High tea at Kokkumalai

High tea at Kokkumalai
Photo Credit: Saibal Das
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One of the highest tea plantations in the world, located near Munnar, still manufactures tea in the traditional way

Our Team
November 19 , 2014
10 Min Read

Don’t know about you. But having grown up in Mumbai, tea to me means a large cup of well-boiled masala chai which I drink every morning to jumpstart my sluggish digestive system. Sure, I know where it comes from (all packs feature the mandatory tea-picker in tea garden picture) but it’s definitely not a topic I would have ever googled willingly.

Till yesterday, that is. Today, at 7,500ft high, driving uphill through vast green plantations playing peek-a-boo with damp white mist, my perceptions about tea are about to change irrevocably. I will soon learn that tea should “never, ever be boiled. It destroys all the antioxidants and raises the caffeine levels”.

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I am in the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate; the highest tea plantation in the world and the 2005 Southern Tea Competition Winner of the Golden Leaf India Awards. To get here, you will need to get to Munnar first. Then from Munnar town, an hour’s drive to Chinnakanal. From Chinnakanal, hire a jeep and a two-hour spine-bracing, lip-pursing ride will take you on a vertical climb through tea plantations and mist. Then at a certain point you will cross into Tamil Nadu and soon find yourself in a clearing that houses the Kolukkumalai Tea Factory, a small office and a cluster of homes belonging to the tea factory workers.

Herbert Monickam, a tall swarthy giant of a man, has been managing the estate for 10 years and he can spot a tea novice from afar. “See the factory first; we have a guided tour that begins in five minutes. Then we’ll talk.” And so it happens that I run from floor to floor, room to room, following Sironmani as he recites the ‘tea tour’ for the sixth time in the day, sixtieth time in the week and one thousand and eightieth time since this year’s tourist season began. Later, Herbert will talk nostalgically of the days before they opened their factory to visitors, when “things were not so noisy around here” but for now, Sironmani’s stentorian voice rises over the excited tittering of the tourists. “We use the Orthodox method of tea processing not the Crush-Tear-Curl method...I’ll explain, explain...CTC is a faster, more automated process of making tea; our method is older, slower and produces better tea. Now follow me please.”

Well, to quote by the book, orthodox tea making is a seven-step process. Withering, Rolling, Sieving, Fermenting, Drying, Fibre Extraction and Grading. What it means visually is a way of life so old-fashioned and simple at the Kolukkumalai estate that the small two-storied factory which was built in 1930 by the British still retains its original wooden panelling, staircases, flooring, rafters and machinery. It’s hot inside and a sharp smell, a bit like snuff, pervades the entire factory. Lean and energetic workers go about their work having learnt to take the invasion from the plains in their stride.

Our tour begins in the large wood-lined withering room on the first floor where Sironmani lets us run our fingers through the long troughs filled with tender tea tips. “Here, the green leaves physically lose moisture and the leaf cell membranes rupture...thus the colour-imparting properties of the leaf are raised to desired levels.” He then leads us towards the back to show us the simple, ingenious manner by which leaves are ‘withered’. A wood-stoked boiler on the ground floor sends up hot air for four hours through chutes that are kept open on the floorboards of the withering room. Cold air is let in for another four hours by simply closing the chutes and opening the windows.

Downstairs, in the rolling room, a large roller grinds the withered tealeaves and drops it into a dolly. Why? Because by Rolling, the leaf will be twisted and broken resulting in the leaf juice coming out and forming a thin film on the surface. This helps find a balance between appearance and colour and initiates the next step — Fermentation. Workers then pour out the ground leaves onto a long, vertical multi-layered sieving machine to separate the well-twisted fine bulk from untwisted big bulk. The small pieces are collected. The big pieces go back into the roller. Before leaving the room, Sironmani points to the roller and intones, “All flavours, whether cardamom, ginger, chocolate, are added at this stage to the tea.” “Flavours? Not real elaichi?” An elderly Maharashtrian lady is aghast. She has bought packets of cardamom tea from Munnar town as gifts for her friends.

We are rushed through the fermenting room with its red cemented floor on which the ground tea is laid in square batches to ferment till the dark green changes to a coppery red. “Here, the ruptured leaf gets oxidised and leads to accumulation of pigments responsible for the colour of the infused tea...get back, PLEASE GET BACK!” An enthusiastic pre-teen has stepped further into the clean room with his Nike Airs. The rest of us quickly step back.

The fermented tea is dried in a large dryer (Manufactured by Marshall Sons & Co Ltd, Gainsborough, England) where it goes up and down on the conveyor belt for a good 25 minutes with varying degrees of heat till it is fully dried. This arrests the fermentation and makes the tealeaf black. Then on to the Fibre Extractor where PVC-coated rollers and felt-induced static electricity help separate the fibre waste from the tea. This fibre waste is recycled as manure in the plantations.

Finally, it is graded according to the size of the leaf on a sifting machine; the larger the leaf, the more premium the taste and liquor infusion. The dust or the lowest grade is “sold to railway stations or to people who want strong tea”. A dust tea-drinking family is spoiling for a fight. Sironmani placates them with “both dust and leaf are good, sir, both are good... Now see here, this is where we store graded tea for 15 days. Only then does tea start smelling like tea.”

