In Bengaluru, the days are moodier and darker, summer almost a memory. It’s the lull before the end-of-year noise. I give in to the mood. My companion of choice is an old favourite, a Darjeeling tea from last autumn. It’s perfect for solitary contemplation.
I first tried the tea about five years ago, and remember being pleasantly surprised. Spring and summer teas are hyped, autumn gets nary a mention. Yet here was a cup that was mature, understated, a tea to reckon with. It has been variously described as woody, mellow, unfussy. I like those descriptions but wonder if they describe the season or the tea.
This autumn tea is from Gopaldhara estates, located at an elevation of 3,500-7,000ft. Year after year, I have returned to it. The tea itself is dark and deeply earthy. That, I had assumed, was because of the season. Still, I decided to ask Rishi Saria of Gopaldhara about what goes into making it. I came away with more than I had expected.
Autumn is the last harvest season, a few short weeks between October and November, before winter sets in. Saria tells me that the work begins during the monsoon itself when the bushes, especially those at the highest elevation in the gardens, are rested. This is done because as the year progresses, the tea bush puts out fewer buds. The percentage of buds to leaf is highest in spring; by the time autumn arrives, it tilts heavily in favour of leaf. But without the right kind of shoots, it’s impossible to get a great tea. Resting the bushes for a season allows the plants to produce the desired volume of buds.
When the rains end, usually around now, Saria waits for a couple of weeks, allowing the moisture in the soil to reduce before he begins plucking. As the temperature drops, it leads to a slowdown in plant growth. And as the temperature difference between day and night increases, the bush starts protecting itself. Growth is stunted, and the leaves become smaller. They even show a different texture from spring and summer leaves, being a little rigid, a little “frozen”.
The garden had been making small volumes of autumn tea but Saria, who began managing Gopaldhara in 2003, decided to work on improving both volume and quality. One of the first problems that needed to be addressed was the tea’s bitterness. Saria, who describes his uncle, Shiv K. Saria, as his mentor, found a solution, adopting techniques to make the red oolong instead of black tea style production. This led to a uniquely flavoured tea, a worthy addition to Darjeeling’s repertoire.
In a good year, Gopaldhara makes 1,000-1,200kg of autumn teas. But if November is too cold, production can fall to about 700kg. And this is one of the reasons why autumn teas don’t make enough noise; there just isn’t enough to go around. That, if you ask me, is one more reason to try it.
Try the sample box of five autumn teas available on Gopaldharaindia.com.
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.