Reading the Leaves

Preserving the legend of Darjeeling’s legendary teas is the “art and duty of man”

by Harris Salat

An edited version of this story appeared in the October, 2008 issue of Saveur Magazine



As the sun rises over the Himalayan foothills, a hundred women gather at the edge of a lushly green gorge. They carry long bamboo baskets on their backs suspended from straps running across their heads. They wait quietly and listen to the man calling out the day’s orders.

 “This squad to Lepcha One, that one to Purana Two. You to Buta Four,” Mahesh Maharshi booms in a rumbling James Earl Jones bass as he names tea gardens. The women wear bright wrap-around skirts, buttoned-down shirts and flimsy vinyl shoes, the younger ones sporting lipstick and mascara. A colorful piece of cloth is folded on their heads to cushion the straps. They are all ethnic Gorkhas, rugged mountain people, brown-skinned and small. They work as pluckers here at the Goomtee tea estate in India.

 The women descend single file down a rocky path into the gardens. Tea bushes swallow them from the waist down, like they’re wading through an ardent green sea. A deep U-shaped valley opens before them, the ridges spilling sharply for 4,000 feet as clouds drift like smoke through ravines below. Two miles away, a 70-foot waterfall carves a white gash into thick jungle.

 I’ve traveled here with Sebastian Beckwith, who runs a Connecticut company aptly named In Pursuit of Tea. Sebastian takes regular tea-pursuing trips to small, family-run estates across Asia. When he first started traveling to the region twenty years ago, he discovered in the tea leaf a world as deep and rich as wine. Ever since, he’s made it his life mission to educate Americans about authentic tea culture. I met Sebastian a few years ago and started drinking tea with him. He made me passionate about this world, too. I wanted to join him on his travels and learn first-hand how tea is made. Our journey has led us to the remote valleys of Goomtee, which produces some of India’s best Darjeeling—the country’s finest black tea, prized for its complex flavor and fragrance.

 We walk over to Mahesh, the estate’s manager. “You see,” he says with a smile, “tea making is a very complex process. You have to keep in mind so many factors. Very complicated. Very complicated.”

 The first step, he explains, is harvesting the leaf. Goomtee covers 360 acres of tea gardens in the northern tip of West Bengal, an area that borders Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. The highest garden shares an altitude with Denver, but Goomtee’s latitude is close to tropical Miami’s. The valleys here are as canted as ski slopes, blanketed by a verdant quilt of tea bushes. Automation is impossible in this terrain, so leaves must be harvested “orthodox,” that is, by hand. Women do the plucking because they’re thought to have more nimble hands then men.

 Sebastian and I head down the valley. We watch a woman bow slightly over a “picking table”—the flat top of a tea bush pruned two and a half feet. Her small fingers probe it like a pecking chicken, swiftly plucking leaves snap-snap-snap-snap. “She’s after two leaves and a bud,” Sebastian whispers—the tender new growth sprouting up from the table.

The women bunch the bright green shoots in their fists before flicking them backhand into their baskets. They hum songs or talk with each other, but softly, as if in respect of the breathtaking landscape. Their voices mingle with the music of birds and bugs, the rustle of bushes and the churn of a mountain stream at the bottom of the gorge.

 Eighty seven estates produce Darjeeling tea here in the Himalayan foothills—just one percent of the total tea production in India. In the 1830s the British established a hill station and sanitarium for its soldiers in the town of Darjeeling. Within a decade British planters had established the first tea gardens here with seeds brought from China. The mountainous geography, temperature and an unruly mix of rain, sunshine and fog made this area ideal for tea cultivation. The estates pluck leaves orthodox-style and processes them the way the British growers originally did. Goomtee was founded in 1899 by a Brit named Henry Montgomery Lenox. He planted the original tea bushes, some of which are still being plucked today, and built the processing factory, a three story wooden building still in operation.

