The misty tea estates of Munnar

Lockhart Tea Estate is just one of many tea estates that surround the town of Munnar, situated in the Western Ghats in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

The steep hills of ‘misty Munnar’ are covered in the recognisable patterns of tea bushes, interspersed with rushing waterfalls – unless there has been an unusual period of dry weather. When I visited in March, instead of the promised view of the rapid torrents of the Attukad waterfalls, the falls were simply bare rock – and the same was true for several of the other waterfalls for which the area is well known.

According to the Indian Tea Association, there are 13,000 hectares planted with tea in the Munnar region, producing 27 million kg of tea per year, with elevations from 950 to 2,600 metres above sea level. Finlay acquired 33 tea estates in 1895, and in 1964 formed a collaborative group with Indian conglomerate Tata, the Tata-Finlay Group (now Tata Consumer Products). Tata’s tea plantations were transferred in 2005 to Kannan Devan Hils Produce Company, which today manages 16 estates spread over 8,600 hectares of land.

Another major producer in the region is Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. Reached by corkscrew roads and hairpin bends, the Lockhart estate was originally planted in 1879 by Baron George Otto Von Rosenberg and was among the first tea gardens to be planted in Munnar. Today the estate’s 645.25 hectares process 21 tonnes of tea per day, as well as housing a tea museum and home-stay bungalows for tourists.

My visit to the Lockhart tea estate began with a tour of the factory. Our guide explained that the factory only uses orthodox methods as opposed to the CTC (crush, tear, curl) method, which was invented in Assam and is widely used for black tea in India.

The factory produces white tea, green tea and different grades of black tea including OP (Orange Pekoe), TFP (Tippy Flowery Pekoe), and FD (Fine Dust). All its tea production is exported to 18 countries (mainly in Europe) and is used in 17 brands.

While leaves for white and green teas are plucked by hand, shears are used to cut the leaves for black tea. The bud used for the highly prized white tea does not undergo processing. The two leaves and a bud used for green tea are heated and then dried to stop fermentation. The leaves destined for black tea go through six processes: withering, rolling, fermentation, drying, sifting, and sorting.

We were able to see all of these processes during the factory tour. As part of the sifting process, once the tea leaves the dryer, electrostatic technology is used to remove the fibres. This by-product goes to make henna dyes that are used throughout India.

Pictured: the byproduct fibres, image: Neil McRitchie

Our tour ended with a cupping during which we tried the four main types of tea produced at Lockhart: the delicate white tea, the longer strands of Orange Pekoe, the bright TFP and the slightly harsher flavour of fine dust.

Lockhart is owned by Harrisons Malayalam Ltd, which has been part of the Indian RPG Group since 1988. Having acquired smaller companies and individual estates over many years, Harrisons Malayalam today produces 20 million kg of tea per year, in equal quantities of CTC and Orthodox teas. It has a planted area of 6,000 hectares in southern India, operating 13 tea estates and 11 factories. It also happens to be the country’s largest pineapple producer.

Of the many tea plantations around Munnar, the Kolukkamalai tea estate on the border of Keraala and Tamil Nadu is celebrated for being the highest in the world, at an altitude of 2,170 metres (7,120 ft) above sea level, which gives the tea a distinct, fresh flavour.

While perhaps not as celebrated as Assam or Darjeeling, the tea hills of Munnar are a beautiful part of India’s tea landscape. The cooler weather of hill station is popular with holiday makers escaping the heat of the Indian plains, and the local tea industry has taken advantage of this, with many tea estates offering tours, museums, and accommodation in the form of homestays or boutique hotels.

While Lockhart wasn’t proclaiming any particular sustainability credentials, Munnar as a whole is striving to recycle and reduce waste. Conservation efforts such as tree planting for shade, rewilding and nature sanctuaries have made Munnar a popular ecotourism destination. The Keralan city, Kochi, has the first airport to be fully run on solar power. For a British tourist escaping the cold and wet of the UK, this was a trip to remember.

  • Sarah McRitchie is the editorial director of Bell Publishing, parent company of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. She may be reached at: [email protected]. 

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