There’s something about tea that’s almost guaranteed to make most Indians lyrical. We have it at breakfast, after meals, at teatime (obviously!), and just about any time in between. We add infusions of ginger or holy basil to it, to get rid of sore throats; we add cardamom, cinnamon, and even pepper in some cases, to make it a warming drink for a frosty morning.
In places like Kumaon, where milk is relatively scarce, people add lime juice and slices of lime to tea. In the Kashmir Valley, chopped almonds and a couple of strands of precious saffron are added to a no-milk green tea, to create a decidedly regal digestif. And not too far from Kashmir, in the remote and cold deserts of Ladakh, sweet tea gives way to a salted tea known as gurgur chai, more like a soup, really, complete with a generous dollop of yak butter floating in it.
Yes, we do consume it in pretty large quantities; we grow it in even larger quantities. And though Darjeeling and Assam are probably the better known of the Indian teas, other types, like the tea grown in the Nilgiris or that grown in Kangra, are equally as good. Tea was first planted in Kangra by the British, and vast tea gardens (as the plantations are known) cover the gentle hills in and around Palampur today.
The tea gardens appear on either side of the road well before you enter Palampur (whether you’re approaching the town from Dharamshala or Baijnath); some are privately-owned, some are so-called "demonstration plots," and some are research areas owned by the Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University or the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Some, like the tea gardens around the Palampur Co-Operative Tea Factory, are a good place to get to know tea at really close quarters.
The Palampur Co-operative Tea Factory Limited is located downhill from Palampur, slightly below the road to Dharamshala--ask almost anybody walking on the road and they’ll guide you to it. It’s a modest little factory, not too huge (it produces only between 400,000 and 500,000 kilos of tea annually, all production being limited to the months between April and October). Located on a hillside, with a huge stack of logs at the back, the factory has its tea gardens on the hill behind it.
The main door into the factory is a rather rough-looking rectangle cut into the corrugated aluminium sheet that forms part of the façade. It took us a while to find it amidst the other doors that lead to the administrative sections of the factory, but once inside the rather dingy (and extremely aromatic) factory, it was not too difficult to find our way about. A slightly surly officer handed us over to a very brisk but slightly incomprehensible worker who was missing most of his teeth. The man took us on a whirlwind tour of the factory but managed to explain most of it pretty clearly in the 10-odd minutes he was with us.
We began on the first floor of the factory, where huge metal-sided tanks with floors made of wire mesh hold freshly plucked tealeaves for a period of about 24 hours. Below the wire mesh whirr fans that semi-dry the leaves, getting rid of moisture before the leaves can be crushed. At the tanks, our guide stopped long enough to swiftly and unerringly pick out the three types of leaves that go into making tea. Tea leaves, when picked, are only plucked from the very end of the growth, a not-yet-open leaf (known as the "tip") and the two leaves just below it. The tip yields the most aromatic and expensive tea, sold at approximately Rs 80 for 250 gms. The tea from the leaf below, which is slightly older than the tip and is therefore not as delicate, sells at about Rs 60 for 250 gms. The third leaf, the pleb of the trio, is what goes into more pariah teas, such as tea bags.
From the tanks, we scrambled downstairs in the wake of our guide to the noisy crushers below. Situated just below the tanks, the crushers are large circular trays in which the tea leaves, after they’ve dried for 24 hours, are mechanically ground and broken up. From the crushers, the leaves, now a brownish-green colour, are transferred to an adjoining room, where they are spread out and allowed to ferment--for all of half an hour--in a draft of cold air. Fermented leaves pass on to the next stage, where they’re put into large chambers and subjected to hefty gusts of steam, generated by a woodfired oven (which is where all the wood we’d seen behind the factory comes into the picture). The steam cooks the leaves further, and when they’re sufficiently done, they’re moved to a grading area.
The grading area was where, we realised, most of the factory’s aroma came from. Though the room itself wasn’t huge, it was large enough to accommodate high piles of ready-to-brew, deliciously fragrant tea. This is glorious stuff, and it was lying all around us, in heaps higher than our heads.
For grading, the tea is blown, again using mechanical fans, over wire meshes of graded sizes. One type of mesh only allows top-quality (the Rs 80 per 250 gms type) tea to fall through, another only allows second-grade tea to fall through, and so on. The dregs of the tea are what’s generally packed into tea bags.
After the grading area, our guide led us to the last bit of the tea factory--the packaging area, nothing fancy. Other than the tea that’s locally available at the factory, most of what is produced at the Palampur Co-operative Tea Factory is sent all the way to Kolkata, from where it finds its way to other parts of India and the world. Having come all this way, we weren’t going back without some tea, so we stopped over at the factory outlet, which is right in front of the factory, on the main road. The lady at the outlet was a friendly and cheerful soul, who sold us five packs of exquisite tea and gave us instructions on how to brew it for best results as well.
That isn’t all, of course--you can’t go to a tea factory and not visit a tea garden. So we drove around to the back, to the hill on which the tea factory’s tea grows. Tea actually looks very pretty; the bushes are neatly trimmed and cover the ground in a dense carpet that looks utterly picturesque. Add to that the trees that always grow in tea gardens (tea must grow in shade) and you have something that looks as good as it eventually tastes.