Tea Journeys - Temi Tea Estate, Sikkim, India.
In mid-2019, we embarked on another tea sourcing mission. This time we would make our way through India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam & Japan. But in this travel journal, we wanted to focus on our organic tea partner in Sikkim, India, called Temi Tea.
It was 37 hours of travelling, three flights, and a long and bumpy 4x4 drive on a narrow road at cliff's edge we arrived at Temi Tea Estate in the heart of Sikkim. Sikkim is nestled between Nepal & Bhutan, and while being a state of India, it requires a special travel visa to enter.
Nearing completion of the drive we had snaked our way up and climbed to over 2000 meters above sea level (6500ft.) That sudden rise in altitude caused a few headaches and a slight absentness, but that was soon remedied upon arriving at the factory where we went straight into a tea cupping session to test the previous day's harvest. We tasted over 47 different teas ranging from tea harvested a few weeks ago to exceptional clonal teas with such floral bouquet one could imagine walking through an English rose garden.
We visited at the end of May which just so happens to be a peak quality period for Second Flush teas (the flush is the time of year when the tea plant grows new leaves for harvesting. For this region there are four flushes; First Flush, Second Flush, Monsoon Flush & Autumn Flush). Their First Flush harvest is light and bright with high floral, citrusy, or delicate stone fruit notes. Their Second Flush will exhibit with a ripe and coppery, juicy, malty nectar-like presence.
The two flushes follow a very similar processing style beginning with the harvest, followed by closely-monitored indoor wither, rolling, and oxidation. The tea makers skillfully oversee these steps, followed by the firing to finish the drying process and bring out the best qualities of each unique batch. The processes are very similar, but there are a few fundamental differences. During the summer months, the climate is warmer, with higher ambient temperatures found in the processing rooms, which affects the oxidation during these stages. The change in temperature increases the rate of oxidation, as well as the nuance of the piling and the amount of tea rolled at a time. The second flush has rollers apply more pressure to reveal the succulent caramelized fruit notes, as well as to develop the rich, deeper colour of the tea when brewed. Bringing out the best in each batch requires years of experience and using the nose as the most important measure - smell.
Temi tea has a few clonal teas (think of Hass and reed avocados), but the majority of the estate is made up of Chinery tea plants. While clonal teas have been selected and grown because they have a specific characteristic, and all grow evenly at the same time, chinery tea is grown directly from seedlings. This means every single tea bush has its own characteristic; some tea aficionados prefer Chinery as it has a more layered depth to the taste. The chinery tea plant will flush at a slightly different time, which means that the pluckers have to canvas the fields regularly to pluck the softest "two leaves and a bud".
The tea trees at Temi Tea grow on slopes amongst other crops, such as ginger, chamomile and Szechuan peppers (to name just a few) creating a lovely rich biodiversity. The terrain is certainly something to experience—the hills are beautiful, and one can sense the intense rays of the sun when they burst through small pockets in the clouds. The teas from Temi Tea allow everyone to experience a true lesson in terroir.
The pluckers work diligently and happily, climbing the steep ridges of the gardens despite the frequent clouds and mist that rolls in. We had loads of laughs, and positive vibes were shared, as we rolled up our sleeves to give it a go, which resonated with the workers, and we quickly started to feel like family. It was incredible to share time with those so intimately linked to the quality and energy of the tea.
We were at Temi Tea for five days, and during this time under the guidance of Nalin Modha (a tea production guru) we learned the nuances of hand-plucked Indian teas and the extremely involved process this humble leaf goes through from start to finish. We spent many late evenings under the moonlight with the constant soft clicking of small beetles, discussing every aspect of tea, from growing to processing, and what makes Temi Tea & Sikkim so unique.
Sikkim is a unique state, and in many ways, the values resonate strongly with us, and I'm sure many Kiwis alike. Sikkim has worked hard to achieve a high literacy rate (98%), and a remarkably low poverty rate. Electricity is cheap, and pesticides are banned throughout the state. Even plastic bags were outlawed in 1998! All 619,000 citizens receive free rice from the government to ensure food security. The entire state of Sikkim was declared organic in 2016, even though Temi Tea Estate was already certified 100% organic in 2008. That's remarkable in its own right and why we are so proud to bring their teas to good Kiwi folks.
While at Temi tea we sat down with the Managing Director Mrinalini Srivastava (who is regarded as a caring visionary with an aim to see all people prosper and live well) to gain an understanding of how the workers are treated and what their daily life is like. Temi tea pays a base universal living wage to all workers, and on top of that, they get paid extra for the amount of tea that is plucked during the day. Most field workers start early in the morning from about 6.30 am and finish work at 11.00 am which is when they then walk to the factory with the tea that has been harvested to be weighed and taken to the withering room. All workers receive free accommodation, health care, child care and during the winter months get up to four months off (paid).
We met so many friendly people wanting to know where we were from. While many did not know where New Zealand was when we said, "Edmund Hillary", their faces lit up, and they pointed towards Mt. Everest, with a head nod and a slight bow, clasping hands saying "Namaste" during that moment we shared someone in common. I was proud to call myself a Kiwi.