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White Teas From India

by Rajesh Agarwala

White teas are traditionally a product of China’s tea plantations. The most expensive and rare of that country’s teas, the tender silvery-green buds are gathered in the spring in the very brief span of time between the new buds forming and just before they start to open. The leaves used for the most expensive, top quality white tea can be up to one inch long and are from two varieties of the Chinese tea bush-the Shui Hsien and the Dai Bai.

Once plucked, the buds are steamed to kill off the enzymes that would otherwise cause the tea to deteriorate, and then dried-sometimes in the sun. The best of these delicate teas give a very pale yellow infusion and a gentle soft mellow flavor. Teas made from the smaller buds and attached leaves give a more orangey liquor that has a sweet, light taste.

POOBONG TEA ESTATE

Poobong Estate, established by the British in 1899, sits on one of Darjeeling’s highest peaks, where it feels as if the sky is within the reach of your fingertips and at night the stars twinkle close to your head. The garden is located at Ghoom, which has the highest railway station in the world. The name is Tibetan for “Valley behind the Clouds” and the estate is famous for its lush, green velvet valley where orchids grow wild among the tall pine trees. Because of the altitude, the garden is enshrouded in fog and mist almost all the time, and sometimes it is difficult to find your way through the dense cloud.

The tea grows at heights ranging from 2,500 to 4,500 ft, and most of the plantation is planted with Chinese tea bushes of superior quality. The garden covers 1,000 acres but only 500 of these are under tea. Annual production is 70,000 kg of tea.

The tea bushes at Poobong were originally brought from China to the British. Some of those first bushes are still growing on the estate, but they have become very old and give very little leaf. But the quality is still good, so we gather seeds and cuttings from those plants that give the best quality, and use them to nurture baby plants in the nursery. After 15 months, these new plants are set out in the field and then left to mature for six or seven years before any plucking is carried out. Poobong has, in the past, specialized in growing baby clonal plants to supply other Darjeeling gardens. One famous customer was Temi in Sikkim, an Indian tea estate up until 1969.

POOBONG WHITE TEAS

Pawan Agarwala, director of Poobong Tea Co. Ltd. (on the left) with two visitors to the garden.
After several years of research and development, Poobong Tea Estate is successfully producing oolong and white teas. The plants used have been developed from the Chinese variety of the tea bush using no chemicals-only cow dung manure. Special treatment ensures that the teas do not lose their subtle natural flavor during the manufacturing process.

To produce “white” teas at Poobong, two leaves and a bud are gathered just before sunrise so that they still have some moisture on their surface. In traditional tea making, each picker gathers between one and five kilograms in one day, but for the manufacture of white teas, they pluck only a quarter of a kilogram. So seven days of picking are needed to make eight kilos of white tea. We maintain a seven-day plucking round from March to the end of November.

Once the leaves have been gathered into the workers’ baskets, they are immediately transported to the factory where they undergo special treatment before being rolled. After rolling, they are put through the dryer and are then sorted into different grades.

The various grades include SFTGFOP-1 (Special Flowery Tippy Golden Orange Pekoe), STGBOP-1 (Special Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe), TGOF (Tippy Golden Orange Fannings), and Dust. TGOF and Dust are used in teabags while the other grades are sold loose.

Darjeeling white teas are the very best of premium Darjeeling teas. The dried buds are a very pale silvery green and give a liquor that is very light green in color and soft in the mouth.

Darjeeling produces between 8 and 10 million kg of tea every year, almost all of which are exported to customers all over the world. There is very little Darjeeling tea for consumption by Indian people who instead tend to drink teas grown at lower elevations in Terai, Dooars and Assam.

Poobong depends entirely on the export market and sells to a wide range of tea shops, brokers, merchants, importers and private individuals around the world-mainly in the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Australia, Denmark, Canada, and Japan. Minimum quantities of one kilogram are sent with no extra transportation costs added and Poobong teas can be ordered by e-mail. We also organize individual or group visits for anyone interested in the plantation and the manufacturing of our teas. Our head office in Calcutta can also arrange free tastings of Darjeeling teas.

LIFE FOR THE WORKERS

The garden is so high and remote that the local inhabitants and tea pickers have very little contact with the outside world. There are 500 permanent workers at Poobong, many of whom come from families who have been working on the estate for generations. Not all the employees are engaged in picking. They are also involved in weighing the freshly picked green leaves, the manufacturing process in the factory, spraying the bushes, maintenance of roads, security, postal delivery, and some work as staff in the bungalows and offices.

The female pickers wake up at 4am, and do all their housework before setting off for the day on the steep slopes of the tea garden. Life on the estate is very simple. The company provides all the pickers with a two-bedroom house with a kitchen, bathroom and kitchen garden where the families grow vegetables and cardamom. They grow enough vegetables to support themselves throughout the year, so they do not need to buy at the market. They also keep cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, which supply them with meat and dairy products. What they don’t consume themselves, they sell for extra income. The company subsidizes the workers with rations of wheat and rice.

Poobong Tea Company also provides free medical treatment for all the workers and their families, runs a small dispensary with a doctor and a nurse, and pays for any hospital treatment required by the employees. Free schooling is provided for children up to the age of 14, and after that some of the students continue their education at schools or colleges in the nearby town.

Maternity benefits available for all female workers, who get paid leave, and there is a crčche for babies and small children where free milk and biscuits are provided. A club organizes sports and other social activities, and football and cricket matches are a regular occurrence between Poobong and neighboring gardens.

For more information about Poobong Tea Company Limited, to arrange visits to the garden or to organize tastings at the Calcutta office, please contact Rajesh Agarwala via e-mail: poobong@vsnl.com


Tea & Coffee - December/January 2001
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