Tea: It’s more than a drink

By SHRATIKA NAIDU (The writer is a Fiji Sun journalist currently studying at Pune University in India under the ICCR scholarship) Have you ever wondered where the first tea plant
10 Feb 2013 11:04


(The writer is a Fiji Sun journalist currently studying at Pune University in India under the ICCR scholarship)

Have you ever wondered where the first tea plant was discovered? Well to satisfy my desire of knowing every fact related to this green plant, I visited the first tea museum in India called Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Tea Museum in Munnar, Kerala.
The Kanan Devan Hills located in the High Range of Kerala are often described as the Scotland of India which abound in rich biodiversity. The first tea planted in the Kanan Devan Hills was way back in the mid 1880s. It was a 20 hectare clearing in a placed called Parvathy, which is no part of an estate section called Sevenmallay near Munnar. The green carpet of tea field interspersed with eucalyptus and well preserved shoals is a unique feature in Munnar. The Kanan Devan Hills also have a unique distinction of housing the first ever employee owned plantation company in India.
An exemplary plantation model, probably the first in the world, the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP), had about 13,000 employee shareholders in its fold. Born in 2005, the company has diversified business ventures in tea, tourism and other plantation crops and products. It has about 8900 hectares of tea with a total tea production of around 22 million kilogrammes, which is almost 9 per cent of the South Indian tea production.
I was so fascinated by the history of tea planting at the heritage museum that I would like to share. Sunil Chalakat, who is in-charge of the tea museum said tea was an evergreen plant having a healthy lifetime of nearly 100 years.
During his presentation to 42 students from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), he said tea plants were classified into three major types called jats, depending on their origin, Camellia Sinensis (the China variety), Camellia Assamica (the Assam variety and Camellia Assamica sub species Lasiocalyx (the Cambod variety).
The word ‘tea’ was derived from ‘T’e in Amoy or Fukien dialect and ‘Cha’ from Cantonese dialect of China. Some Sanskrit scholars say that the word ‘Cha’ must have been derived from ‘shama pani’ an ancient medicinal concoction believed to be the extract of tea plant.
The natural home of the tea plant is considered to be within the fan shaped area covering the Naga, Manipuri and Lushai Hills along the Assam-Burma frontier in the west, through to China, probably as far as the Che-Kiang (Shejiang) province in the east and from this line generally south through the hills of Burma and Thailand in to Vietnam. Tea came to Japan around 593 AD. Tea being an integral part of Zen rituals later came to be known as ‘Cha No Yu’, the famous Japanese tea ceremony which flourished in Japan. It was the British who introduced scientific tea cultivation in India in the late 18th century and the early part of 19th century. It is stated that in China monkeys were reportedly used to gather tea leaves in the formative years. And the early tea pluckers in India rode on elephants to pluck tea leaves. Today even motorised harvesting machines are being used for harvesting. From hand and feet rolling, tea manufacturing has come of age with fully automated tea processing systems in place.
Commercial tea cultivation in India was suggested to East India Company as early as 1778 by the English botanist Sir Joseph Banks. The most authentic source of information on existence of tea in India came from Major Robert Bruce who discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Assam. But much credit goes to his adventurous brother A.C. Bruce for establishing the first experimental plantation at Gabroo Hills. The first shipment of eight chest of Indian tea reached London in 1839 and was auctioned at fancy prices. During the following 12 years, more area was brought under the crop in North East India mainly through the efforts of the private enterprise. By 1856 major production centers began in Darjeeling and Cachar, in the terai in 1862 and in the Dooars in 1874.
In South India Dr Christie was the first to experiment with the cultivation of tea in Nilgiris in 1832 and some of his tea plants were distributed to various parts of the hills. In 1834, the Indian Tea bommittee appointed by Lord Bentick, dispatched 2000 tea plants from Calcutta for planting in Coorg, Mysore, Nilgiris and the horticultural gardens in Madras. Among these, only a few plants in the Nilgiris survived. When the signals of the coffee declined became clear in the last quarter of the 19th century, planters of the South gave serious thought for extension of tea for which market trends were favourable. Development of Kanan Devan Hills by James Finlay and Company during 1878 with tea as the exclusive crop is a major landmark in the history development of tea in south India. Wynad and Anamallais followed suit in the process of diversification of tea and by 1900 the area under tea in South India reached 12670 hectare and production touched 2315 tonnes. Most of the production was exported to Britain.
India has the second largest area under tea in the world with 578,460 hectares. South India has an area of 119,750 hectares. Major growing regions are located in Assam (56 per cent) and West Bengal (19.9 per cent) in North India, Tamil Nadu (13.9 per cent) and Kerala (6.4 per cent) in South India. Tea is also grown in a very small area in Karnataka (0.37 per cent) Tripura (1.55 per cent) Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, Bihar, Manipur, Orissa, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. India commands a dominant position as the largest tea producer in the world.
Tea is produced in 35 countries worldwide spread over all continents. The total area under tea stands at around 3.04 million hectares with Asia accounting for 88.4 per cent of the area followed by Africa with 8.5 per cent of the area.
Until 1970s, propagation of tea was carried out with seeds collected from polyclonal seed baries. Subsequently vegetative propagation through single nodal cutting has become an accepted practice. Presenting clones, biclonal seed stocks and grafted plants with high yield, quality and tolerance to drought, pests and diseases are used for planting.
In the nursery, it will take 12 to 15 months for the tea plant to attain planting stage. Planting is carried out along the contour in double hedge system of planting accommodating 13,000 to 15,000 plants per hectare.
Apical dominance of the young plant is arrested by centering as low as possible. By this process the plants are made to throw lateral branches that form the framework on which the plucking table is eventually established by two stages tipping, first at 35 centimetre and the second at 50 centimetre.
Plucking is considered to be the most important cultural operation in tea as it has a direct impact on the three important parameters that is yield, quality of tea and cost of production that determines the bottom line of the tea estates. Generally in South India flush shoots with three expanded leaves and a bud are harvested. Harvesting of such type of shoots is useful in maximising the productivity of fields and that of the workers besides producing tea of fairly good quality.
Plucking is carried out at eight to 15 days interval depending on the rate of growth of shoots, which is influenced by several factors such as climatic conditions, elevation, jat of tea, age of bushes from pruning and style of plucking.
Under South Indian growing conditions, more than 60 per cent of the total crop is harvested during the high cropping periods between mid April to June and again between September and November.
Mechanical harvesting, using hand operated shears with leaf collecting tray, is done to harvest the crop completely during high cropping periods. Shear harvesting has also been immensely useful in enhancing the productivity of workers. While shearing, the harvesting interval is maintained between 15 and 25 days. In flat terrain, motorised harvesting machines are also used.
There are essentially three main classes of grades of tea. The first is called leaf second is broken and third grade is called dust. In each of these main classes, the tea is further classified according to size and the final grades which generally bear fancy names. The names originally given to grades no longer bear any relationship to what they represent today. The leaf grades are large in size. In brewing, flavour and colour comes out of these grades very slowly but they produce flavoury liquor. The broken grades are of smaller size with fragmented leaves. They are quick brewing and give a darker brew. The smallest particles are graded as dusts.

Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Tea Museum in charge personal Sunil Chalakat (right) holding the variety samples of tea on the board with Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) students and officials in Munnar, Kerala State of India. Photo: SHRATIKA NAIDU

The name does not suggest anything derogatory to quality. In fact, these powdery teas brew very quickly and produce strong and coloured liquor. Tea also comes with a number of added natural flavours. The most common ones are lemon, ginger, cardamom, masala, mint, orange, peach, apple, rose and jasmine. Then there are herbal teas, herbs processed using special methods and mixed with tea or packed separately. The most common ones are Chamomile, Echinacea, Ginkgo and Rooibos.
Tea is a unique drink. Tea shoot contains the full complement of enzymes, biochemical intermediates, carbohydrates, protein and lipids. In addition, the tea shoots is distinguished by its remarkable content of polyphenols and methyl xanthines (caffeine and other purines such as the bromine and theophylline), the two groups of compounds associated with tea aroma. The tea polyphenols primarily comprise flavanols or catechins which are major oxidizing compounds, present in the leaf. The catechins undergo a series of biochemical changes during processing, which gives the characteristics colour and taste to the infusion of black tea.
Based on the type of manufacturing process, tea in general can be classified into three major types, business. Green tea (un-oxidized), oolong tea (partially oxidized) and black tea (fully oxidised).
Apart from the above three types, a specialty tea called white tea is produced in lesser quantities (which is correspondingly more expensive than tea from the sample plant processed by other methods) and instant tea (readily soluble in water). In the process of black tea manufacture, the favanols present in the cell are allowed to ferment fully (enzymatic oxidation in the true sense and no microbes are involved) to get the characteristics aroma, colour and taste of black tea.
Of all the above types, black tea is produced to the maximum extent, which accounts for about 75 per cent of world tea production.
White Tea, the best form of green tea in general is produced form special varieties of tea clones with large buds and dense pubescence. The unopened buds are harvested carefully and subjected to minimum processing (not Oxidized or rolled, but simply withered and dried slowly under controlled conditions) to produce white tea or silvery tips tea. White tea is a very rare, expensive connoisseur’s tea that is only produced in certain pockets of the world. White tea is the most subtle of all the varieties of tea. The best full effect of white tea can only be achieved by chewing them directly.
In contrast to black tea, during green tea manufacture, freshly picked leaves are directly subjected to high temperature to inactivate the oxidising enzymes using team (steamed green tea) or by roasting in a hot pan (pan fired green tea) for a few minutes. After compete inactivation of oxidizing enzymes present in the leaves, it is partially dehydrated, rolled and dried to final moisture of around 2.5 to 3.0 per cent. The tea thus obtained will be a rich source for antioxidants with many health benefits.
Mr Chalakat said there are huge health benefits of tea.
Tea in general is a rich source of flavonols (polyphenols and catechins) the building blocks of antioxidants. They have potentially beneficial effects of human health in preventing repairing the damage in the cells caused by free radicals. Review on pharmacological functions of tea indicated that epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), an important constituent of green tea has a profound role on controlling cardiovascular disease and cancers, role in dental health, beneficial effects on renal function and antimicrobial effects.
Recent researches at the University of Murica in Spain (UMU) and the John Innes Center (JIC) in Norwich, England have shown that epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea prevents cancer cells from growing by binding to a specific enzyme. Hundreds of studies exist showing the many health benefits of tea. But what makes it the most consumed beverage in the world after water is its pleasant taste and relaxation effect.
Both of these qualities and more can be traced to a unique, neurologically active amino acid in tea called L-theanine (gamma-ethylamino-L-glutamic acid). L-theanine is a free (non-protein) amino acid found almost exclusively in tea plants constituting between one and two per cent of the dry weight. Apart from the hydrating properties, tea also contains many of the macro and micronutrients which are important for human health.
And I believe the quote from William Gladstone always rings true- “If you are cold, tea will warm; if you are heated, tea will cool you; if you are depressed, tea will cheer you; and if you are excited, tea will calm you”.

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