Plucking, withering, rolling, fermenting, tasting — the writer experiences it all with Swaraj Banerjee, the long-term chairman of the world’s first accredited fully organic tea garden Makaibari. Its picturesque mystic location in the Himalayan slopes of Darjeeling and the writer’s conversance with the tea variety and history remain as energising as a cup of aromatic Makaibari tea!
By Somashis Gupta
“…..Babu bole kam kam,
Sardar bole dhori ann
Sahib bole libo pither cham,
o joduram faki dia cholaili Assam.”
This song superbly delineates the life of the labour back in the 1830s. Though the British Government abolished all forms of slavery in 1833, the tyrant garden owners had ways to continue their exploitation. Instead of slaves, now tea estates used indentured labourers—free workers who were made to sign agreements binding them to work for a certain period. The conditions for these workers weren’t much better than slaves in reality.
Perhaps such brutal atrocities by the colonial rulers made Girish Chandra Banerjee, a scion of the Zamindar family of Borai, take over The Makaibari Tea Estate in the year 1852. Soon the better working environment for the labours paid off, and profits started pouring in. 1859 Darjeeling got its first tea factory from Makaibari. Makaibari remains one of the few tea gardens in Darjeeling owned by a Bengali family.
2003 mid-June Planter’s Club Darjeeling
I was sitting in one of the high-back chairs by the fireplace, waiting for my cup of tea. A gentleman in his early 60s approached me and said, “What brings you to the land of thunder?” I was confused, and I said, “Land of Thunder?”
The man laughed and said, “Half an hour of storm, blasts of thunder, flashes of lightning. 4 inches of rain, and what it does? It gives the name Darjeeling. It is a Tibetan word, you see. Tibetan monks named this land as Dorje means thunderbolt and ling means land in Tibetan.”
“Oh! I see” I admired the man’s charming personality. “I have come to write about Darjeeling Tea.”
“You have picked up a fascinating topic. Come over to my garden sometimes. I will tell you all about The champagne of tea. Best of luck” he picked up his hat as a sign of goodbye and walked off.
Little was known to me that the mysterious stranger I met would change my concept of tea altogether.
I was scheduled to visit the Makaibari tea estate the following day, a one and a half-hour long and winding drive from Darjeeling. Suraj, my driver, advised an early start, so finishing breakfast, we began our journey.
One has to see to believe it. What a fantastic view, with lush green tea plants all around and then suddenly you see the clouds just beneath you, and then it disappears to a clear sky. Located at an altitude of 1500 mts, the Estate covers six ridges with a total area of 670 hectares.
As I walked past some of the pluckers, I suddenly saw a man riding a horse, which was rather strange. I realised he is a man of authority from his body language. I looked again and saw it was none other than the mysterious stranger I had met just a day before. I asked Suraj, “Who is he?”
“Sir, he is the King of Makaibari.”
By this time, the mounted man saw me and waved. I waved back. He rode down to me and said “Ah! You have come?” dismounting his horse. “Come my boy let me show you around”
“I am Rajah Banerjee,” he said as we walked through the groves.“This Estate has been my home since I was born along with the villagers of Kodobari, Fulbari, Koilapni, Cheptey, Makaibari, Thapathali and Chungey.”
We reached Mr Banerjee’s office, and I saw awards and certificates all around. One such said First garden to be certified for trade in the world. I also learnt that it was one of the first few to be awarded fair trade certifications, but what impressed me the most was this Estate was the first garden to be awarded as the fully organic tea garden in 1988.
“Impressed, are you?” He asked
“I am indeed.”
“This is nothing listen to this, in 2017, we sold a special pack of 5 kg of first flush handcrafted Darjeeling tea from Makaibari at the highest ever price for any first flush tea at $302 (Rs. 21,746) per kg.”
