The organic Makaibari Tea Estate and learning about tea

Tea plantations and tea are what made the Kurseong and Darjeeling area what they are.

Before the Colonial British planted these hills with tea plantations, the mountains were thickly forested with wild plants and native trees.

The population in this region was small, consisting mostly of indigenous tribes, mainly the one known as the Lepcha tribe.

But the Lepchas were not a tribe that took well to hard days of labor in the tea plantations.
They have lived in these mountains since ancient times, and the concept of money and hard working days that deprived them of most of the joys in life was a new idea that was very unappealing to them.

The Britishers (as our guide refers to the Colonial British) scratched their heads in puzzlement….
They needed people to work on the plantations, to pick the juicy young tea buds, mulch the ground, sort the tea, dry it and pack it… They needed good reliable labor at low prices.

Help came from the neighboring mountain ranges, over the tall Himalayas in the state of Nepal, where hard working people lived who were more than eager for steady work.

The Britishers brought over from Nepal thousands upon thousands of people to work in the tea plantations.

The passage of time wrote its own pages in the book of history….
The Nepali people spread across the region and started businesses and thriving communities, multiplied and integrated into the region.

We made our way to see the world’s first tea factory which was started in 1859.
It is now operating as an organic, biodynamic and Permaculture tea farm.

To enter the factory, we had to wear masks, hats and shoe covers.

We met with the owner of the Makaibari Tea Estate.
His name is Raja Banerjee and he is a real character, filled with passion and good ideas about organic growing methods, and his own unique ideas about the meaning of life.

By the end of the day, after we had tasted many types of tea, and after a long hike through the hilly tea country, we learned so much about organic cultivation of this unique Darjeeling tea, which rarely makes it to supermarket shelves around the world.

What is commonly known as Darjeeling tea in the West is a bitter black tea in bags, that resembles the real thing ONLY in name.

It all starts with the Camellia plants on the hills.
They are pruned every three years, and mulched with organic matter made from chopping the surrounding plants and laying the mixture at the base of the plants.

Some of those Camellia plants live for thirty to fifty years.
Only the top two leaves and the bud are used for tea.
For white tea, they use only the buds.

After the long winter season, the local tea pickers go into the hills to pluck the first growth.
This happens sometime in March or April, and is called the “First Flush.”

After all the tender two leaves and buds are picked, the locals leave the fields and attend to the tea processing.

The processing of tea is extremely simple.
The leaves are spread to dry on a large, air vented raised bed, made from wood.

After two hours of drying in the pumped warm air, the leaves are sorted and rolled.
For some kinds of teas like white tea, this is the end of the journey.
The white tea will be packed after that.

The production process of green and black teas, consists of withering, crushing, fermenting, and drying.

The quality and length of the tea leaf determines the grading.

The green tea will be sorted by grade and go through withering and crushing or rolling, while the back tea will also be put aside to ferment for an extra two hours.

Green tea is made without fermentation.
Black tea is left to ferment on trays for an extra two hours and receive extra drying before packaging.

White tea, which is rich in antioxidants and is believed to have anti-aging components, goes through only the initial air blown drying which gets rid of 70% of the moisture.
The leaves are not usually crushed, but left whole.

The top two leaves and the bud are picked three times per year.
The process of picking the tea leaves comes in three cycles that are called the:
First flush tea
Second flush tea
Third flush tea.

Raja Banerjee wore a green army uniform with a high decorative belt, and his high socks covered the lower part of his pants and were tied with a rope.
He had a healthy mane of silver hair and sharp black eyes.
It was obvious to me that he did not view his place on this earth as merely an organic tea grower…. He was aiming to change the world through his philosophy and ideas, one tea cup at a time….

Raja Banerjee has employed holistic sustainable practices not just for tea growing, but also to promote empowerment in the community and in the surrounding Makaibari villages.

He had studied the methods of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic growing theories.
They advocate developing healthy soil, that promotes a healthy society.

The goal of biodynamic practices mixed with permaculture, is to usher in harmony between soil, microorganisms, plants, animals and people.

The Darjeeling tea is locally known as the Champagne of tea.
The area has a relatively small yield, producing only about 3 percent of India’s total tea production.

But the real Darjeeling tea is considered to be one of the finest in the world, and sells at one of the highest prices.

The Darjeeling area produces some well-known varieties of black tea, like the Flowery Orange Pekoe, and the Broken Orange Pekoe.

The word Pekoe comes from the Chinese Pekho, and it refers to the soft feel of a child’s cheek, thought to resemble the fine tender feel on one side of the tender tea leaf, which appear as flushes.

The tea tasting was fun.
We asked questions and learned a lot.

When Jules asked Raja Banerjee who were his competitors in the area, the Raja said that there are plenty of fish in the sea for everyone, and that in Truth, there is no competition….
The concept of competition comes from the belief in scarcity and limited supply.

I agreed with the Raja with all my heart, and hoped that Jules took it in beyond just words…

Another question Jules asked, is about how they market this fabulous tea, and the Raja spoke about the fact that the word “marketing” was too aggressive and did not allow the fluidity and magic of the abundant universe to flow….. It implies that you have an inferior product that needs to be “Pushed….”
While if you have something unique and special, you just have to wait and allow the world to discover you…. To find you….

When the Raja saw the skeptical look in Jules’ eyes, he added that there is a network of organic growers and much demand for high quality organic tea.

We went for a long walk to see the fields and hills of the Makaibari tea estate.

The sun was shining gently and we walked through creeks, natural springs and beautiful green Camellia plants.

At the community tea shop, we bought some of this tea to take back home.

I remembered a sign that I saw on the wall in the office of Raja Banarjee.
It was a photo of himself clad in his green army uniform, looking at the sunset.
The words below simply said:
“Learn from Mother Nature…. Her Rhythm is Patience…”

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