By noon the pluckers arrive at a dimly lit hall in the factory, some trudging head-loads of 40 pounds or more. The women sit cross-legged next to baskets full of waxy, neon-green leaves, black hair glistening with perspiration, talking and laughing freely now. One by one they dump their leaves on old dial scales that screech sharply with each load. They’re here for “weighment”: Three clerks dressed in gold, pink and aqua-colored saris write down the weight in huge ledger books before the leaves are upended into a big green heap giving off an intensely vegetal aroma like fresh-cut grass.

The young leaves must be processed quickly, says Sebastian, which is why the factory’s so close to the tea gardens. After weighment, leaves are withered, rolled, oxidized and blasted with coal-fired heat to stop oxidation. The result is tea. “But there are so many variables.”

We catch up with Mahesh. Fifty years old, he’s been working at Goomtee for more than half his life. He wears a long white smock, a black baseball cap and reading glasses perched at mid-forehead—and has the satisfied look of utter confidence.

“You see, Mr. Harry,” as Mahesh takes to calling me, luxuriantly rolling the r’s, “God has given 100% character of the tea in the leaf. What we are doing here is damaging it. Whoever damages it less will make better quality tea. This is the art and duty of man.”

 We enter a dark, still room. Three tons of leaves are spread over steel mesh grates in ten 70-by-6 foot troughs. Fans beneath the leaves blow cold air—and wither them. They now smell like a sweetly decaying pile of fall foliage. Sebastian rubs one between his thumb and index finger. It looks like wilted basil. Withering takes the moisture out of the tea leaves, he explains, so you can roll it without it cracking.

But how long must it wither?

“Atul!” Mahesh booms. An assistant hustles over with a notebook. Mahesh, Sebastian and I huddle around it. “You see, Mr. Harry,” Mahesh turns to me, “the raw material, weather conditions, treatment to the leaf all differ every day.” He points to a long list of hand-written numbers. Withering takes between 16 to 18 hours. “Our goal is consistency year to year.”

“Human intervention is always necessary,” Sebastian adds. “You can’t put this on autopilot.”

The three of us descend a flight of stairs and enter a white room, pristinely clean and flooded by fluorescent light and sunshine streaming in from open doors and windows. Five four-ton rolling machines, like gigantic Cuisinarts, are lined up against a wall. The word “Britannia” is stenciled on them—original equipment installed by Lenox over a century ago. Workers in flip flops clamber on top of these contraptions to wrestle a spout feeding withered leaves from a ceiling hatch. In the center of each machine a four-foot wide brass disk exhales a loud shhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhh as it swings rhythmically, pressing leaves to break their capillaries.

Bruising the withered leaf this way begins the oxidation process, says Sebastian—the critical step for curing it into tea. As we speak over the clack of the machines, a worker brings Mahesh a bamboo tray with tea leaves arranged in four conical piles. Mahesh taps his glasses to his nose and slides both hands into each pile in turn, sifting the leaves, listening to what the pads of his fingers are telling him.

“You see, Mr. Harry, they bring me leaves after every ten minutes,” Mahesh explains.

“All day?”

“Yes, yes. We have a cycle of 40 minute rolling. Ten minutes, then we stop, ten minutes, then we stop. I check the size, color and coolness of the leaf. They bring it to me wherever I am.”

We walk over to a long stainless steel tray across from the Britannia machines. Rolled tea leaves are spread over it, now turning dark—oxidizing. Mahesh motions to me. “Touch it to your nose now, Mr. Harry, you will find some flavor,” he says. He grabs a handful to show me. “Smell it. Slowly.”

I put a clump of limp leaves to my nose. “You are getting some sense now that was not there in withering,” he says.

I inhale deeply. “It’s starting to smell like—”

“Yes, Mr. Harry—tea.”

But how does he know when the leaves have oxidized long enough?