“What is the first flush?” I asked
“Well, you see, the tea bushes would sleep in the winter. But all the action is below the ground, not above it. So the climbing temperature in March and increasing daylight, all the activity below the soil bursts into action above the soil. That is when we get the first flush.” He continued, “While tea connoisseurs in Europe prefer first flush tea, those in UK and Japan prefer second flush tea.”
“I see. Mr Banerjee, I was told that you have sold the most expensive tea in the world?”
“No, not the world, but yes, in 2014, a special lot of handcrafted second flush tea from Makaibari fetched $1,850 (Rs. 1.57 lakh) per kg. That was the most expensive Indian tea ever sold.”
I was not only impressed but equally proud. Proud because a business dominated by British once and later taken over by other corporates, the top position is being held by a Bengali. A Bengali with a vision.
“Don’t smoke for the next few hours, my boy.” Mr Banerjee advised while excusing himself. I wondered why I met Prem Dorji, who was responsible for being my escort as I went out.
“We make orthodox tea, you get the good aroma, good flavour, but if you put milk or sugar, it becomes bland”, Prem informed while showing me around.
“What is second flush, Prem,” I asked
“In March and April, we start plucking tea leaves after the winter that is first flush and then wait for another 15 days, when ‘two leaves and a bud’ grows back and that is the second flush which is called the muscatel” he continued “one is Oolong tea, one is White Tea, one is Green Tea and one is Silver Tips Imperial. We pluck the same bush, but the process is very different inside the factory.”
I saw the workers plucking and decided to try some myself. I realised the tea leaves come out much easier than I expected them to, but it is pretty rugged work manoeuvring through bushes and getting to the next bush and being bent over takes a lot of dexterity.
I moved on, realising I was making a fool of myself.
Prem took me to the factory next, where I saw signage proudly displaying “Makaibari Tea Factory 1859”. The workers had brought in their plucks by then, which were weighed and sent inside.
I learnt that the first stage of manufacturing is weathering. A kilo of freshly plucked green leaves is left for 18 hours. Ambient air pass through it, and it reduces to 300 grams losing 70% of the moisture, making the leaf dry resulting in a physical manifestation.
After weathering starts the rolling process where they catalyze the cells on the excellent taste; as I was standing there, I could get the aroma of the tea. I was told that it takes about 25 minutes of rolling to generate the proper flavour.
The next step is the fermentation table, where they oxidise the tea for a specific time depending on the required character. I was engrossed in the process when I heard Prem “Sahab is calling you.”
I followed him to a room where I realised why Mr Banerjee asked me not to smoke. He wanted me to taste tea. He said, “I have seen you in planter’s club sipping tea, but I felt you did not transcend your tasting parameters.”
I was ashamed a bit.
“You have to be a wild yeti-like tea planter who has not only climbed down from the mountain but climbed down from the trees. OK? Here you go.” He took a spoon and said, “Half a spoon full”, and made a slurp; I realised he took a sip from the spoon and started rolling the tea in his mouth and spit it out in another cup.
“The spit is what counts. There’s an after taste. You tell me what it is. Go on,” he said as he handed over a spoon to me.
I tried the same and could feel why it sells for such a high price. I was speechless with the experience as Mr Rajah Banerjee spoke, “All issues of Humanity is that about harmony. When you bring health to the soil, you bring in harmony. The spirit of the place emerges.”
I left Makaibari with a fantastic experience. An experience of the magical, mystical Himalayan herb encapsulates the soul and spirit of Makaibari, because in the words of Rajah Banerjee, “we respect all life forms, below the soil, on the soil, above the soil and the biggest organism us.”
Since that day, Makaibari has been a part of my life each day until the day I sleep forever.
Cheers to the cup of life!
Rajah Banerjee The King of Makaibari sold his empire after his 160 years old heritage bungalow was destroyed in fire. Makaibari tea estate is presently owned by Rudra Chatterjee and his Laxmi group.
What's Your Reaction?
A devoted foodie with keen interest in wild life, music, cinema and travel Somashis has evolved over time . Being an enthusiastic reader he has recently started making occasional contribution to write-ups.