"After Pongal,” said tea friends in Coonoor, when I asked if the frost teas were ready. “It’s not cold enough,” they added. This was two weeks ago. Pongal is just past and it’s time to shine the spotlight on the Nilgiris once again. This time, it’s for their season special. Dubbed “frost teas”, this special category from these hills comes into being when temperatures drop to sub-zero levels.
Most tea regions across India close for winter because the plants are dormant—but not the Nilgiris. The extreme cold and frost have been used to create a tea that’s high in flavour and quality.
The Nilgiris, or the blue mountains, produce a tea that’s famously described as floral—and frost emphasises its flavour. I call K. Gopal Krishnan, director of the Glenworth Estate, for a quick lesson. He says the aroma of the tea is enhanced in winter by the higher presence of methyl salicylate in leaf cells. The cell sap is concentrated as shorter days and long, cold nights slow growth.
One of the highest gardens in the Nilgiris is Korakundah, about 8,000ft above sea level. Rajesh Thomas, the deputy general manager of this storied estate, paints a pretty picture of tea fields on freezing winter mornings, covered in a layer of ice, “giving the appearance of having snowed”. But while temperatures at night can plunge to minus 5-7 degrees Celsius, daytime temperatures hover between 23-25 degrees Celsius. This wide disparity in temperature results in low humidity, says Thomas, creating the conditions for an outstanding tea.
Plucking takes place early in the morning, when it’s still very cold. Both Gopal Krishnan and Thomas say the green tea leaves are plucked and processed with great care, to ensure the leaves aren’t damaged. If the leaf is “injured”, it enters the oxidation stage too soon. Extremely cold and dry air is used for leaf withering. The rolling, says Gopal Krishnan, is gentle, just enough to release the leaf juices so that they smear the leaf surface. The leaves then undergo oxidation/fermentation at low temperatures.
Many tea enthusiasts try to find a parallel between these teas and a Darjeeling (also high-altitude terrain, like the Nilgiris) but if you ask me, it is an unfair and unnecessary comparison. I will confess, though, that I do have a soft spot for the Nilgiris.
When made well, the winter frost tea from the Nilgiris has a cheery bright orange colour. It smells of the hills, of winter mornings, of flowers and plants growing wild. It tastes great and yes, that floral aroma makes for quite the celebration of the beautiful Shola forests.
This is a season for black teas, and I am looking forward to the frost teas from the Glendale, Havukal, Korakundah, Kairbetta, Chamraj and Parkside estates. Some are available on Amazon and other online tea stores, while others are available on the estate websites.
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.