Agri Business

Raising the curtains on the drama of tea

| | Updated on: Oct 03, 2012
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Walking through tea gardens in the quaint Tamil Nadu town of Coonoor is a wonderful experience.

And it turns exciting when one gets to see the processes that those virgin tea leaves undergo to become a lustrous, copper-red coloured commodity.

Visitors to the Tea Museum on Doddabetta Road can see how leaves are turned into dry tea in a factory. A 4-km drive from Udhagamandalam, the museum employs about 35 people and was established eight years ago by the founders of Nankemp Group (the corporate has interests in plantation and hospitals too) originally to give a glimpse into the origin and history of tea. But it has now become a major tourist attraction.

The museum has an audio presentation and a staff member details the nine-step process that the leaves undergo.

Heaps of fresh leaves are first spread on ‘Withering’ troughs and undergo a mix of hot and cold air for 10-12 hours continuously to remove moisture from them. The de-moisturised leaves then go through ‘Rotorvane’ which crushes the leaves and extracts the juices and push them to the ‘CTC machines’ which with their stainless, toothed jaws run in opposite directions to produce the Cut, Tear and Curl leaves. Then comes the ‘Googy drum’ that shape these crushed leaves and give them the needed density.

The fifth step is the most vital ‘fermenting trays’, where in the leaves are spread, as the employee says, in the form of “beds” 4 ft wide and 10 ft long. “It is here that the colour change takes place (due to oxidation). The green, grainy leaves changes into copper-red coloured ones and then fed into ‘Fluid Bed Dryer’ for 16 minutes exactly with hot air blowing constantly”, he explains. Then the leaves come into contact with an elevator and falls into ‘Fibromat’ — where the fibre particles are removed. Next comes the grading part. From fibromat, the leaves go to ‘Shifters’ – one for Dust and other for Leaf. While the former is finely powdered as the name suggests the latter is granular in shape. After which they enter the ‘Packaging’ stage where the required flavour is added – cardamom, masala, lemon, ginger, etc.

When we step down seeing them getting packaged in varying sizes of cartons and pouches, we are greeted with a cup of the topaz-coloured beverage, piping hot.

The museum factory was completely automated only a few years ago and till then, the leaves were manually moved from one process to the other. Besides the machinery and processes, the premises also has posters, giving nuggets about the evolution of tea and its history in the Nilgris. Did you know that the Chinese prisoners were instrumental in developing the early Nilgiri estates, or the first-ever auction held at Calcutta in 1861? The guide tells us that to get a kilogram of tea, one has to feed 4 kg of fresh leaves.

There is a kiosk towards the exit that displays a wide variety of Homewood Teas (the brand of Doddabetta Tea Factory) with flavours ranging from the ubiquitous strong and dust varieties to the lesser-known chocolate tea and handmade white tea with highest anti-oxidant characteristics. Cardamom tea is out the fast-moving, though.

Approved by the Tea Board, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. An average of 1,500 people visit the museum a day and a chocolate factory (run by the same management) next to the museum is an added attraction.

Watching the unwinding roads bordered with carrot gardens on one side and tea bushes on the other, one is reminded about Minna Irving’s lines from My Fragrant Cup of Tea :

“I pour the steaming amber drink/ In China thin and fine,/ Add cream and sugar or condensed,/ And sipping slowly see/

A film of far off scenes unroll,/ The drama of the tea.”

Published on October 03, 2012

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