What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a cup of tea? A nice warm cup had on a winter morning? A glass shared with colleagues at the tea stall right outside work? Or perhaps, an evening ritual accompanied with snacks and stories from grandma? In India, tea goes way beyond being a mere beverage. It is political, it is cultural, it is personal (every family has a different way of making their cup). Dipping into these emotions is the Makaibari Tea Estate, the oldest in the country and also the producer of the most expensive cup.
Surrounded by the Kurseong hills, the massive 160-year-old estate (an hour’s drive from Darjeeling, West Bengal) houses the world’s first tea factory which is built entirely with wood, bamboo and cast iron.
Among the several varieties that the estate produces, Silver Tips Imperial is the most renowned and most expensive one on the roster. Priced at Rs 2,000 (approx) for 50g, the process that goes behind making a packet of tea is nothing short of magic. Relying on a celestial calendar to decide the plucking period (only four to five times during the season), the farmers believe that the air’s high oxygen content and cosmic confluence during a full moon lends the tea its peculiar taste.
On the decided date, hundreds of Makaibari workers gather around the estate, and around 100 of them go around plucking two leaves and a bud (the utmost mark of good quality tea leaves, I am told). This activity happens amid the sound of drum beats and prayer chants and the glow of torches. Once the tea is plucked, it is sent to the factory and processed before dawn, as sunlight is believed to alter its aroma and consistency. It’s hard work, and the resulting brew is fit for royalty, quite literally. In 2015, when the Prime Minister visited the Queen, this tea travelled to the UK in a gift box. It was also served to the players at the FIFA World Cup in 2014.
Owned by The Luxmi group, the tea plantation covers 550 acres and the forests take up twice that space. This makes it extremely hard to farm at Makaibari, and the resultant process makes each tea leaf highly precious. A walk through the factory highlights the precision with which each packet of tea is produced. Amid drying, rolling and packaging, the machines do a majority of work. Supervising the tasks are the women workers, ensuring that each packet lives up to the Makaibari standard.
Another crucial aspect is time—walk in at 11 am, and you’ll see the factory being cleaned, activity winding down after hours of hard work that started at dawn. As the estate manager Sanjay Das explains, “It’s important to package the tea at the right time so that when you open it, you are engulfed in just the right aroma.”
Besides the brews, the recently opened Taj Chia Kutir Resort & Spa has put the estate on the tourist map. Luxmi Group’s Managing Director and Obeetee’s Chairman, Rudra Chatterjee shares, “Guests at Taj Chia Kutir can enjoy tea trails and forest treks, and see how tea is grown, plucked and manufactured in the world’s oldest tea factory. They can also enjoy tea-tasting sessions including the varietals of this estate’s tea, and a range of flavoured and speciality teas.”
Being among experts begs the question—what is the correct way to prepare a cup of tea? While the brew time is entirely dependent on how strong you like your tea to be, you only need hot water and tea leaves to make the perfect cup. “Don’t add anything extra; the leaves have their own specific flavour,” Das cautions. “There’s also a special way to drink it. While sipping on something light and refreshing, like the White Tea, do a bit of a gargle and then gulp it. This allows the notes of the tea to hit your tongue, and the next sip you take will be surprisingly different. For the rest of the teas, make sure you slurp and not sip! You need to let the oxygen hit the notes of the tea to experience the perfect flavor,” he adds.
The locals at Makaibari believe that their cup of tea has the power to turn you into a tea lover, and rightly so! Amidst the scenic mountains, a slight nip in the air and the blanket of serene stillness, when you sip a freshly brewed first flush (the first plucking of the season), you do fall in love.