In 2016, geoscientists Arindam Pal and Poulomi Sen were driving to Shillong when their car started giving trouble near Mawlyngot, about 45km from the town, in the East Khasi Hills. They checked into a guest house. It was there that they first tasted a tea they thoroughly enjoyed. They asked their hosts about it.
“Our hosts looked surprised. They said we had just driven through a tea estate,” says Pal.
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The couple had not seen the tea estate because this was Meghalaya, the land of low-hanging clouds that had hidden the lush green fields from sight.
Meghalaya’s fame in tea may be recent but it’s well worth taking note of.
The story goes that when the East India Company was looking for regions suitable for tea-growing in India, they did home in on Shillong. But it did not become a tea area since the Khasi ruler insisted no migrants would work in his land. And tea cultivation is labour intensive.
Meghalaya has come a long way since. In 1977, a Tea Development Centre was set up in the state, which is suitable for the growth of both Darjeeling and Assam varieties, to promote cultivation. Today, the state has nearly 2,000 hectares under tea cultivation, producing around half a million kilograms of tea annually.
My first taste of Meghalaya tea was a black brew from LaKyrsiew, a privately owned garden. It was in 2002 that its owners, Nayantara and Geert Linnebank, began planting tea. They seem to have got so many things right when it comes to quality, community and branding. Today, LaKyrsiew is one of the most successful brands from India, available in the best tea stores around the world.
At Mawlyngot, Pal and Sen had stumbled upon the 40-hectare Urlong, a farmers’ cooperative. It was started in 2011 by a schoolteacher, D.L. Nongspung, who felt something had to be done to support struggling local farmers. The factory produces small volumes of orthodox black teas but also oolong, green and white tea, some exported and others sold in India. A similar cooperative model has been created in Ri Bhoi district in the East Khasi hills, under the name Arsla.
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The list of tea gardens and factories is growing—and each garden comes with its own narrative: The Tea Development Centre offers Meg Tea-Umsning, a range of Assamica teas, and Meg Tea-Upper Shillong, orthodox highland teas. Sharawn was started by John Marbaniang, who had worked with Warren Tea in Assam for over a decade. Denmar, run by Marbah Warjri, lies in the middle of a forest of tropical fruit trees and specialises in green tea, Arengh, Durama, Nalari, Anderson —each offers its version of Meghalaya tea.
I am waiting for my order of Ing tea from Zizira, a blend of green tea with lemongrass and Schezwan peppercorn. Perhaps it will convert me to a green tea, after all.
Tea Takes: LaKyrsiew (Teabox), Urlong (Qtrove,) Zizira (Amazon or Zizira.com), Meg Tea (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1