All these years I’ve been tripping on tea, tea tourism never once crossed my mind. And now that I’ve been there, done that, it’s hard to stop thinking about it. It’s amazing, really, how the freshness of the tea gardens finds its way into your morning cuppa.
In Glenburn, we walked through the tea fields and visited the tea factory, and got a first-hand glimpse into how a tea estate functions, right from caring for the tea bushes, to plucking the leaves and processing them till they’re ready to be packed, and then packed-off.
The tea estate is around 150 years old, tranquil, green and flourishing till date. It boasts tea plants as old as hundred years, and newer ones, a few months old. Only two leaves and a bud are plucked so.
In fact, the bud – also called the silver needle – is used exclusively in the making of white tea, the healthiest option among the teas, and also the most expensive.
The women pluck tea, while the men work at the factory. We tailed a few women into the tea gardens early one morning and watched them at work. Plucking is a skill that requires delicacy and speed. The leaves need to remain as unblemished as possible if they are to retain the qualities of their environment.
The flower of the tea plant is discarded as it uses up a lot of the plant’s energy – so our guide told us. I didn’t quite understand what it meant, but I thought it sounded important.
The plucking that begins early morning goes on till early afternoon, after which the leaves are delivered to the tea factory for processing.
Mr. Kumar, the Assistant Manager at the Glenburn factory walked us through the various stages the leaves pass through before they end up in our teacup.
When the leaves are brought in, they contain over 75% moisture, which is greatly reduced during the first process, namely, Withering. This involves spreading the leaves onto large withering troughs through which air is circulated.
The next step is Rolling, accomplished mechanically, to roll the leaves and further bring down the moisture content to 5%. Rolling breaks the cell structure, releasing the antioxidants and the components that give tea its flavour.
Fermentation is next, although the leaves aren’t fermented in the real sense of the word. They are subject to enzymatic oxidation, accomplished quite simply by running one’s hand through the leaves to incorporate air through them. The tea workers smell the tea to determine when it is ready to pass into the final stage in processing. The tea acquires its aroma and flavour at this stage.
Drying involves passing hot air over the leaves, thereby preserving its properties.
The dried tea is then sorted manually, using sieves, into 4 sizes – from the lighter, more delicate leaf tea, to the stronger, darker dust tea, each of which go to a different market.
The tea is then subject to an elaborate tea tasting before being packed in wooden crates lined with moisture-proof material.
We were escorted to the Tea Tasting room where teas picked at different seasons were laid out for tasting. There are subtle differences in the teas that are harvested at different times in the year. We tasted each, and try as I might, I cannot remember these differences. I only know that I liked the First Flush, harvested in the spring, the best. And I remember that the elite White Tea had not impressed me as much as I thought it should.
Here are 2 things I learned about tea that morning –
Tea retains its health properties when brewed and had without milk and sugar.
The tea I prefer is pretty darn expensive!
Of course, once we got back to the Water Lily Bungalow, all that was forgotten as I stirred the milk and sugar into my tea and planned to take home a good amount of that first flush so I could enjoy the Glenburn experience in a teacup, from even a thousand miles away.
Getting to Glenburn
Location: Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
(Altitude: 3,200 ft.)
By Flight: Daily flights to Bagdogra from major cities in India. Glenburn is a 3-hour drive from the airport.
By Train: Overnight trains from Kolkata to New Jalpaigudi station. Glenburn is a 3-hour drive from the station.