Happy in Happy Valley Tea Estate, Darjeeling
Spiralling down the serpentine and incredibly narrow roads of Darjeeling while carefully clutching the rear side of the seat ahead I look through the window to see vast expanses of not so lush pruned tea shrubs waiting to flourish once spring is here. It’s a cold February morning and the sky is like a painting of clouds playing hide and seek. Binay, the driver happily remarks “Madam, Happy Valley Tea Estate.”
Before me is a beautiful white and red structure akin to the age old Tea Factories in Darjeeling. At the entrance is a huge banner depicting Happy Valley Tea Estate in its full glory some time when snow covered the perfectly symmetrical tea shrubs. I wish it were snowing right now.
The tea factory looks strangely desolate. I walk up to the ticket counter at the entrance and see two young women chattering away to their heart’s delight. I enquire about the tickets and purchase one while I am asked to wait for the guide. I go for a quick tour around to see the slopes carpeted in green tea plantation. The sight isn’t as pretty as it were back in August when I last visited but believe me there is probably nothing more beautiful than the slopes of the hills in Darjeeling covered in tea shrubs. I make a little mental note of coming back when the time is right.
I return to the counter to inquire about my guide and it seems Hema is going to be the one, the same girl who handed me the ticket at the counter. Hema starts the tour with a little history about how Happy Valley was initially known as Wilson Tea Estate and belonged to an Englishman Mr David Wilson. It wasn’t until 1903 that an affluent Bengali gentleman Mr T.P. Banerjee purchased the Wilson Tea Estate and later combined it with the adjacent Windsor Tea Estate in the year 1929 to make Happy Valley the tea estate it is today.
The fact that British introduced tea to India is something we all should remain grateful for. Our very own Chai wouldn’t have been a reality if it weren’t for the Camellia Sinensis seeds and saplings from China that flourished in the Indian soil. Furthermore, the idyllic climatic condition and perfect altitude of Darjeeling gave its tea the superiority that it enjoys today worldwide.
Happy Valley produces 100% organic tea. 95 % of the tea produced here is exported to countries like the U.K., Germany and Japan and is sold under the brand name of Happy Valley Tea. The sad part is that it’s not available for domestic consumption. However, you may purchase the remaining 5% Happy Valley Tea from the tea boutique located within the factory premises.
What is a Tea Flush?
Talking about the distinct flavour and aroma of the Darjeeling Tea, Hema mentions the criticality of every Tea Flush. Darjeeling Tea essentially has four different Tea Flushes. A Tea Flush is nothing but the harvesting season of the tea leaves every year. These four different flushes are responsible for the distinct flavours of tea that we all drink.
- First Flush or the Spring Flush: Harvested during the Spring Season, the tea obtained is very flavoursome and has a distinct aroma.
- Second Flush or the Summer Flush: Harvested during the summer months, the tea obtained is essentially stronger in aroma and taste.
- Third Flush or the Monsoon Flush: The tea shrubs absorb a lot of moisture during the monsoon. As a result, the flavour and aroma of the tea obtained during this time of the year are mellow.
- Fourth Flush or the Autumn Flush: The autumn months produce the strongest aromatic tea because the hot and humid period enhances the caffeine and tannin content in the tea leaves.
We proceed to the factory where Hema further elucidates the various steps that take place simultaneously to produce the magical Darjeeling Tea. The interior gives a vintage feel with the wooden floors and stairs. There are plenty of prototypes of age-old tea processing machinery kept on display alongside the machinery that is used at present. Since I visited during the winter months I couldn’t witness any ongoing processing. If you want to see the processing then you must visit between March to November.
Before we go ahead with the processing she carefully remarks that Happy Valley produces only the three orthodox varieties of Tea and not the CTC variety. The Black Tea, Green Tea and White Tea are the end products of the same tea leaves but with variation in their processing that includes or excludes few steps. Described below is the processing of Black Tea.
‘Ek Kali Do Patte’ or ‘ One Needle Two Leaves’ are the most important element of these numerous tea shrubs. The tea pluckers are trained at plucking only these components and fill it in the basket weaved of bamboo called Duku.
