There’s a small but growing community of tea farmers in the Nilgiris that has been experimenting successfully with speciality tea. Given that these hills are best known for their CTC (crush, tear and curl) teas, it’s exciting to see the shift. The group of about 12 farmers, Knowledge Sharing and Caring, started in 2020 when Padmanabhan Subramanian, who was working as a marketing consultant in Coimbatore, had to return to the Nilgiris. Also a tea farmer, he began connecting with other growers to form a collective, to share information and even support marketing.
Tea farmers can either harvest and sell the green tea leaves to factories or make tea and market it themselves. A kilogram of green leaf now sells for under ₹20, barely enough to run a farm, let alone make ends meet. The growers realised that if they could learn to make speciality tea, they could keep a greater share of profits and focus on quality.
One of the speciality tea pioneers in the group is Prabhu Nanjan, who runs Vijayalakshmi Farms. Incredibly enough, he makes pu-erh style aged tea, which is still pretty uncommon in India. It was his grandfather who first took up tea plantation, says Prabhu; his father continued it. When their time came, Prabhu and his brother, Suresh, chose to work in the city—he as a clinical researcher and his brother, as an IT professional. Their sister, Vijayalakshmi, a single mother, was living at home and the brothers felt she could take up tea-making since they grew tea on about 13 acres.
“In 2006, we were selling our leaves for ₹7 a kilo. But we would see the prices of Chinese tea and were shocked at how expensive they were (around $15-20, or ₹1,250-1,660 now, for 50g),” says Prabhu. They decided to venture into speciality tea, eventually turning to YouTube to guide them, and began making small batches of green tea, testing the market.
In 2009, however, Vijayalakshmi died unexpectedly. It was a year and a half before the brothers decided to revive tea-making; Prabhu quit his job and returned home. On one plot, Prabhu noticed, the tea bushes were looking dull. He decided to leave them alone for a couple of years, unpruned. A year later, he found the plants looking healthy, with new leaves. This gave them the idea of making wild tea—and the brothers began the journey into pu-erh style teas from these leaves.
“I have teas from 2014 onwards,” says Prabhu. I pick up a 2014, a 2016 and a 2018 tea. The leaves are long and dark and lend themselves to multiple brews with short steeps. It’s the 2018 that hits the spot for me with its deeply earthy notes—a most memorable tea to begin the year.
To order Prabhu Nanjan’s tea, contact via WhatsApp, +91 75988 12974 (prices start from ₹500 for 25g for the aged teas). The Knowledge Sharing and Caring group can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.