In this part of the world we’re seldom begging for rain, but in Assam (North India) the ever-faithful Monsoon has kept them waiting.
Indian tea bushes have a well-deserved rest during the winter, December to April, but when “liquid sunshine” arrives in the form of the life-giving Monsoon, its tea growing time.
It kept us waiting this year, a few weeks late actually, and the tea bushes went on a go-slow but it’s arrived with a vengeance and flushing time is here (flushing is when the tea bush sprouts fresh leaves) and this is happening every 10-14 days … really !
Hopefully the crop will play catch up now because we love Indian tea, it plays a really important part in our blends, and we need to start making our purchases for this season. Let’s hope it’s a vintage one !
It seems that nowadays we call everything tea, even when there’s no tea in it !
Ok, I know I am a little inflexible sometimes but to me, if it’s not leaves from the Camellia Sinensis tea bush, then it’s not tea !
You see tea has always been made from the leaves of the Camelia Sinensis tea bush, which loves being grown in hot, humid climates. These leaves will taste a little different depending on whether the Camellia is grown in India, China, Kenya or wherever. The soil, altitude and temperature very much influencing its taste and flavour.
This amazing shrub can grow ( flush ) new leaves every 7 to 10 days for most of the year, and is happy to do this for over 100 years !
It’s not that I have anything against Peppermint, Camomile or Rooibos, they are herbs that do some very clever things, like lifting you up, calming you down, cleansing and refreshing you. It’s just that they are not ( strictly speaking ) teas, rather herbal infusions or tisanes…if you want to be posh !
Thanks for listening, I feel better now.
Great Taste Awards 2012
I apologise in advance for the next few lines, if they sound a little boastful, but we tea blenders love a little pat on the back from time to time !
You see, “Thompson’s Punjana”, our hero brand, again struck Gold in this year’s Great Taste Awards, which means it has won more Gold Stars in the past 5 years than any other mainstream tea !
As if that wasn’t enough our recently launched “Thompson’s Titanic Tea” was awarded a much coveted 3 Gold Stars, an award reserved for only 120 of the 8800 Food and Drink entrants in this year’s Great Taste Awards 2012.
Our “Irish Breakfast” and “Punjana Loose Tea” also struck Gold taking our total haul to 9 Gold Stars.
The unique thing about the Great Taste Awards is that the judging is carried out by 40 judges in various parts of England and all entries are tasted blind…so no chance of being influenced by a posh brand name!
Consistency of quality is all important and tea tasting can be very intense. Every 7 to 10 days, there is a new crop to taste. That’s right, it takes only 10 days for the tea bush to grow new leaves which are picked, dried and flown to our tasting room in Northern Ireland. Cousin David and I sip, slurp, and spit our lives away, selecting only our favourite teas from the hundreds of fresh samples which are offered to us every week. We behave like a couple of fussy, argumentative primadonnas, waiting all year for our moment in the spotlight, confirmation that we know what we are doing !
So well done all you Thompson’s Tea drinkers, it shows you’ve got Great Taste too.
Nothing’s changed ….. honestly !
You may have noticed that we’ve changed things a bit on our packaging … the Thompson’s Family Teas name is much bigger and Punjana is smaller.
The new design simply streamlines our range of teas, which has expanded over the last few years, but Punjana is still our “ hero brand “ and we wouldn’t change anything about it for the world !
James and Tony Thompson introduced Punjana tea to the world in the 1950’s. Following the famous “ Pick Punjana Tea “ television ads Punjana tea quickly became a household name, so much so that it now holds the lofty title of Northern Irelands Best Selling Tea !
In recent years we have introduced a number of new tea blends such as Irish Breakfast, Scottish Blend and even the incredibly popular Titanic Tea to celebrate the launch of the legendary ship in our home town. It seemed like the logical thing therefore to push the “Thompson” name to the top of the pile as, after all, the Thompsons make each and every one of them.
So there we are, the only thing we’ve changed is our pack designs, and I hope you like them.
Tea Bushes with Frostbite …..You’re kidding?
I’m afraid not, and it looks like 5 thousand tonnes of beautiful Kenyan tea leaves may be lost from January’s crop.
Amazing, considering daytime temperatures average 24º but it’s at night time that the damage is done. Worse still, it takes the bush 6 weeks to recover.
But recover it will, because it’s a hardy shrub and produces new leaves for picking every 7 to 10 days! …. Pretty impressive, especially as it can keep this up for over 100 years!
Kenyan tea is bright in colour with a sweet flavour and container loads of it are shipped into ports in UK and Ireland every week and this loss of crop through frostbite will no doubt send prices soaring at the Mombasa Tea Auction next week. At Punjana we love teas grown at 7000’ above sea level, and East of the Rift Valley. They are a little more expensive form this area, having a more intense taste and flavour, but we reckon they’re worth it.
Anyway, don’t worry too much about Kenya’s tea bushes, they will be fine, because their full name is “ Camellia Sinensis “ and we have many of it’s Camellia cousins growing in this part of the world, and if it can survive our winters, it will breeze through Kenya’s cold snap!
How’s it done ?
1. Tea leaves are picked from the top of the bush ( which is a Camelia Sinensis shrub ) snapping the stem just below two leaves and a bud.
2. Baskets full of tea leaves are then carried to the leaf processing factory.
3. These freshly plucked leaves are then spread out on huge withering racks ( called withering troughs ) in layers no deeper that 8 inches.
4. Fresh air is blown slowly through the layer of leaves from below and then from above, this takes 12 hours and removes 65% of the moisture
5. The leaves are now floppy ( withered ) and are ready to be cut into varying particle sizes by a set of CTC ( cut, twist and curl ) rollers.
