Global Tea Regions - Nilgiri and Southern India
Around the world with Tea
The Nilgiri is a mountain range in southern India, a part of the Western Ghats, which is located at the interstice of the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The Nilgiri district is now entirely in the state of Tamil Nadu but was a part of the Madras Presidency of the British Raj when tea was introduced to the region in the early nineteenth century. Located eleven degrees north of the Equator and on average 2000 meters above sea level, these hills were home to thousands of flora, fauna, and tribes that have been displaced to create tea plantations. In fact, the name Nilgiri or Blue Mountain refers to an indigenous shrub, Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) whose purplish-blue flowers only bloom once every twelve years but once covered these mountains like a carpet.
Similar to Darjeeling, the area was first developed as a hill station for British soldiers to escape hot Indian summers. Experimental plants of the Chinese bush were first planted in 1835, which demonstrated the viability of tea production. However, large-scale tea cultivation took off after the 1950’s, and that was done primarily with the Assam variety.
The Nilgiris are the only major Indian tea region that has a significant amount of small growers supplying the green leaves used to make the finished tea. In the plantation model that dominates Darjeeling and Assam, a private person or company owns the land, and subsequently the tea bushes and their leaves.
In the Nilgiris, 70% of cultivation is done by independent small growers, who typically own less than hectare. They sell their harvested green leaf to factories for processing, and the local term is “bought leaf factories.” This strengthens the position of local communities in the supply chain, as they directly capture the value of their work.
Nilgiri teas are bright and with a natural sweetness reminiscent of honey. The flavours is lovingly called “the taste of sweet sunshine”, and it is no coincidence that Nilgiri teas are considered the best for making sun teas and iced teas. This is because of their natural sweetness, and also because they don’t cloud easily. This ensures that the tea both tastes and looks inviting. Nilgiri teas are lower in tannins than most other varieties, which makes it difficult to over steep.
The best teas appear after the winter months, when the cold slows the plants growth and concentrates the polyphenols in the stretching leaf. These teas are known as “frost teas” and are offered only in extremely limited quantity.