In the room outside are charts that list the various terms used for assessing a tea’s visual appearance, infusion and liquor qualities. ‘O’ is for Orange, ‘B’ is for Broken, ‘F’ is flowery, ‘P’ is Pekoe and ‘D’ is Dust. To mention a few tasting terms, ‘Flaky’ means it has a flat, open, light texture. ‘Mushy’ tea has been stored with high moisture and ‘Chesty’ is not what you think but merely tea that has been tainted by inferior packing material.

Tour over, I join Herbert in his small paper-littered office and sip a cup of BOP while he tells me of life at 8,000ft. “What happens here during the monsoon?” “Life goes on. It’s just wetter than usual.” Herbert loves wildlife, solitude and his job. He is proud of the fact that during his time at the estate, he has managed to keep the trade unions out. “But you need to be patient,” he says, “Unlike a CTC factory, Orthodox factories require more people. More people means managing more problems, handling different temperaments.” He looks at the beautiful views outside and sighs, “I like it here. The air is so fresh and things are simple and uncomplicated.” Then he points to two ancient typewriters sitting on the table. “See those? We still send out our letters from them.” My surprise is genuine. “You don’t use a computer?” “What for...to spoil our eyes?” Herbert Monickam leans back in his chair and smiles. I blink.

Back near Chinnakanal, I stop for a late lunch at the extravagantly designed Fort Munnar hotel and walk into what might well be India’s first gay toilet. I stand perplexed in front of two doors titled ‘Jack’ and ‘Ross’. Ross opens and a man comes out of it zipping up his trousers. So I decide to be Jack. Lunch over, I make another stop in Munnar town where I shop for the mandatory lemongrass oil, Munnar chocolates and ayurvedic soaps prettily packed in banana leaves.

The next morning I head to the Tata Tea Museum, a kilometre out of town. I’m not expecting much; just a cursory whirl around the four rooms and then I need to rush to catch my overnight bus to Cochin. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

On the four-hour drive from Munnar, I have plenty of time to muse over the fascinating history of tea displayed in the museum. It seems the British stumbled upon the magnificent wooded hill ranges of Munnar in the early 1800s and after some trial and error, figured that they could grow tea here and ship it back to the Empire. So they hired the natives of the hill ranges to clear the woods, make bridle paths, cart the machinery, timber, furniture and even their wives over the rolling hills. In exchange for their labour, they were paid wages in Munnar currency, which ceased to have any value in the neighbouring areas, thus ensuring that the workers did not bolt after payday. The British built the first railway in Kerala from Munnar to Kundale, which was destroyed in the 1924 floods. Ironically, the state now has two railway lines, none of which service Idukki.

Plantation life must have been good; posters dating back to 1904 invite neighbours to flower and animal shows followed by tea and scones, and photographs show regular gatherings at lavish bungalows, horse-riding parties and hunting trips. Over the years, the ownership of the plantations changed hands from the Empire to private holdings, of which Tata was the largest. More than a hundred years later the workforce finally came into its own after the Tatas began divesting their holdings in the Munnar tea plantations last April and made the employees the new owners. The workers now hold a 74 percent stake and run it as Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company Pvt Ltd.

It’s a prophetic note to end this trip on. The Left has come to power in Kerala today and as we enter Cochin, red flags and smiling faces are everywhere. At the bus stand, I wonder if there’s time for a cup of tea. I peep in at a chai kadai. He’s boiling the tea. I pass it up.

The information

Getting there
At 5,500ft, Munnar does not have its own airport or railway station but is well connected by road to various parts of Kerala. The nearest airport and railway station to Munnar is Kochi (130km/4hr). You can also reach Munnar by road from Coimbatore (150km), Thekkady (100km), Palani (120km) or Thiruvananthapuram (300km).

Where to stay
At either Pothamedu (6km ahead of Munnar) or at Chinnakanal (20km after Munnar).
Pothamedu: Deshadan Mountain Resort (04865-232910, www.munnar.com/deshadan), The Tall Trees (04865-230641, www.ttr.in), Blackberry Hills Eco Lodges (04865-232978, www.blackberryhillsindia.com).
Chinnakanal: Club Mahindra (toll-free 1800-425-4539, www.clubmahindra.com), Siena Village (0468-249261, www.thesienavillage.com), Cloud 9 Resorts (04868-202295, www.cloud9resorts.com).
There are also several small hotels and homestays in and around Munnar.

Tea excursions
Kolukkumalai Tea Factory Visit
The best way to get to the estate, located 38km from Munnar, is to drive up to Chinnakanal from Munnar; it takes about an hour. From there, jeeps can be rented to make the steep two-hour drive up the plantation hills right upto the Kolukkumalai estate. The Tea Factory Visit includes a tour of the factory and tea. Open Mon-Sat 7am-6pm. Contact: 04546-283563.
Tata Tea Museum Less than a kilometre from Munnar, the Tea Museum is at the Nullathani Tea Estate. Open Tue-Sun 10am-4pm. Contact: 04865230562-65


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