A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 3: The Tea Museum

Note: Please look two posts down for Stop 2. I’m not sure why it isn’t appearing here.

Following our walk through the tea fields (See A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 2), and while Brian was hard at work grading assessments, Brianna and I went to the KDHP Tea Museum to see what happens to tea after it leaves the fields (no pun intended).

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The initial rooms of the museum contained a few artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th century that were of mild interest–furniture, photos, and such. The most interesting and informative aspects of the museum were placards explaining the history of the region and various aspects of tea lore and processing, the tour of the simulated factory, and the well produced film generated by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation (KDHP). (For those particularly interested in tea and corporate history, hang in ’til–or skip to–the end of the post.)

From our guide through the factory we learned that the addition of plenty of milk and sugar is not the only distinctive of Indian tea. Tea intended for domestic consumption is processed differently from that destined for export. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, a Brit (wouldn’t you know?) named William McKercher came up with the process in the 1930s. For CTC (“Cut, Tear, Curl”) tea, which accounts for most of KDHP’s production, the leaves are crushed more finely and then oxidized and dried at higher temperatures. The resulting tea brews fast and strong, accommodating that generous addition of milk and sugar quite nicely.

“Orthodox” leaves are left more intact and are said to produce more nuanced flavors than CTC, which is the primary subject of the process described below.

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“Withering”: Leaves are partially dried on this table, which blows air from below, for twelve to sixteen hours.

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The guide explained that the same trees planted in the 19th century are still cultivated today. According to him, the average life of a tea plant is 450 years, although some growing in China are up to 1500 years old.

After withering, these leaves are put through a series of machines (not shown) that roll and cut the leaves four or five times into progressively smaller particles.

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The resulting product, or “dhool,” is then sent for oxidation at low temperature and high humidity for 60 to 90 minutes. Enzymes and naturally occurring chemicals like flavonols that I don’t really understand but which give tea its characteristic aroma and taste are involved in the process. Green tea is subjected to high temperatures by steaming or roasting immediately after harvesting in order to arrest oxidation. While it is available in stores and touted for its health benefits, I haven’t observed many people drinking green tea here.

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Unoxidized dhool.

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After oxidation.

Orthodox tea is oxidized, at least by KDHP, for two to three hours without the aid of machinery.

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The round cylinder on the left is the oxidizer. The leaves being discharged are on their way to the drier.

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Drying machine

After drying the leaves are separated according to size in this nifty sorting machine.

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The leaves go in the top.

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A series of progressively finer screens blow the leaves out into buckets according to size, or grades.

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Sorted leaves

However, there is more to tea than just size gradation. Various signs at the museum and a chart in The Cup that Cheers present a dizzying array of possibilities, depending on whether the tea is whole leaf, broken, or dust (finest cut), just for starters. Other qualities are determined by the color, the portion of the plant (bud, first leaf, stalk) from which the tea is harvested, the time of year it was harvested, the location in which it was grown, whether it was processed under optimal temperature and time conditions, and more.

On the subject of tea cultivation, our guide said that tea bushes are actually trees, but they are kept short to facilitate tending and harvesting. Also, we had noticed that the tea fields were dotted with tall, gangly trees that sometimes gave a shaggy appearance to the otherwise well-groomed hillsides. These, we learned, are either eucalyptus or silver oak, positioned to provide the shade required for healthy tea plants.

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Those whose curiosity about tea has been satisfied can sign off now. Those interested in the history of tea in the region can read on.

According to The Cup that Cheers, a booklet published by KDHP, tea was first planted in the Kanan Devan Hills in the High Range of Kerala in the 1880s. Those responsible were British officers, whose research determined that the climate, elevation, and slope of the region was ideal for tea cultivation.

The KDHP museum film detailed numerous shifts in ownership and business. According to its promotional literature, when the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation company was formed in 2005, it acquired the majority of the Munnar area plantations from Tata Tea. The Tata group had bought out previous owners, the Finlay Co., in 1976 and established an organic tea factory in 1983. KDHP thus became “the first and largest participatory management company in India, with more than 12,500 employees as shareholders” (Tea Museum sign).

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According to one informant with close ties to employees, that is not necessarily as good as it sounds. But the film (of course) presented the company as working to nurture environmental responsibility, quality education for the children of employees, and job opportunities for the alternately abled.  It sounds like a noble goal, in any case.

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