6. These tea leaf particles are then placed on a very slow moving rack with cool air gently blowing through from below. During the next 50 minutes oxidation will take place and the green tea leaves will turn quickly to a coppery colour. ( just like an apple if you bite into it and leave it )
7. We’re nearly there…the oxidized tea leaves are then transported by conveyor to a huge oven ( dryer ) where the leaves are dried by jets of hot air which keep the leaf particles in mid air and travelling for a distance of about 20 metres until they fall out the end of the drier and are collected, and graded into different particle sizes by sieves.
8. That’s it, pure, innocent and natural….just tea leaves that are picked, broken up and dried, waiting for you to rehydrate then with boiling water when you feel like a cuppa …..make sure it’s a good one !
So you want to be an Award Winning Tea Blender ?
O.K, just follow these simple steps :
1 Find the best tea gardens in Kenya and Assam, the ones who’s leaves have more taste and flavour and a beautiful colour.
( I’m afraid tea tasters all over the world agree which are the best, so you’re going to have to pay more than your competitors to get them ).
2 Be around all the time to taste the new growth because the tea bush can sprout fresh leaves every week and it won’t always taste the same.
( Every week,little foil sample packs of the fresh growth are air-mailed to you to approve or reject )
3 Study the rainfall in Kenya and India every week, because too much rain means the bush grows too quickly and the leaves are not as tasty.
4 Be very, very fussy and make sure you really love the tea before you purchase it and make it part of your blend.
( Imagine it’s your mother who is going to be drinking it, and don’t disappoint her ! )
* I forget to mention that Assam ( North India ) makes it’s best leaves in June, July and August so you have to store them at your factory for ages. That ties up a lot of cash but, worse still, they won’t stay fresh for ever so you pay more to have them Vacuum Packed….well you did say you wanted to win awards, didn’t you !
I visited a stunning garden in Assam called Phulbari ( pronounced fool : barry ). It is owned by the world renowned McLeod Russel group and it is hugely impressive. From the breathtaking scenery to the sparkling factory where the leaves are broken up and dried, it is hard to imagine how tea could be better made.
This garden is over 2000 acres of tea bushes and while I was there they were in full flow, plucking the entire garden every week !! The photos above show a tiny section of the garden just after it has been plucked, very picturesque !
Two leaves and a bud are picked every week and this forms a new flush on top of the bush about 3 to 4 inches in height. When you see the leaves being plucked and realize that those leaves are simply broken up, fermented for an hour and dried, you just can’t wait to sample the finished product. There surely can’t be any beverage more pure or wholesome.
The botanical name of a tea bush is Camellia Sinensis and indeed there are many strains of Camellia grown in this part of the world, I have attached a photo of one at the Punjana factory (left), we planted a lot of them and they flower beautifully in the spring. So whether its China tea, Indian tea or Ceylon tea, it’s a Camelia plant. The different taste characteristics can be influenced by soil types, the altitude it is grown at and whichever clone is selected.
Assam tea is seasonal, the monsoon driving growth for most of the year, but in December the rains have disappeared. Production stops and the bush rests right through to March, when temperatures once again start to rise and the much needed moisture from the Monsoon returns. Whilst tea is grown in Assam from March through to end of November, we normally buy only June, July and August growth as this is well known for being the best quality period.
A bit more next time about exactly what happens to the leaf, from when it is picked off the bush, to the finished product ready for brewing !
I’m just back from a visit to some of Assam’s finest tea gardens, and I must admit, that wasn’t a bit like work ! These gardens are owned by Calcutta based McLeod Russell Group, who are possibly the finest tea growers in the world. They have a passion for quality, and go to amazing lengths to look after their workforce
It is impossible to describe the feeling you get when you first set eyes on these beautiful gardens. No photograph can capture the 360 degree view of a two thousand acre estate with every tea bush cared for like a prize exhibit. The flat top of the tea bush ( the plucking table) is as level as a snooker table and stretches as far as the eye can see. They pick two leaves and a bud off the top of the bush every week ! This new fresh growth looks so appetizing and healthy, you just can’t wait to taste a cup.
To turn these leaves into the tea we drink is a simple and completely natural process. Once picked by hand, these leaves are stretched out on huge racks to wither for 12 hours, that’s the slow bit. Then the leaves are chopped up into various particle sizes and left to ferment for about one hour. These leaves, now copper coloured, are
conveyed into a huge hot air dryer, where they float in mid air for about 20 metres, become completely dry and stay that way until you decide to have a brew !
I visited tea gardens called Phulbari, Pertabghur and Behali…. strange names I know, but I am really proud that our company is so closely associated with them, and for so long.
So what did I learn from this trip? I suppose I was reminded that Assam is an amazing place to grow tea, and when it is grown by people who are passionate and incredibly talented, it will continue to be the drink of choice for most of the world.
I’m off to India next week to visit some Assam ( North East India ) tea gardens. Some absolute beauties in fact, owned by McLeod Russel India Ltd, who are possibly the finest privately owned tea growers in the world. I will be landing at Pertabghur tea garden and from there travelling to neighboring Phulbari and Monabarrie tea estates.
Assam tea doesn’t grow all year round as it is seasonal, taking a well earned breather from December to March, so I’m getting there just in time.( I’m assured the bushes are in full flow, producing leaf at a rate which requires to be picked every week ! ). The Monsoon eventually dried up a few weeks ago so it is now warm and sunny on the estates..can’t wait to get there, see my next blog for an update.