Little Magical Tea Garden
Picturesque is the word that describes Sharawn Tea Garden. It sits pretty on the gentle south-sloping highlands of Sohryngkham village in Meghalaya's East Khasi Hills district. The well-known temperate climate of Sohryngkham situated at an altitude of 5333 ft is perfect for this highland tea.
Bah John, a bold entrepreneur who for many years worked at Warren Tea Estate in Assam, established this little tea garden in 1993 but did not start proper production before 2008. The little garden now grosses over 600kgs of processed tea per hectare per annum of the highland variety of Camellia sinensis, a species of tea that thrives well in colder climates and higher altitudes.
Team Zizira had visited the garden once earlier and now it was time to revisit the place. We called up Bah Marba, Bah John's son-in-law, who kindly agreed to our visit. Although he would not be present, his wife and garden owner, Kong Shariti Syiem, would receive us. And so, on 25th August 2018, we went our way to Sharawn.
Thick clouds obscured the sun that day, threatening to burst into showers at any time. Fortunately, the downpour did not happen. But shortly after we were ushered into Sharawn's elegant patio, the heavens poured out their torrents. Kong Shariti Syiem, graceful and petite, is as pretty as she is charming. We were awestruck with her knowledge of tea management as she patiently explained the intricacies of tea plantation.
Tea garden management is not a cakewalk, we soon realised. Each of the thousands of individual plants requires intensive care that calls for extreme patience. Besides being labour-intensive, especially during the plucking rounds between April and November, it takes a long time to bring a plant to maturity. But once it is ready to pluck its lifespan extends into many decades, even over a century.
At Sharawn they engage only local labour. They pluck at the tips always in the formation of two leaves and a bud. The younger the leaves, the better the tea. Black tea is processed by the dry weathering method where the leaves are allowed to oxidise or change its colour. Whereas Green tea is processed by boiling the leaves for 2 to 3 minutes before weathering. The colour of the leaves changes to a golden yellow tinge to stop oxidisation. Then there is white tea, a premium type, processed from buds alone.
Two Types of Tea and Their Processing
Broadly, there are two types of teas – Orthodox or whole leaf tea and CTC (crush, tear and curl) tea. In Orthodox, the whole leaf is cured in the processing while in CTC the leaves are processed into granular form. Among the lowest grades of tea is the broken orange pekoe teas like Fannings or dust tea, used in tea bags. Kong Shariti explained the steps involved in black tea processing which takes 2 days after the leaves are plucked. Here are the steps:
- Weathering – Leaves are set on troughs and allowed to dry for 12 to 14 hours, depending upon the weather. This brings the moisture content in the leaves down to 50%.
- Rolling – Leaves are then transferred to the rolling table, a kind of electrically powered drum, which turns the leaves, breaking down cells and allowing oxidation. This changes the colour to dark brown.
- Fermentation – An important step. The leaves that are taken out from the roller come in a lumpy form. So the leaves are spread on trays and workers separate all the lumps by hand. After that, they are spread on a demarcated flat floor and observed, by sight and smell, for fermentation. The whole procedure takes 3 to 3 ½ hours, depending upon the weather.
- Drying – The fermented leaves are transferred to trays and heat dried, with the heat generated either by electricity or gas. The temperature is maintained at 80°C. Sharawn's drier can take 7 trays at a time, each tray’s capacity being 15 kgs. This process takes about an hour.
- Sorting and Grading - Fermented leaves are sifted through a numbered ‘Shalani’ or sieve to determine their grade. Shalanis have numbers on them, which indicate the dimensions of the perforations. The lower the numbers, the bigger the perforations and the higher the grade of the teas. Leaf teas need lower numbered Shalanis. Sharawn's teas normally come with grade 8. The fannings tea grade is among the lowest.
- Packaging – The last process includes teas leaves being weighed and packed in hermetically sealed food-grade polyethene packaging.
Kong Shariti explained that green tea is processed along the same lines with a little difference in the weathering and fermentation part:
- Boiling – for 3 to 4 minutes to stop oxidation and retain leaf colour.
- Draining and drying – for excess moisture to run off. Electric fans or gas are used.
- Rolling and separating of lumps.
- Drying – In trays.
- Sorting and Grading.
There is no fermentation process involved in green tea, which is why it retains its greenish-gold colour.
Tea Management in Sharawn
Sharawn produces both Black and Green, processing only leaf or orthodox teas and selling them in the local market. They also supply abroad upon orders. The varieties of black tea they produce are the highland ones among which are the AV2 and TS-378 grades, full of golden tips and golden in colour too.
The tea population is a mixed one, grown from cuttings or seeds supplied from government farms. The cuttings require two years of growth in the nursery before transplantation to the fields. The first five years of a tea tree’s life requires what is termed ‘young tea management’ from the planter. The young plant is pruned when it attains a height of about 20 cms in what is called the first frame formation. At 30 cms the next pruning is done and then at 40 cms. This brings the plant into the ideal low and broad shape and frame and multi-branched to bring out maximum leaf development.
Pruning cycles are strictly followed for good foliage growth. There is a four-year cycle of pruning and skiffing which starts at the end of the plucking cycle (around November) and ends by January/February. Kong Shariti tells us they follow a pruning cycle which suits plants at their elevation -- LP-UP-DS-UP-LP --where LP is light prune, DS is deep skiff and UP is unpruned which is the interval between two prunes where leaves are not cut.
What About Pests and Diseases? Pests are not much of a concern although sometimes aphids, jassids or leafhoppers and red spider mites attack their plants, which they try to prevent by using sticky traps. Diseases are mostly confined to leaf blister blights because of low sunshine, rain and cloudy weather.
How Rewarding Is a Tea Planter’s Life and Work? Work is tough and the occupation demanding says Kong Shariti. But the tea planter's lifestyle is rewarding. Living amidst natural surroundings in the rolling highlands away from the hum and bustle of the city has a calming effect on mind and body. They wouldn’t trade this life for anything else in the world.