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Bullet for breakfast?

Bullet for breakfast?

Author: Jaideep Mazumdar
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 1, 2011

Introduction: … or choose from Twilight, Needle, Moonbeam or Black Pearl. A third of Darjeeling's tea gardens make boutique brews that sell for a premium

If you think drinking tea is only about soaking tea leaves in a teapot full of hot water and sipping the infusion, you're way behind. Specialty tea, or 'handcrafted' tea, that is now the premium product from the mist-covered, scenic hills of Darjeeling, elevates the tea-brewing and drinking experience to new heights. With a range of exotic names, these specialty teas are the rage not only among top-end foreign buyers, but also an increasing number of Indian enthusiasts.

It started with just a couple of the 87-odd tea gardens in the Darjeeling hills making white and green teas a little over a decade ago to meet demands from overseas customers. "White and green teas require special care right from plucking to a different way of processing, most of it by hand by specially-trained workers. This art originated in China and Taiwan and was picked up by some planters from there," Girish Sarda, the third generation owner of Nathmulls, inarguably Darjeeling's most prominent tea store, tells TOI-Crest.

After gaining proficiency in making 'white' and 'green' teas, the planters graduated to making special forms of these teas, like Pearl Balls - two leaves and a bud hand-processed and hand-rolled tenderly by women. When infused in a pot of hot water they unfold gradually into a leaf and bud. "It is a visual delight and the infusion should take place in a transparent glass pot," says Shiv Kumar Saria, managing director of Sona Tea, which owns two premium tea estates in the Hills.

Saria, who visited tea estates in China and Taiwan to learn about handcrafted tea, said making specialty teas like Pearl Balls is a time-consuming process - only about 150 grams of 'pearl balls' can be made in one day - and they are, thus, very expensive, selling at more than Rs 15,000 a kilogram. A special Pearl tea is Black Pearl that's produced from shoots of tea bushes that grow only in five acres of the 320-hectare, Saria-owned Gopaldhara Tea Estate, which enjoys the distinction of being the highest tea garden in Darjeeling.

"The soil in that portion of the hills is rich in titanium which gives a unique flavour to the tea. About 10,000 of these shoots, withered and then finger-rolled by master craftsmen, will give you one kilogram of Black Pearl," explains Saria.

Another handcrafted tea is 'Bullet' tea, a special white tea. Two leaves and a bud are hand-rolled into small 'bullets'. Though these don't unfold when infused, they produce a nearly colourless brew with a light yellowish-green tint whose anti-oxidant qualities makes it Darjeeling's healthiest tea. The best of the Pearl Balls, branded as Pearl Fantasy by Nathmulls, was sold by the store for Rs 30,000 a kilogram.

Another specialty white tea is the 'needle' tea, so called because of the needle-like appearance of the processed leaves. Then there's the 'spider' tea, which is two leaves and a bud hand-rolled in such a way as to give the appearance of a spider. This sells for about Rs 15,000 a kilogram at retail.

A spectacular specialty tea, christened Peony Rosette, from Gopaldhara, is made by women stitching about a hundred young tea buds into a tight bundle that resembles a flower when infused. This sells for Rs 75 apiece. A Saria masterpiece is Olympic Flame, so named since it was made during the 2004 Athens Olympics, and exported there as well.

"It was a huge success and we've continued making it. It is shaped like the Olympic torch and, when infused, the top opens up like a flare. It was a hit and sold for Rs 25,000 a kilogram in Athens," says Saria.

"These are all fancy teas, so they have fancy names," explains Girish Sarda. A glance at the labels of the airtight glass jars holding these handcrafted teas provide a fascinating jumble of alluring nomenclature: Ruby (premium quality black tea), Moonbeam (a mellow black tea made from clonal bushes), Twilight (oolong, a semi-fermented tea), Himalayan Mist (first flush tea from clonal bushes), Green Delight, Green Blossom, Green Elixir, Green Enigma and Emerald Green (all green teas).

A third of Darjeeling's tea gardens make handcrafted tea today and most of them have their own names for such teas. For instance, a very special green tea that takes about 18 hours of constant hand-processing and comes from Makaibari, the oldest and perhaps best-known tea estate here, is called Gheokuro. Japanese master tea-maker Yamasita Sun taught some senior Makaibari employees how to make Gheokuro during a visit there.

Another Japanese tea made by Makaibari is the Bai-mu-dan; its manufacture involves a laborious process which owner Swaraj Kumar Banerjee is loath to divulge. Both Gheokuro and Bai-mu-dan are made exclusively for the Japanese market. Makaibari's best handcrafted tea for the
domestic market is Silver Tips Imperial, which sells for Rs 18,000 a kilogram from the estate's outlet at Kurseong. Makaibari's closely-held secret is a 'full moon' tea: shoots are plucked during a full moon night and hand-processed. The tea, claims Makaibari manager Deb Majumder, is full of "bio-dynamic" properties.

Making handcrafted teas, believes Anil Kumar Jha, superintendent of Sungma Tea Estate, owned by the BK Birla Group's Jayashree Tea, is a passion. "One has to know very intimately the characteristics of every portion of the tea garden to fathom which would be the best picks of a season. Every season gives one or two rounds of a peak, or the best pluckings, when bio-chemical qualities of the shoots are at the optimal level. These pluckings make for the best handcrafted teas," says Jha. "Making handcrafted teas is also very labour intensive. Since only the best shoots from select bushes, especially the clonal bushes, are plucked, a labourer can only pluck about one kilogram of green leaves in a day. These are then sorted and a portion may be discarded be fore the intricate processing by hand starts to ultimately yield a hundred grams or so of processed tea."

Makaibari's Banerjee says an estate manager would need to spend at least two decades in a garden to know the characteristics of the bushes in every portion of the estate. "Without this knowledge, it is impossible to mark out bushes that'll give the best shoots that can be made into specialty teas." Eminent tea consultant ND Dewan explains that a combination of passion, skill and intuition is necessary for making handcrafted teas. "One must understand how much fermentation the leaves have to undergo, how much rolling is required and when, among other things.

These are skills that take years to develop." No wonder, then, that handcrafted teas accounted for less than one per cent of the 7.76 million kilograms of Darjeeling tea produced last year.

Darjeeling's gardens produce specialty teas not only because they fetch high prices, but also because these add value to their brand. "A garden that makes them stands out as capable of producing the highest quality teas," says Banerjee.

Darjeeling's gardens are still a long way from producing the premium handcrafted teas that plantations in China or Taiwan do. For instance, a second flush Taiwan green tea christened Oriental Beauty was adjudged by international tea tasters as the best handmade green tea in the world last year. It sold for over Rs 1 lakh a kilogram.

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