The withering takes place on a turf where the plucked leaves are spread and blow dried with hot and cold air. This process removes 75% moisture and renders the leaves flexible enough to facilitate its rolling. The cold air is first blown for nine hours at a temperature of -18 degree Celsius which helps in controlling the photosynthesis and thereafter the hot air is blown at a controlled temperature of 30-35 degree Celsius to dry the leaves. The cold air is blown from underneath the turf and an overhead chimney kind of a structure is used to blow the hot air from above.
To explain rolling Hema takes me to me the 19th Century Prototype kept on the left-hand side of the room. Rolling is basically done to rupture the cells of the tea leaves to release the enzymes stored in them which initiate the oxidisation process. The prototype has a void at the centre where the tea leaves used to be filled in and a wooden handle with a circular end was placed over the centre to apply pressure while two people rotated the handle in the clockwise direction. This process worked wonders in rupturing the cells and releasing the enzymes. However, at present, bigger machinery is used for the same.
Oxidisation and Fermentation
The rolled leaves are then left to dry on an open surface. The oxidisation which gets initiated during rolling continues further in this process. Oxidisation gives black tea the black colour characteristic to it. The green tea and white tea do not undergo this process.
After the oxidisation tea leaves are further heated over a conveyor belt to control the ongoing oxidisation in the cells. This is done so that the flavour and aroma of the tea are not lost due to excessive oxidisation.
Sorting and Grading
This is the final step which is done using a machine that has a conveyor belt with four layers of sieves. The four layers separate the tea into whole leaves, broken leaves, fannings and tea dust. The whole leaves are packed in pyramid tea bags, the broken leaves are packed in packets and used as leaf tea and the fannings and dust are packed into the tea bags and used as tea dips. The whole leaves are the most expensive ones.
To obtain green tea there is an exclusion of the Withering as well as the Oxidisation and Fermentation process. Since Green Tea is known for its higher content of antioxidants it is imperative that these two processes be excluded. The tea leaves are plucked and directly sent for heating. The heating over the conveyor belt happens at the same temperature as in the case of black tea with just the speed of the conveyor belt being greater. The tea leaves are then rolled and again heated to prevent further oxidisation as initiated by the rolling. The final step again is sorting and grading.
White Tea is known for its rich antioxidant properties and is also known as Dancing Tea or Silvertips. The needle part is the storehouse of rich antioxidants and is thus a critical element of the white tea. It is plucked only during the spring flush and is, therefore, a rare find and expensive. It only undergoes the steps of Plucking, Withering, Heating and Packaging. It may not exude a fragrant aroma while brewing or change its colour after brewing but is extremely beneficial to health due to its low caffeine content and higher antioxidant content.
My tour of the factory came to an end and finally to the part I was eagerly waiting for. Now that I knew which tea is what I wanted to see and taste them. This was my first tea tasting. Hema guided me to the part where four different types of tea were laid out in white bowls and their leaves kept on display. I was supposed to start with Suchong Green Tea, followed by first flush black tea, then second flush black tea and finally, the rose blended green tea. (I loved each one of them).
Now comes the fun part. She further explained that the perfect way to taste tea is with a loud slurp. Take a deep breath and with one loud slurping motion and sound sip a generous amount of tea into your mouth. The deep breath helps you smell the aroma and the slurping motion helps you mix oxygen with the tea you just ingested. As we learnt above that oxidisation helps release the enzymes in the tea leaves that enhance its flavour and aroma similarly oxygen intake with a slurp also enhances the flavour of the tea in your mouth. Now I will never judge a man or a woman who enjoys his/her tea with loud slurping noises. Tea tasting is no less than an art and no wonder the tea tasters around the world mint money by just slurping their way to life. What a cool job no?
I wish my time at the Happy Valley Tea Estate never ended. I wonder what will the air around the factory feel like once the processing is in full swing. I wonder how beautifully verdant and captivating the tea plantations look like when they grow. I am definitely going back to pluck my share of Ek Kali Do Patte and see the entire processing once again.
How crazy are you for your cup of tea? Have you been to a tea estate before? Have you ever tasted the tea at a tea tasting or at a factory? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments. I would love to know about them. Until then keep slurping and keep travelling while I go and enjoy my cup of chai. Chai anyone?
Location: Happy Valley Tea Estate, T.P. Banerjee Road, Darjeeling, India
Hours open: 8 am to 4 pm on weekdays. Sundays closed.
Entry Fee: Rs 100 per person for a guided tour and tea tasting.