South India Teas: Attraction is Growing in the West – and the East

Generating around 20 percent of the Indian tea production, the tea gardens in the south of the subcontinent are mostly located on the high slopes of the Western Gath mountain ridge. Surrounded by great biodiversity in beautiful landscapes and benefitting from specific climatic exposure, these fine black teas offer intense fragrance, brisk liquor and great strength.

According to the data published by the Tea Board of India for 2013-14, the country’s tea output totalled 1,208,800 metric tonnes (mt) of which 243,700 mt are produced in the three most southern states of India. Ranking first is Tamil Nadu, facing Sri Lanka across the Strait of Jaffna, with a production of 174,700 mt of tea, followed by Kerala, on the West coast with 63,840 mt. Karnataka, which is also India’s main coffee-producing state, ranks third with 5,500 mt of tea. The tea estates are concentrated in the high and medium mountain areas, which occur in the southern part of the Western Ghats, with six specific tea regions. By far the biggest tea-producing region is on the slopes of the Nilgiri Hills, or Blue Mountains followed by the lower ranges of the Anamallais Hills or Elephant Mountains and then Munnar with its high ranges, Travancore, the Wayanad Hills and the area around Chikmagalur in Karnataka. With the biggest regional crop and a distinctive quality profile the Nilgiri teas have been granted a registered logo and Geographical Indication by the Tea Board of India.

The long coastal ridge of the Western Ghats is amongst the globe’s hottest hotspots of biodiversity and has been registered as UNESCO heritage site in 2012. Hence the tea, coffee, rubber, pepper and cardamom plantations are under scrutiny for keeping further expansion under control. Tea is however recognized to be the least invasive of these traditional commercial crops, with the first tea gardens created by British business men in the late 1860, which have become legendary terroirs, such as Thiashola, Dunsandle, Glenmorgan or Korakundah Tea Estates, the latter being the world’s highest with an altitude above 2,600 meters.

Most of the hill stations, like Coonoor, Ooty and Munnar were founded in the 1830s by the British military and civilian administrations as mountain resorts in order to offer escape from the hot summer in the plains and the trading ports. Commercial agriculture followed shortly thereafter. According to planting conditions the choice was either coffee on the lower grounds or tea in the high growing areas. The current pattern, including rubber and spices, was well established by the end of the 19th century and further fostered by the creation of the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) as early as 1893.

UPASI administered these crops from the three South Indian states and their 13 growing districts, with the intent to promote agricultural and planting knowledge, trade, commerce and industry. UPASI also set up the Tea Research Institute in 1936 in order to ensure the best possible progress and improvements of the tea cultivation. With India’s independence in 1947, the UPASI was again instrumental in further favourable developments. Recently, restructuring and globalization has allowed for the tea majors to share the premises with local corporations and also the thousands of small holders who deliver their daily leaf load to the estates and to the bought-leaf factories.

With the view to enhance tea quality and to promote South Indian teas, the Tea Board of India, together with UPASI, runs an annual quality competition called the Golden Leaf Award. The 12tth event took place in April 2016, during the sixth Global Dubai Tea Forum. Five private tea estates from the Nilgiris won awards for the quality of their tea production in the different tea categories: United Nilgiri Tea Estates Company Limited, Hittakal Group, Woodbriar Group, Darmona Tea Industry and Kodanad Estate. All the 56 short-listed teas from southern India that had qualified during the first and second level of screening were evaluated by an international jury comprising renowned tasters and major buyers including Nick Revett of Twining & Co Ltd, UK; Richard Smyth of Tea Trading International, UAE; and Yahia Beyad of Britannia Tea, UK.

Tasting the Uniqueness

As for most agricultural crops, the altitude and climatic exposure of the estates significantly impact the cups, therefore they vary accordingly with assessed terroir specificities. As Rajiv Lochan, CEO of Lochan Tea located in Siliguri, Darjeeling, West Bengal commented, “The range of cup qualities starts with the delicate floral notes lingering with the high grown quality in a cup of golden yellow for the Nilgiri high-altitude teas, and then the sweet biscuit notes with a dip of malt in a brisk golden yellow cup with orange undertone, as produced around Munnar.” In the high ranges, the teas from the lower elevation of the Anamallais offer a malty aroma in a saffron golden cup with robust and vibrant briskness, while the Karnataka tea slopes are known for their balanced and tasty cups. “Whilst being distinct they are all delicious with each appealing to a given consumer palate and preference,” he said.

Unlike in Assam and the other North Indian tea-production areas, where bushes have a resting period called the winter dormancy, plucking goes on year round in South India, same as in Sri Lanka and East Africa. “It is a fact that the vast majority of the plant material today is of the Assamica type, which has replaced the China bushes throughout the past decades,” said Indi Khanna, CEO of Tea ’n’ Teas, located in Coonoor, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. “With the continuous rise in production costs, the big leaf varieties that yield higher volume are an economic choice. This also implies that the few remaining gardens with China hybrids of the small leaf variety attract attention and higher prices.”

The tea output in South India is divided into Orthodox leaf tea, with approximately 20 percent and CTC teas with approximately 80 percent, with a small specialty-teas niche in between, some of which are green teas, teas like silver tips and also the famous Nilgiri Frost Teas.

The latter are a small seasonal harvest from the China cultivar CR6017, listed as UPASI only the tender-most new shoots enter the factory. In  the factory, a very hard wither reduces the moisture content in the leaf by as much as 65 percent. Since the relatively thick stem of the CR6017 absorbs more moisture than with most other cultivars, this hard wither results in the leaf-borders becoming quickly completely dry. The extremities of the leaf flake off during the rolling process. It is these green flakes that bestow the unique green characteristics to the flavour profile and generate the outstanding and complex fragrance of the Nilgiri Frost Tea cup.”

Given their unique flavour profiles and complexities, South Indian teas are increasingly attracting more Western and new Eastern consumers. Most of the specialty tea brands in the western high quality clonal variety for South India. Whilst plucking goes on for the 12 months of the year, in the winter months the high altitude brings frost and cold to the Nilgiri estates, which slows down the growth of the buds considerably. According to Khanna, who specialises in these premium teas, “This forces the plants to react. In order to cope with that stress, the plant sends loads of nutritious starches to the new buds to help them to grow and to unfold slowly during the cold but sunny daytime followed by frosty night, which prevail during the months of January and February. These ongoing stress conditions result in complex and fragrant flavour compounds that enrich the juices of the leaves. In order to enhance that special crop a fine pluck is carried out, so that markets carry single-estate leaf teas from South India in their portfolio. The fine CTC teas are also ideal for blending with their smooth fragrance and brisk cups. The current modern e-auctions offer ideal trade facilities, with the Coonoor auction centre as the leader, followed by Kochi and Coimbatore. The reputation of the fine South Indian black teas is well established in the West and has now started to attract the Eastern green tea drinkers, who are keen to discover the different regional cups.

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