THE TEA STUDIO
Our Nilgiri teas are all produced by Tea Studio, an innovative micro-factory located in the hill station of Coonoor which is nestled in the Niligiri mountain range in the state of Tamil Nadu. Led by Muskan and her all women team of employees, the factory produces small batches of finely crafted artisanal teas.
Shaking up a tradition of black tea production in the area, Muskan and her team use specialist tea machinery from China to create their teas. Their 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.
Tea in this area is grown by local farmers on their own land (typically on plots under one acre) and is termed “naturally organic” as chemicals have never been used on the land (see Terroir). Tea Studio continues to revolutionise the local tea industry by paying farmers well above local market value for their leaves to ensure the highest quality. Investing time and training into the local farmers, Muskan and her team have introduced new plucking methods to guarantee the right leaves for the different styles of teas they produce.
Muskan’s pioneering move to hire only women at the factory is a first in the Indian tea industry. Her empowerment of local women and the work she is doing creating new styles of tea was honoured by the Indian Businesswoman Award 2020 and named Woman Innovator of the Year.
Tea Studio continues to feed back into the local area, putting a percentage of their revenue into local village welfare, education and widening the access of local growers to better husbandry and plucking techniques. Along with plans to introduce new cultivars and bring tea tourists to the area to experience making teas at the factory, Tea Studio is working hard to improve tea in its widest sense in the Nilgiris.
The Nilgiri Hills run down the south-western tip of India from Kerala to Tamil Nadu forming part of the Western Ghats mountain range. Tea is grown on a series of high-altitude ridges that rise from gentle rolling foothills to elevations of 2000m.
Just inland from the Malabar coast, the region benefits from a tropical climate which is perfect for tea bushes to thrive. The Nilgiris have fewer extreme seasons, moderate summers with the temperature just briefly hitting freezing for a few key days in January/ February each year. It is this brief frost that creates the increasingly famous “frost teas” for which the Nilgiris is becoming known.
Teas from the Nilgiris are typically low in tannins and brew with a crisp, clean, clear cup. Typically soft yet with a strong body, Nilgiri teas were often included in teabag blends to enhance colour and clarity. Our supplier, Tea Studio, is situated at an altitude of 1850m. The modern, high tech factory sits in a suspended valley surrounded by the fields of the smallholders from whom they buy their leaf.
The land here is organically farmed; agro-chemicals have never been used in this area, simply because they were too expensive for the farmers. The smallholders who farm this area grow a variety of crops including tea on their plots. This maintains the diversity and integrity of the soil and environment. It also means that Tea Studio can call their teas “naturally organic” despite not having official organic accreditation. When building the factory, Tea Studio applied sustainable green practices to ensure a low environmental impact, clean air, and no risk of contaminants in the surrounding valley from which their leaves come.
Tea plants were first introduced to the Nilgiris in 1835. It was found that both the tea plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica and Camellia sinensis sinensis flourished here, and both continue to be grown across the region. The temperate climate means that tea can be plucked all year round and the region produces four times that of its more famous tea sister, Darjeeling.
The mild 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, and it has survived to this day as a tourist attraction of a bygone era and an UNESCO world heritage site. The nostalgic romance of the Niligiris in part comes from the name itself, meaning “blue mountains” in Tamil. The name comes from the Kurinji shrub (strobilanthes kunthiana) which blooms only once every 12 years, covering the hillsides in a haze of purplish-blue flowers.
Despite its high production volume, tea from the Nilgiris has only really become sought after as specialty teas in the last couple of decades as new producers have promoted its uniqueness along with experimenting with new production methods as at Tea Studio. 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. Following the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, the Nilgiris found itself without a clear position in the global market and it is thanks to pioneering innovators such as Indi Khanna (Muskan’s father, and Tea Studio founder) that the Nilgiris is finding a new position as a producer of specialty teas, the most famous being Nilgiri Frost.