For me, Kumaon was always associated with Jim Corbett and stories of tigers. Until, that is, I heard its tea story. Uttarakhand is slotted as a non-traditional tea-growing area but tea, it turns out, is not new to these parts at all.
Experimental tea planting first began here with seeds imported from China. Processed tea was sent to London’s Mincing Lane as early as 1842.
Robert Fortune, the Scottish botanist tasked with bringing (some say smuggling) tea from China to India, writes in his book A Journey To The Tea Countries Of China, that soon after his arrival in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 1851, he was ordered by the governor general of India to tour the tea plantations of Kumaon and Garhwal to report on their condition and prospects. He was accompanied by William Jameson, who was in charge of the government tea plantations for the East India Company in the 1840s-50s. Fortune found the Guddowli plantation, near Pauri in Garhwal, “promising”. Eight Chinese who had accompanied him from their country toured the region with him and were stationed at Pauri to teach the locals how to make tea.
Like every tea region, Uttarakhand’s high altitude and dry climate offer a unique terroir. But its geography worked against it at the time. The nearest port was Kolkata, too far from the landlocked hills. Darjeeling and Assam were closer, and Kumaon lost out in the race.
Yet, if you look at history, Kausani, Berinag and Chaukori are names that stand for high-quality tea. There is an unconfirmed story about how one manager in Berinag had learnt the secret to producing compressed brick tea (a uniquely Chinese style), which was popular in Tibet. Post-independence, Berinag tea seems to have been a brand unto itself, with the famed architect Laurie Baker a fan.
In 1907, the area had 20 tea gardens; by the 1920s, however, most of them had been abandoned. In the 1930s, six Anglo-Indian families living in Sri Lanka decided to move to Kumaon to take up tea cultivation. From this point, there’s a gap in the story. Today, Desmond, a descendant of one of these families, the Birkbecks, has become both custodian and champion of the Uttarakhand tea industry. In 1984, Desmond, then just 14, had visited the Tea Board in Lucknow (with his lawyer) to discuss the revival of tea plantations in the region. But it wasn’t till 1992 that work actually started. In 1997, Desmond left his work on a PhD in biochemistry to join the effort.
The Uttarakhand tea industry uses fallow land, leased from locals, for cultivation. About 87% of those working on tea cultivation are women. About 3,500 farmers cultivate nearly 1,500 hectares, operating almost like a large estate. The Uttarakhand Tea Development Board (UTDB) has set up four factories (three of them certified organic) that make orthodox black, green and some white peony tea. All the leaves go to these factories, and then to auctions—and export.
Tea Takes: To order, call Desmond Birkbeck, who is part of the UTDB, or the UTDB team on numbers given on the website https://utdb.uk.gov.in/contactus.
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.