The Nilgiris: blue mountains, shola forests, and aromatic tea

The Nilgiris: blue mountains, shola forests, and aromatic tea

The Nilgiri district lies in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Nilgiris (blue mountains) are part of the Western Ghats that run along the western coast of the peninsula. It gets its name from the saxe-blue kurinji (Strobilanthes) flowers that bloom here every 12 years. Famous for the wildlife and flora seen here, it’s other claim to fame is it’s tea.

The Nilgiri tea is better known to some as the ‘third cousin’ in terms of popularity, coming behind Assam and Darjeeling. But increasingly, these teas are finding their audience. And among them are the North Americans who find in the Nilgiri tea, a perfect balance of colour, strength and astringency to meet the requirements of each and every tea drinker, be it a tea connoisseur or novice.

How tea came to the Nilgiris

The Nilgiris became home to tea after it was ceded to the British East India Company, following the 4th Anglo Indian war of 1799, when Tipu Sultan was defeated. Over the next two decades, Englishmen came and saw. But it was only in 1819 that John Sullivan, the Commissioner of Coimbatore came up from the plains. With its cool climate, he put out a petition to the government in Madras asking that a sanatorium be created here.

Later, in 1833, Dr Christie, an Assistant Surgeon from Madras visited these hills and asked for tea seeds to plant here. It was a period of trials, experiments and innovations before tea made from plants grown here were sent to London’s Mincing Lane to be auctioned.

The birth of famous tea estates

In 1835 tea seeds were sown for the first time, on an experimental basis at Ketti, a tea plantation farm in the Nilgiris. By the year 1859, the first commercial tea plantation estates were set up at Dunsandle and Thiashola. At a higher elevation is located the Korakundah tea plantation estate which was established in the year 1930. This tea estate belongs to the United Nilgiri Tea Estates Co., one of its major units the first estate in the Nilgiris to obtain Organic Certification (1997). Korakundah also has the distinction of being the first Nilgiri estate to be awarded the ISO 14001: 1996 special certification (May, 2004)

In the year 2003 the Thiashola estate won a remarkable accolade: the Organic Certification because it succeeded in demonstrating Altered & Advanced tea cultivation methods plus Continuity in tea cultivation. If you are a true Nilgiri tea lover and have a special place in your heart for the tea from Thiashola tea estate, you can thank Hindustan Lever Ltd for it as they are the real owners of this estate,  managing it fantastically.

The gardens here follow the Chinese style of handrolling tea, that continues to date. A strong Scots connection is seen in estates named Glenburn, Glendale, Glenmorgan and Glenvans, perhaps to soothe a homesick estate manager.

The Nilgiri tea in the West

In 1602, a Portugese priest arrived in the Nilgiris. That was the first record of a European setting foot here. But it was only in the 1800s that these hills were chosen for tea cultivation. In the 19th century, a summer sanatorium for the British came up here and the tea industry also expanded with it. 

The Nilgiri Planters Association of South India, an organization founded in the year 1891 manages and administers the tea estates of this region. The tea produced in the region retains its very unique ‘Nilgiri’ aromatic attributes which seems to appeal greatly to the Western taste buds and senses.

So, although a later entrant to the industry, it still manages to remain one of the top rated teas for serious tea lovers worldwide.

 

Tea from the Nilgiris

With a subtropical climate, similar to that found in Darjeeling, the Nilgiris produces hand-sorted, whole-leaf grades like the orange pekoe (OP) and pekoe cut black tea. The orange pekoe is a basic, medium-grade black tea consisting of many whole tea leaves of a specific size, whereas pekoe is a finer grade with young tea leaves and buds. Lower tea grades like broken orange pekoe and CTC are also produced here.

The Nilgiris also produces exceptional varieties of green, white and oolong tea.

What to expect from the Nilgiri tea

Tea here is grown in elevations ranging from 1,000 meters to 2,500 meters above sea level. The region enjoys close to 60 inches to 90 inches of rainfall every year. These teas are intensely aromatic and flavorful with lingering notes of dusk flowers and tropical fruit. One of the specialties from here is the winter frost teas, packed with flavor because of the frosty nights. 

From Coonor to Mincing Lane: A History of the Nilgiri tea
A tour of TANTEA estate, Nilgiris
How Craigmore tea estate has preserved a 100 acres of virgin forest

For more stories from the Nilgiris, visit our blog.

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