A royal treat: Tracking handcrafted Indian teas

By: Madhulika Dash

A sight of the morning dew settling on a new bud may be just another natural phenomenon for the uninitiated. But for those at Aloobari (one of the oldest tea gardens in the world), it's a hope for yet another specialty tea chapter. According to Orthodox tea making, a dew drop, or a shy sun ray is all that was required for tea planters to nurture and prune a tea plant differently – and create an invoice (breed of tea, as it is called in Darjeeling) that replicated the nuances of a premium wine, and colour too. It is this cardinal rule that is the secret behind producing one of the finest Darjeeling first flush and White teas. Of course the other is the artisanal skill with which these "selected" teas are handled while processing, which has led to the creation of many brands that we know today.

Take the Instance of the Ambootia Imperial White Tea, which like the famous Earl Grey Tea, was accidentally chanced upon. Story has it that back in 1989; a batch of tea was being thrown as they didn't pass the fermentation muster that most Darjeeling teas have to. Instead of throwing it all away, elaborates Shivaji Sen, a seasoned tea specialist with a career spanning a little over four decades, "Sanjay Bansal (scion to one of the oldest Tea Planter family and owner Ambootia) decided to process it again to see if a new variety of tea could be created. The leaves were hand rolled and sun dried carefully so as to not lose the essential oils in the leaves (Darjeeling tea leaves because of their little sizes and dormant weather can retain a lot of oil and hence the aroma and different flavour notes). The result was a small batch of White Tea, which till then only China was producing."

That little risk batch (15 kilos) proved to be a game changer. On the auction that year, it was Ambootia Imperial White which was chosen by the Japanese who found it on par with the Chinese variety. Till then India was known as the best black tea producer. In fact, our CTC is still considered to be the finest across the world. And just like that, says Sen, "India became the abode of limited edition white and oolong tea."

Since then India, along with its prized Darjeeling and Assam black tea, has produced some of the finer whites and oolongs like the Sivitar Cloud White Tea, which is made from the winter harvest through a unique style of roasting and semi fermenting, and Makaibari's Bai Mu Dan, which is considered to be the premium grade white tea that was first grown in Fujian region of China, and gets its name from the final colour of the tea leaves that resembles the hair of a new born baby. A good Bai Mu Dan or the White Peony as the West would call it is on steeping, when the liquor will attain the palest green almost white hue with aromas of a soft peony with the sweetness of honey and gooseberry.

So how does one know of a premium quality tea? Contrary to the common perception of colour and aroma, says Amit Mehta, tea sommelier and owner Chado Tea (India), "it is the appearance of the tea leaves that tells you the story of how the tea has been chosen, nurtured, plucked, processed and ultimately steeped."

Agrees Sen, who believes that the amount of oxygen allowed into the tea while steeping also affects the flavour of the tea. Little wonder that Rajah Banerjee, the former owner of Makaibari Tea Estate was reputed for giving his tea that breathing space that allowed his brew to have this unique aroma."

These delicate processes, says Mehta, "is what makes Japanese Matcha or Darjeeling First Flush such unique invoices." Like Matcha, the key essential of Chanoyu, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, is still ground into a fine milled, silky smooth powdered tea using a special stone pestle that is still handcrafted.

As for the Darjeeling first flush, the Champagne of Teas, the reason for the steep prize is the combination. Fascinatingly, the Darjeeling first flush aide the delicately treated tea leaves also has tea buds called tips, which gives it that interesting mélange of flavours. The first flush, say experts, is made of the first batch of the harvested bunch and usually hand rolled (or lightly rolled in machine) and goes through a slow withering process that last anywhere from 10-12 hours. This slow process is important so that the leaves still retain the green tinge, which, says Mehta, "are the oils that give the first flush its unique floral aromas and citrusy taste that can deviate towards the earthy flavours as well."

Of course, the use of differently oxidated leaves and tips come handy in creating different tea styles that are sought after not only for their aromas and health properties but also their characteristic flavours.

The Jamguri from Assam is a good example of how hand crafted tea. This Assam special is in demand for its malt-like full body and taste and was among the favourite for Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, who considered the tribal plant product his "best ADC" during his strenuous tenure in India."

Clearly, super specialty teas are not just brews with a steep price, but selection of premium tea leaves that are hand-picked by nature and hand crafted by tea masters to impart that "refreshingly amazing" flavour. Little wonder, such teas are called the new wines.