It was the super breakfast at Glenary’s that started my day. As I walked along the morning Nehru Road to the Mall, the flags of the Nations participating in the Soccer World Cup were flapping above my head bearing the success of the ‘Darjeeling – The World Cup Town’ parade held a month ago. I went past the Mall and took the Mall Road that leads towards Bhanu Bhawan. A Mini Van was waiting for me in front of the gate of the Bhanu Bhawan which would be taking me for a personal tour of the jewel of Darjeeling – TEA.
‘Darjeeling Tea’ is the best in the world and is produced in only about 87 Tea Gardens located near the city. Though they all come under the brand of Darjeeling Tea, the town itself has only one tea garden. The most renowned tea gardens of the region (Makaibari, Glenburn, Castleton, Gopaldhara) are located either near Kurseong or near Mirik. Happy Valley, the only tea garden in the town offers a guided tour to their garden and factory. The tour can be booked through their website or by calling a number and they offer free pickup and drop facility too.
As I approached the crossing in front of Bhanu Bhawan, I could spot the grey van with Happy Valley Logo on its back. I was the only one to go – off season benefit. We started for the estate. It is located on Lebong Cart Road near the Lloyd’s Botanical Garden and is also close to the Zoo. The car speeded past the Rajbhawan and Zoo before taking a narrow downward slope. The road was broken and the curves were very sharp. The driver, Santosh, expertly managed all odds and finally, I was looking at the board welcoming to the Tea Estate. It took only about 15 minutes from Mall to be here.
I already had a good idea about the history & character of Plantation of Tea in the Area from the Book; Darjeeling – A History of the World’s Greatest Tea but being in the garden and experiencing the production of tea is totally different from reading those in a book. Happy Valley or erstwhile Wilson Tea Estate was one of the earliest tea estates in the region. Plantation here started in 1850 and in 1854, the first batches of leaves were plucked for production of Tea. After Independence, Wilson Tea Estate came to Indian businessmen and changed its name to the present one. Within two decades, the estate stopped production facing massive loss. SP Bansal, a renowned businessman in the region and known for his capability of lifting loss-making tea gardens to profit took it over and it became a part of the Ambootia Group in 2007.
The sprawling Tea garden was below and standing in the back of the Factory, I could see the entire garden with a series of humans with large baskets hung from their head. They are the tea pluckers – a marginal workforce reserved completely for the women. One thing I felt standing there was the neatness of the tea garden. It is a fact about almost all tea gardens in Darjeeling. Because of its complex terrain, the gardens of Darjeeling are not as neat as those of Munnar. These one does not create a heavenly view from a distance as do the ones in the southern state of Kerala. The beauty of Darjeeling is hidden in the leaves – the flavour, aroma and taste of Darjeeling Tea cannot be found anywhere else in the World. The fun fact about Darjeeling Tea is that – the taste, flavour and colour of the tea vary across Tea Estates and even across seasons within a Tea Estate. The leaves are so influenced by the climate of the region that a tea from the same flush of the same estate may vary in two corresponding years.
‘Anita’, a pretty Nepali lady in her mid-twenties explained to me that ‘Flush’ is the term used to define the different harvesting seasons. The winter months – (December to February) don’t see any plucking. During this period, the bushes are trimmed and the premises are cleaned. The first harvesting or plucking happens in March & April (Spring Flush or First Flush). The Second Flush or the Summer flush teas are plucked in May & June till the monsoon starts. These two are the most precious of the teas as lack of moisture reduces production of leaves and the flavour and aroma are concentrated. The Monsoon Flush which goes until October is the largest in terms of production but poorest in terms of quality. Because of rainfall, the bushes produce a huge quantity of leaves which is inferior in terms of aroma and taste. The Autumn Flush which is the shortest flush and stays for only about two weeks in October-November before the Festival of Lights – Deepavali again produces superior quality leaves. Because of the inferior quality of monsoon flush, these teas are mostly blended with the ones from Autumn. Many tea tasters feel that if autumn flush teas are taken alone, they are the best teas in the region.
I had a detailed tour of the factory which started from the drying beds or withering beds where fresh leaves are laid and hot & cold airs are passed through these to reduce the excess moisture. As I was having a look, a basket of fresh leaves was poured in and laid in about 3-4 inch thick layer. These were there to stay for about 18 hours. Across the hall, few wooden machines were kept which, As Anita explained, were rolling machines used in earlier days and were operated with hand. These were in good shape and she showed me actually running the machines. The present-day rolling is done with automatic machines which were downstairs. I could see through the glass panels on the wall, two of the three rolling machines were operating. Rolling is a process, which breaks the leaves and brings the juices out. This juice is the one that gives tea its colour and taste. Just in front of the rolling machines, three long platforms were made with white vitrified tiles – about three feet wide and 20 feet long. Here, the broken tea leaves are spread so that the enzymes in the juice gets oxidised. Oxidisation is an essential step to make black tea whereas in the case of green tea – this step is skipped. The next step is drying which takes place in the next chamber. By a quick drying process, the juices are captured on the leaves and tea becomes ready for consumption. These factories carry on one additional step – grading which separates different sizes of leaves – whole leaves, broken leaves, dust and fannings. This is required for marketing. The whole leaves surely fetch the best prices while the dust and fannings are used in tea bags.
The wooden staircase leads us back to the upper level and inside the reception. Again the ladies gave warm smiles to us as I was taken in front of a table where six white bowls of tea were waiting for me. They were different in colour. I started from left and the first one – the lightest in colour was White Tea. These teas are made from the buds of the spring flush and that is why they create the best aroma but are not strong in colour. Then there was Green Tea, Authentic Black Tea, Roasted Black Tea, Rose Tea and Masala Tea. I took a spoonful of each, held them close to my nose to take a good account of the smell and took a deep slurp. It is said then unless you do a noise slurp touching as less tea as possible, you don’t get the actual flavours.
The White Tea was amazing in flavour. The black tea which was a first flush tea of this year also had an amazing smell in it – somewhat fruity & nutty I felt. I did not like the concept of rose tea or masala tea. It is true that we have a tendency of mixing herbs with tea which surely increases its benefits but the actual aroma of the tea is lost in the process and I did not like that – not at least with the ‘Queen of The Teas’.
Happy Valley teas are not available in the Indian Market as they export almost entire production to Europe. The only place to get these Teas is their outlet in the factory and I bought a small box of white tea. The tea tour was a lovely experience as I came to know a lot about tea production, it’s processing. As I was planning to say goodbye to the people in the counter – the long siren indicating the change of shift started to blow. The pluckers of the next shift were slowly getting down the slopes to take their places. I rode the van – the siren was still heard.
Tea Tour at Happy Valley:
- Timing: 9.30 am to 4.30 pm daily (Every 15 minutes)
- Duration: About 1 Hr.
- Cost: Rs.100/- per person
- How to Book: Happy Valley Website
- Phone: +918017700700
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S: As I came back from my tour, I read in the Newspaper that the workers in the tea estates of Darjeeling region went for an indefinite strike in demand of an increase in their daily wages. At present they get only about Rs. 100/- per day with which it is extremely difficult to sustain. Only a day later, a tea from Assam fetched Rs.39000/- per kg in an auction. Most tea estates of Darjeeling sell a majority of their teas overseas and get near about this money for their product. You can understand how much the workers are deprived of their rights.