The oolong was my introduction to Kangra, the tea region in Himachal Pradesh. It’s still a new style for India and I was surprised to find a tea so flavourful, one that stood out distinctly, not just as a version of black tea. While some estates here have added more teas to their offerings, like the white peony and scented teas, I lean towards their oolong and their green tea—both for taste and a compelling story. For us tea drinkers, green tea is relatively new, having presented itself as an option a decade or so ago, but it was being made in Kangra much earlier. For a few decades, in fact, Kangra only made and sold green tea.
Kangra’s tea history is as old as Darjeeling’s, a plantation industry that came up with the British East India Company. As in Darjeeling, the chinary varietal was cultivated in Kangra too, and it was particularly well-suited to making green tea. All was well until the earthquake of 1905, which took about 20,000 lives, more than double in livestock, besides leading to severe economic loss. The British planters left Kangra, selling their tea gardens to local people. Only a few large estates survived. Otherwise, it was mostly small holdings and farmers who didn’t have the resources to rebuild factories and re-establish large-scale production.
Frank Miller, a tea expert who spent time in Kangra in the 1960s, wrote in an article in Tea Journey that since tea farmers had little by way of resources or machinery, they took to making green tea by hand, a tea that needed a “simple skill set and only basic technology”. And just like that, Kangra acquired a green tea tradition of its own.
The tradition is a pan-roasted and sometimes hand-rolled green tea that produces a clean cup with classic vegetal notes. It was a tea that made its way to Kashmir, and onward to West Asia. It’s also a tea that lends itself best to the Kashmiri kahwa. In the late 1970s, though, black tea returned as factories were revived and some cooperatives were formed. An auction centre was set up in Amritsar, Punjab, in 1994 to facilitate this trade; poor sales forced it to close in 2005. Of the four cooperative factories set up in the 1960s-80s to support tea production, three closed. Kangra’s traditional markets shrunk as troubles in West Asia closed borders.
Kangra’s revival has come from a new generation of planters, who are working to put the region back on the tea map. They still source their leaves from the chinary bushes, not the clonals or hybrid varietals that the other regions have adopted. A few of the large estates have chosen to retail, offering a variety of teas. Over the last decade, speciality teas such as the oolong and white tea have been added. And while the black tea and the white are both very enjoyable, I do think it’s Kangra’s green tea and its oolong that ought to be its calling card.
Tea Takes: Estates such as Wah Tea, Dharmsala Tea Company and Manjhee Valley Tea Estate retail online and offer a fine range of green tea and oolongs.
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.