Stunning. This word alone describes my overall impression with the region around vibrant Munnar in the Western Ghat mountains, a relatively small mountain town surrounded with tea plantations and forest reserves which are recognized as a UNESCO Global Biodiversity hotspot. Saturday morning we were surprised to find a line of five 4WD Mahindra Commanders (Indian Jeeps) waiting to take us further into the mountains to the Research and Development Centre of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Co (KDHP). Nearby, a couple of inches of snow had fallen just the day before (!) and as we approached the R & D facility we saw that the tops of some of the tea shrubs had taken on a reddish hue as a result of the frost damage that occurred over the past week. The scenery along our route was truly breathtaking and like no landscape I had ever seen. Cultivation of tea began in this part of India less than 150 years ago, and yet the mountains are literally covered with tea bushes interspersed with silver oak, which provides partial shade to the plants.
Upon arrival at KDHP, we enjoyed an excellent presentation describing the unique company culture. KDHP is the largest tea company in South India, and it’s extensive land holdings comprise 60,000 acres of tea plantations that yield 25 million kg of leaves per year. The plantations encompass a wide range of microclimates, with the best quality tea growing at the highest elevations with the least annual rainfall. The 11,500 employees are part of a unique participatory management business model and own 55% of the company shares. The best employees are identified each year and elected to the director’s board to participate in decision making for the company. Employee housing, primary education, and scholarship opportunities are all provided for free. Employees and local “Muthuvan” tribe members alike are provided with free healthcare. Altogether, 40,000 people in the area benefit directly or indirectly from the company’s activities. And, if KDHP’s social mission wasn’t impressive enough, the company has a strong commitment to environmental conservation in the region and encourages biodiversity research and reforestation initiatives. It’s hard to believe that such a benevolent company exists in today’s world, but KDHP is proof that such a business model can and does work effectively.
The presentation went on to describe the agronomic and biochemical properties of the tea plant. We learned that the key to robust tea flavor was the high levels of polyphenols in the leaves, which are highest in the top three leaves and emerging buds of the plants. The five different types of tea that were described to us (white, green, oolong, black “orthodox”, and black CTC – “crush, tear, curl”) differed not in their cultivars but in their processing. By processing in different ways, tea leaves are oxidized differently and emit a diverse variety of volatile flavor compounds. We learned that white tea is a perfect example of a “value-added” product, in that only the topmost leaf is harvested and then minimally processed. Only 400 kg per year of white tea is harvested. In comparison, classic green tea is collected at the rate of 40-60 kg per day, and is sold at a price approximately a hundred times less than that of white tea. The biochemical properties of each tea are carefully measured with an impressive array of analytical instruments onsite, and tissue culture facilities are available as well.
After the presentation, the group enjoyed some tea and cake before heading out to the tea plantation. The women working in the field demonstrated two alternative harvesting techniques: using their two hands to pluck the top three leaves plus the emerging bud, or by using special shears that had a sort of basket attached to harvest tea leaves more rapidly. Hand-plucking occurs once every fifteen days, and workers pluck a maximum of 100 tea bushes per day. The oldest tea bushes on the plantation date to 1877, and these are still producing tea leaves (!), although the more recent plantings yield tea leaves that are more consistent in their overall quality. After the demonstration, the students paired up for a tea plucking contest! It was a very competitive match, and although most students followed the rules, some of the more unscrupulous students may have colluded with some of the fieldworkers based on the enormous amounts of tea leaves collected by a certain few.
Next, we headed to one of KDHP’s factories to see how CTC tea is processed, which comprises 60% of the company’s sales. The tea leaves are at 35% moisture when plucked, and upon arrival at the factory they’re first fed through metal rollers to crush the leaves. Afterwards, they’re placed on mesh to remove the moisture from the crushed leaves using large fans. This oxidizes the leaves and turns the color from green to black. As the “fermentation” process proceeds (not “true” fermentation) the leaves are continuously monitored for taste and smell, then the reaction is arrested at 130º C at the appropriate time to retain the desired aroma and flavor. The leaves are subsequently sorted by size; course tea leaves are preferred in North India and result in a lighter cup of tea, while finer leaves or tea dust is preferred in South India and produces a bolder, darker tea. The leaves are then quickly vacuum-packed. Before leaving the factory, tea quality is assessed by tea experts at the company using evaluation parameters such as leaf appearance, tea color (both with and without milk added), and most importantly, taste.
Overall, it was a truly fascinating and informative day, and if you ever have the opportunity to visit the Western Ghat mountains, do yourself a favor and experience this naturally beautiful part of the world yourself!
Kevin Ahern, PhD. Student,
Plant Breeding & Genetics