The Nilgiri region in south-west India produces some stunning teas. Frost tea is a particular favourite made when temperatures in the Nilgiri Hills are at their coldest. It has a fresh spring fragrance and soft honey sweetness. It’s that fragrancy which is characteristic of the teas from the Nilgiris, the major tea growing area of the south.
The Nilgiris benefit from a lush and fertile terroir, that mix of geography and geology that gives tea its uniqueness. Rising at a height of 2000m. in a tropical region, the Nilgiris have fewer extreme seasons, moderate summers with the temperature just briefly hitting freezing for a few key days in January and February each year. The temperate climate means that tea can be plucked all year round.
Today, the Nilgiris remain one of the most beautiful tea growing regions in the world to visit with deep green rolling hills, dense forested areas, and meandering streams. Tea is grown among other trees like eucalyptus, blue gum and cypress, which are said to impart the tea here its fruity fragrant flavours.
For all its virtues, Nilgiri tea has not spread through the world like India’s more famous tea producing regions, Darjeeling and Assam. Here we explain why Nilgiri tea is today one of the best kept secrets in tea.
History of Nilgiri Tea
To understand why Nilgiri teas have been underappreciated, it helps to know more about the history of tea production in the region.
Tea plants were first introduced to the Nilgiris in 1835, shortly after the first tea plantations were established in Darjeeling and Assam. It was found that both varieties of the tea plant Camelia sinensis assamica and Camelia sinensis sinensis thrived here, and both continue to be grown across the region.
The balmy climate of the Nilgiris offered an escape from the sweltering hot plains of Madras which led to the development of the famous “hill stations” at Coonoor and Ooty. Building of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway began in 1899. This further helped to facilitate the expansion of the tea industry. In a short time, tea became one of the major crops in the area and today tea still carpets the Nilgiris for miles around.
As the industry grew and production of Nilgiri tea increased, tea auction centres were set up near the growing areas. In 1947 the first auction took place in Cochin. Orthodox Nilgiri teas (made from leaves that are withered, dried and rolled) became celebrated as aromatic teas low in astringency, and capable of producing a crisp, clean cup.
However, gradually the thirst for inexpensive tea in the world market took hold. This was intensified during World War II when the British market, the biggest end market at the time, became used to rationing and afterwards ever cheaper tea. By the 1970s, the majority of producers in the Nilgiris had switched to the crunch, tear and curl (or the CTC) method of industrial production designed mainly for the tea bag and this became the norm. Quality became secondary to the quantity produced.
For much of the 20th century, the majority of Nilgiri tea was sold to the then Soviet Union and there was little regard for consistent quality. The collapse of the USSR in the 1990s hit the Nilgiris hard and the region found itself without a clear position in the global market. Nilgiri tea had come to mean bulk low quality filler for generic blends.
Making Nilgiri teas great again
After years of obscurity, Nilgiri teas are now enjoying something of a comeback and finding a new position in the market as more producers follow a strategy of growing higher quality tea, the prices for which are higher and more stable than commodity grades. Tea connoisseurs are finally rediscovering a respect for the unique qualities of the region’s terroir.
Tea innovators like the Tea Studio, a cutting-edge micro factory which opened in 2017 near the hill station of Coonoor, which was set up by industry tea veteran, Indi Khanna, has embraced the trend with gusto. Tea Studio only creates small batches of finely crafted teas.
The Tea Studio’s ongoing experimentation with the local leaf and different processing methods, from oxidation levels through to different ways of rolling the leaves, has enabled them to produce some fine green, white, black and oolong style teas. The factory has also invested in specialist tea machinery brought in from China and Taiwan.
The Tea Studio has worked hard to get teas to a new standard in the region. This has involved retraining local pluckers, who were used to harvesting with a sickle or a pair of scissors, to plucking by hand. For the right leaf, Tea Studio offers pluckers well above the local market value.
Helping to sustain Nilgiri tea
Thanks to the work of innovators like the Tea Studio, the Nilgiris are slowly returning to their rightful place in the market as a producer of specialty teas. Yet producers cannot make the change alone. Raising an awareness is an important action we can take. We believe that growing good tea deserves financial recognition which is why we pay producers a fair price for the teas they themselves have invested in to produce. As consumers, we can also help make a change by enjoying a high-quality cup of delicious Nilgiri tea.
Shop Nilgiri Tea here.