War, subterfuge and a nice cup of tea

War, subterfuge and a nice cup of tea

War, subterfuge and a nice cup of tea

Tea arrived in the UK in the early seventeenth century but it had a slow start. It was very expensive and was marketed primarily for its medicinal properties. It also tasted bad. The stuff was originally taxed in liquid form therefore it had to be made at the beginning of each day, stored in wooden casks until it had been assessed and reheated when served. It started to become fashionable after Charles II married the Portuguese Princess and tea addict Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Her dowry included the ports of Bombay, Tangier, the right to trade in Brazil and a chest of tea.

By that time it was being taxed in leaf form so at least it could be brewed to order thus improving the taste immeasurably. It was still expensive but its popularity continued to grow and by the middle of the eighteenth century it had become a national addiction. The problem was that despite Britain’s vast empire tea didn’t grow anywhere in it. Tea had to be bought from China. Since the Chinese were not interested in trade it had to be paid for with silver. This put tremendous strain on the British coffers but eventually, the British East India Company, who had held the monopoly on the tea trade until 1833, found a product that the Chinese would buy. Opium.

War, subterfuge and a nice cup of tea
The town of Darjeeling with Mt Kanchenjunga at 8,586 metres (28,169 ft) in the background.

The Company controlled all aspects of opium production in India but since it was illegal in China it was handed off to private traders who would ship it to Whampoa, the only port open for trade. From there it was transferred to smaller boats for distribution in Canton (now Guangzhou). The opium was sold for cash which in turn paid for the tea. Opium had been used in China for centuries but by the end of the 1830s it had become an epidemic.

The Emperor sent an emissary, Lin Xezu, to Canton to stop the trade. Lin arrested 1,600 people, dunked some three million pounds of the drug in the river and watched the tides sweep it out to sea. In response, the British launched the first Opium War in 1839 which ended three years later with the Treaty of Nanking. This compelled the Chinese to open five more ports and cede Hong Kong where the British would be free from Chinese Jurisdiction. A second opium war of 1856, forced them to legalise the drug entirely.

Nevertheless, it had become obvious that a new source of tea needed to be found. A breakthrough came when a different sub-species was found growing in the tropical regions of Assam in northeast India. Gardens were cultivated and tea is produced there to this day. But Assam is a robust, malty brew, not the delicate fragrant brews that the Chinese leaves produced.

Several attempts had been made to smuggle seeds and plants out of China but they had all died en route. In 1848 the East India Company recruited a young Scottish botanist called Robert Fortune. Fortune was already experienced in collecting plants in China. He knew that, to be successful, he would need to travel to the interior far beyond the five port areas where foreigners were allowed. To accomplish this he shaved his head, wrapped himself in Chinese robes with a long pigtail sewed to the back and had his servants introduce him as a respected businessman from beyond the Great Wall.

In this disguise, he made several trips to tea-growing regions sending seeds and seedlings back to Calcutta. The first consignment all died. Later he used large glass cases that acted as mini greenhouses and protected the precious cargo on its long journey. On his final excursion, he also collected all the necessary tools for successful tea production and hired experienced tea planters. The first gardens were established in the Himalayan foothills above Saharanpur, about 200 kilometres north of New Delhi.

Dr Archibald Campbell, superintendent of the newly established Darjeeling municipality in north-east India, planted both Chinese and Assam seeds in his garden. Both flourished, the Chinese seed doing unexpectedly well. A few other residents in the region followed suit and by 1853 there were several thousand plants ranging from seedlings to 12-year-old bushes growing in the area between Darjeeling town and Kurseong. By the end of the decade, and with government support, half a dozen tea gardens had been established. The first factory, which is still in operation today, was opened in 1859 on the Makaibari estate.

The making of a perfect cuppa

Tea from Darjeeling is often called the Champagne of teas. Not only is it sold as a single estate tea but also by the flush, or the time of the year it was harvested. All of the tea produced in other parts of India and most of the world is processed using the automated crush, tear, curl method (CTC). A machine cuts the leaves into small pieces and rolls them into small pellets. Only Darjeeling and the more exclusive teas from China are still processed using the orthodox, or traditional method.

Makaibari tea factory
After spending the night on the withering beds the leaves are sent to the rolling machines.

In Darjeeling, there are four distinct seasons, called flushes, when the leaves are harvested. The first is spring flush, leaves are plucked between March and May while the second, or summer flush, is during June and July. Monsoon flush lasts from July through to September and autumn flush is plucked from then until late November. Each flush has distinct characteristics. Spring produces a delicate, light-coloured liquor while summer is more full-bodied and darker.

Plucking, rather the picking, is the industry terminology. Only the top two newest leaves and the unfurled leaf buds are taken. It takes 22,000 of these to make a kilogram of tea.

After the leaves are brought to the factory they are placed in long shallow troughs through which air is blown in a process called withering. This is usually done overnight during which time around 70% of the total moisture content will be removed.

Makaibari tea factory
The leaves are rolled in a circular motion to break the cells ready for fermentation.
Makaibari tea factory

The next process is rolling. This is handled by large, archaic looking-machines. The leaves are poured in from the top and fall between two large circular plates which move in opposite directions in a circular motion. The purpose is to break open the cells so that the cell fluids and essential oils come into contact with the air. This begins the fermentation process.

After rolling the leaves for black tea are left on clean shallow trays and left to ferment, or oxidise, for anywhere between 2-4 hours. This is where the leaves develop their distinct aroma. The tea needs constant monitoring and considerable skill on behalf of the ‘Tea Maker’ to know exactly when to send it off to the dryer. Green teas skip the fermentation process and go directly to the dryer. Oolong teas are semi-fermented.

Makaibari tea factory
The leaves are dried by passing them through a chamber where air of 120 degrees centigrade is blown over them.

Drying lasts about twenty minutes. The leaves are placed on a conveyor and passed through a hot air chamber.

Once dry the leaves are sorted. They are placed into a large multilayered sieve-like machine. The whole leaves remain on the top layer whilst everything else falls through to a finer mesh. Here the broken leaves are caught whilst the fragments, called fannings, drop through to the third layer. All that passes through to the fourth and final layer is the dust. The fannings and dust brew a stronger liquor and are mostly used for blended teas and tea bags.

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