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A week in tea from Himachal

Tasting oolong, hojicha and the Tibetan ‘po cha’ while traveling through Kangra, Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj

A tea estate in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh.
A tea estate in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. (Istockphoto)

Last week, I made my way to Kangra in Himachal Pradesh to meet tea friends and Tibetan friends. My first stop was Palampur, the tea capital of the north. This is tea country, with a history going back some 150 years.

Also read | Kangra tea’s calling card

Though there are now more small farmer holdings, a few estates still carry the torch for Kangra tea. Some, like Wah, Bundla, Dareng and Mann, offer hospitality and/or estate and factory tours. They are worth considering, for this is a significant part of the Indian tea story, similar yet different from other regions.

Palampur is at an elevation of just about 4,000ft, with the Dhauladhar mountains framing its landscape. Since it’s monsoon time, I could not see the mountains. Still, the rains have their own charm and I enjoyed the views of lush gardens.

Palampur is about an hour’s drive from Gaggal airport, through the town of Nagrota Bagwan, along the narrow-gauge railway line. My stop was the Wah estate, one of the oldest and, currently, the largest in Kangra. It offers tea estate and factory tours, tea tasting and a tea lounge. If time permits, a break at the tea lounge that overlooks the garden is highly recommended. I am biased because it comes with a little library.

Also read | Travel for tea

I got to do a full tea tasting after a factory tour. I am partial to Kangra oolongs and here too, it figured on the top of the list with two other teas—a first-flush, high-fired black tea with a distinct roasted note and an Orange Cinnamon green tea (also available online, with prices starting from 175).

With time in short supply, I could only make two more tea stops. At the Infinitea Tea Resort at the Bundla Tea Estate, about 20 minutes from Wah, I met Dinesh Butail at his store and café for a cup of tea and conversations about Kangra. Butail is a fount of history and stories. I tried his heady rose tea but am keener on their version of the hojicha, made from stems that are otherwise discarded while processing tea (in green and black options). A little later, arriving in Dharamsala on my way to McLeod Ganj, I saw the signs for the Dharmsala Tea Company and took a detour to the Mann Tea Estate, to pick up some of its hand-rolled oolong, an old favourite. They have options for tea blending sessions and tea garden picnics.

In McLeod Ganj, my Tibetan friends kept up a steady supply of tea, from perfectly brewed Indian-style kadak chai to Tibetan butter tea or po cha, with many cups of herbal and green teas in between. It rained incessantly but one evening, when the rain had let up a bit, I wandered through the market looking for stores that might stock Tibetan tea bricks. My friend and host, Gyaltsen, asked me to look for roadside vendors. Look for tea that’s compressed but not crumbly, he advised. It was an unsuccessful quest; the only Tibetan tea I managed to locate was an instant butter tea brand named Melosa from Thailand (also available online for those who want to try a po cha premix). He saw me off with a gift of Tibetan tea from his collection, compressed, not crumbly, to be boiled if drunk with milk or else steeped like a green tea.

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. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

Also read | The toasty notes of ‘hojicha’

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