Mahesh fishes out another notebook and points to a hand-plotted graph. “These are the minutes and these are the quality points,” he explains. “After you roll the tea you wait for the peak fragrance. When you reach it you dry the tea to stop the process.”

But how do you determine these quality points, this peak fragrance?

Simply by smelling the tea leaves you will know, says Mahesh. By smelling the tea leaves for a quarter of a century.

The three of us meet a tall, dignified man named Ashok Kumar at the factory. 60-years old, he is Goomtee’s owner and has been in the tea business his whole life. His father took over this estate in 1956, not long after the British had left, and built it into a world-class producer. Ashok continues this family-run tradition, managing wholesaling in Calcutta and traveling here every month.

When Henry Montgomery Lenox owned Goomtee, all of its tea was exported to England. “As far as Indian culture is concerned, tea was not part of our lore,” explains Ashok. Only since the early 20th century has tea been vigorously promoted in India, as Brits like Sir Thomas Lipton eyed a lucrative market. Today tea is woven into the fabric of the sub-continent, cups of steaming brew hawked by chai wallas, tea peddlers, everywhere. But the vast bulk is sold CTC, leaves “crushed, torn and curled,” commodity tea packaged into teabags. What about Goomtee’s fine leaf?

Their best tea still finds its market abroad, explains Ashok. Of the 90 tons produced a year, half is exported. The top grades go to Germany, now Darjeeling’s biggest buyer, then England, Japan and America. The rest is sold at home, both as whole leaf tea and for tea bags.

Goomtee produces four “flushes”—harvests—every year: “First” in the spring, “Second” in early summer, “Rains” during monsoon season and “Autumnal” in the fall. Each flush yields its own lingering fragrance—the signature characteristic of Darjeeling tea.

“A Darjeeling First flush has floral overtones while a Second flush has fruity overtones,” explains Ashok “The Autumnal flush, on the other hand, has a nutty fragrance.”

Ashok leads us to the tasting room, where he and Mahesh make these judgments once the tea passes through a coal-heated drier to stop oxidation and is graded according to leaf size and quality. He taps dry tea onto a white piece of paper, a Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One—archaic grading nomenclature from days of the British Empire. The shriveled leaves are copper and charcoal-colored, with lime-green and gold flecks. This is black tea?

“Black” refers to the degree of oxidation, Sebastian says, not the color. Darjeeling is a fully oxidized “light black” tea with more complexity, he continues, than you find in the Chinese and Ceylon “black” varieties.

Mahesh prepares tasting samples from the flushes, steeping identical amounts of leaf in ten identical porcelain jars lined up in a long row, then shaking out the tea onto each of the jar’s covers. Ashok picks up a lid with a pile of wet leaves—the “infusion” in tea lingo. “Fluff it up and shove your nose in,” he says. “The nostrils have to be covered with the leaves.”

Ashok shoves his nostrils into the damp clump.

“This is our prime tea,” he says as he pulls it away from his face. A few wet leaves remain stuck to his nose. “Look at the color of the infusion. So bright, so uniform, so coppery. Practically a perfect infusion.”

Now the men taste the copper-colored tea liqueur. Ashok takes a loud sip, smacking, sucking and snorting as he rolls the liquid around in his mouth. He stares straight ahead for a moment, concentrating, before he spits out the tea. Mahesh and Sebastian sip, smack, suck, snort, stare and spit in turn.

“The tongue, the insides of the cheek, the upper palate are all coated and the flavor is going into the nose,” Ashok explains. “You’re looking for fragrance, strength and satisfaction.”

I think about what Mahesh had said about damaging it less. Armed with a stack of notebooks, his nose—and his gut—he asserts human will over the leaf to create this singular tea. “People the world over still call it ‘English tea,’” says Ashok, pausing a moment, “but there’s no such creature.” It may not have been part of Indian lore, but the traditions carried on by the pluckers, the factory workers and these men here at Goomtee have indeed made it Indian tea.

© 2006, Harris Salat, all rights reserved.