Nilgiri Tea Plantations

After our stint in Kerala, Andrew and I headed to the Nilgiri Mountains in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu for a luxury cooking homestay over the Christmas holiday. The towns of Ooty and Coonoor where we stayed have been used for tea cultivation since the time of British colonization. Our hosts treated us to a tour of the local plantations to learn how tea is made and produced. 

Most of the laborers on the tea plantations of the Nilgiris are Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamils are a ethnocultural group in southern Indian (and Sri Lanka) who primarily live in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The majority of the laborers are elderly, as the younger generations have sought out more lucrative and less back breaking labor in India’s urban centers. According to our host family, Tamil laborers earn about 250 rupees (about $4-5 USD) and pick about 20-30kg of tea leaves each day, either by hand or using shears. The region’s plantation owners need to find a new employment strategy to attract an entire new and younger labor force if the tea industry in the Nilgiris is to be sustained.

We learned that, despite the many varieties of “tea” you will find in a tea shop, there is actually only one true variety of tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The highest grade of leaves from this plant is orange pekoe. The same plant produces black tea, white tea, or green tea, depending on the process of how the tea is processed and dried. Green tea leaves are steamed or pan fried, whereas black tea is allowed to oxidize more before being dried. White tea is made from both tea leaves and buds and is minimally processed. Other types of tea are either your basic orange pekoe with additional flavorings (e.g. Earl Grey tea is orange pekoe with bergamot) or they’re “infusions” but not really tea, like your flower-based “teas” (chrysanthemum, hibiscus, chamomile, etc.) or herbals “teas” (peppermint, rooibos, etc).

Leaves of high quality tea are rolled rather than chopped like your standard mass produced Lipton tea bag. Unlike wine, where the type of soil, weather, grape, and aging process used can hugely vary the quality of the final product, the only variable that affects tea leaf quality is how young the tea leaves are picked. If the leaf harvester deftly picks only the best leaves on the top of the plant which are continuously re-growing, she will have a fine orange pekoe. If the harvester draws from leaves beneath the top layer, often using giant scissors to harvest, the tea leaf will be of lower quality.

While at our homestay, I was offered my fill of freshly brewed, organic Orange Pekoe regularly throughout the day and readily took advantage of the offer. High quality tea is supposed to be like fine wine, full of nuances that make your standard Lipton tea bag look like the equivalent of Two Buck Chuck. As a tea-lover, I was eager to experience the gourmet side of what a good orange pekoe has to offer, unadulterated with my usual milk and sugar. Yet after my sixth or seventh cup of perfectly steeped brew, consumed with wafting hand and upturned nose, I came to an unexpected conclusion: fancy orange pekoe tastes kind of boring.  

Sure, it is much milder than it’s tannin-heavy Lipton stuff and quite palatable to drink without additives. Still, I was left grasping for that hint-of-vanilla/mulberry-undertone/grassy-finnish/umami notes I thought to expect. I found none of the comforting or refreshing flavors I prefer from my usual “infusions.” I think I’ll stick to peppermint, though perhaps I’m less erudite and more troglodyte than I thought.