When we woke on Sunday it was still raining, but we didn’t let that interfere with our plans. At the top of our agenda for today was touring the tea factory at Glenburn Tea Estate to learn how Darjeeling tea is made! Since it was Sunday, most of the people who work at the factory were off which made it easier for us to take a tour inside without getting in anyone’s way, but it also meant we didn’t get to see each step of the process in action. Luckily, we had an excellent tour guide who easily filled the gaps for us.
On our tour, we learned about the tea-making process from start to finish – from the minute the tea leaves are brought in from the fields to when they are packaged up to be shipped out and sold in stores and tea shops all around the world. Following the tour, we enjoyed a tasting of many of the teas produced by the factory at Glenburn. I’ll try not to ramble on too much as I attempt to explain the whole process, but this one’s going to be a little lengthy regardless!
DRYING THE LEAVES
On our hike through Glenburn, we got to see the first step in the tea-making process – the picking of the tea leaves. The tea pickers work quickly over areas of land covered in tea plants, tossing the fresh tea leaves into a basket on their back as they move along. Once the baskets are full, the leaves are brought to the factory to be dried out on these drying tables. The tables are operated by huge drying fans on the other side of the wall. When we were there, the tables were not in operation, but judging by the size of those fans, I’m guessing it gets awfully loud in here on weekdays! The tea leaves usually dry here for 16 to 18 hours, but our guide said it can sometimes take even longer. The dryness of the leaves is determined by hand before they are moved on to the next location.
TWISTING AND FERMENTING
The next room we entered on our tour was the second location the leaves go when brought to the factory. This room actually serves two purposes, both twisting and fermenting. After the tea leaves have been appropriately dried out, they are sent through the Super Twist machine which looks like something straight out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In this machine, the leaves are twisted into the form you typically see when purchasing loose leaf tea. After the leaves exit the machine, they are placed on fermenting tables. They stay here for a number of hours until they are ready to go on to the next room. Their “doneness” is determined by smell. Long-time workers in the factory can tell immediately whether the leaves are done fermenting or if they will require extra time before moving on to the next step.
Once the tea leaves are properly fermented, they are moved to the biggest room in the factory and the area where they will be completely dried out via a machine that essentially heats them until dry. (These guys were practically the only workers in the factory the day we visited. I don’t know why they didn’t get the day off, but this guy certainly doesn’t look too happy about having to be at work on a Sunday. Ha!)
SORTING THE LEAVES
Next, the completely dry tea leaves go through a sorting machine which sorts them into five different categories of tea. The highest grade is the full, larger leaves and the lowest grade of tea is the kind that looks like powder. The powder-type tea is the kind you’ll find in the cheap tea packets you buy at the grocery store. The higher grade ones are sold as loose leaf tea for a much steeper price.
After being sorted into different grades, the tea is then placed into piles around the factory to be manually picked through by another kind of tea picker. It is these ladies’ job to pick through the sorted leaves, making sure there are no bugs or debris mixed in with the tea before it’s packaged up. (I’ll try not to think about how many bugs they may miss while doing this. I’ll take my tea without extra protein, thank you!)
PACKAGING THE TEA
In its final step before leaving the factory, the tea then goes to the packaging room where it is packed up in bags and boxes and shipped to locations all over the world. I like the saying that they stamp on the sides of the boxes that get shipped out!
TASTING THE FINAL PRODUCT
Our last stop on the tour was the tea tasting room where eight different types of Glenburn tea were set up for us to try. I’ve never been to any sort of tasting before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it definitely never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t actually be swallowing the tea.
Everyone was given their own spoon, and for each cup of tea, we were supposed to dip our spoon into the cup to get a sip before passing it along to the next person. For a germophobe like me, this was a little gross. Obviously, this wouldn’t be an issue for the first cup of tea where no one had stuck their spoon in their mouth yet, but for each subsequent cup, everyone’s dirty spoons were going back in the cup. That’s the tea cup equivalent of double-dipping, you guys!
Besides the germ issue, the tasting experience was actually pretty cool. Once we’d sipped our spoonful of tea, we were supposed to swish it around for 60 seconds (or as long as we could), and then spit it out in a large bucket.
Sip. Swish. Spit. Repeat. After awhile it gets less gross, but I wouldn’t recommend doing this on a first date or anything. I really enjoyed the green tea and Glenburn’s second flush tea. Second flush was what we drank at every tea time at the estate since it was the tea in season at the time we were there. Many of the other teas were much too strong for my taste. Cory’s favorite was a tea called Moonshine, and so we came home with a bag of it. (But it’s nothing like the white lightning we know as moonshine here in the south!)
So there you have it – how Darjeeling tea is made in a nutshell! I found the entire process fascinating, but do you want to know the most important thing I learned? That I need to be extra vigilant from here on out about checking my loose leaf tea for bug appendages before I brew it!
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