shrubs (maintained at 3ft for ease of plucking) are just as delightful as the teas they produce. And Palampur is surrounded by them. Be it the Kangra road or the Baijnath road or even the Dharamsala road, all run through tea estates for at least a few miles out of Palampur.
And then, there’s the road through the town that leads up towards the Neugal Khad, past the aptly named Hotel T-bud. This one has the beautiful Bundla Tea Estate on both sides. Another tea estate noted for its beauty is at Sidhbari, near Dharamsala.
You will find all these estates an enchanting green from March to November, when the bushes are finally pruned and “rested” for the winter. Rested? Well, they do tire of producing rich leaf after leaf for your cup, eight months in a row. So it’s only fair that they get some time to recover their strength. This also means that when plucking resumes in April, the first batches of tea are the richest in flavour.
The technical name for this phenomenon is “Spring Flush”, and if you happen to visit Kangra during April, do make the most of your trip by buying freshly produced tea.
Palampur is 34km from Dharamsala in Himachal’s Kangra district. It lies on NH 20, the Mandi-Pathankot highway.
Tea is grown in Kangra at altitudes ranging from 900m to 1,800m above sea level. However, the estates are concentrated around Palampur.
You can see pluckers at work on the estates between April and October. Kangra tea has three “flushes”: spring (April-June); monsoon (July-August) and autumn (September-October).
Himachal Tourism runs
Hotel T-bud in Palampur (01894-231298), close to the Bundla tea estate.
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