The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
Nilgiri - Producing Both Quality and Quantity
About 1,500 miles south of the tea growing regions of Assam and Darjeeling,
high in the lush forests and jungles of the Nilgiri Mountains (or Blue Mountains)
that run down the southwestern   tip of
India from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, lies the
tea growing region of Nilgiri.
The Nilgiri Mountains rise from
around 1,000 feet at the low-
er elevations, with softly rolling foothills to
over 8,000 feet at the highest peaks.  Even
though the area is just 35 miles long and 20
miles wide there are nearly 150,000 acres of
tea covering valleys, slopes, and hills for as
far as the eye can see.

With its range of elevations, ample rainfall,
lush forests and jungles, misty valleys, a
series of high, sunny plateaus dropping down
to gently undulating grasslands and a multi-
tude of rivers and streams, the Nilgiri tea
growing region is as close to perfect as you
can get for tea to grow lush and plentiful.
In 1835 an Englishman named Mann is said to have been the first
person to plant jat (tea planter's term for
China bush garden in Nil-
giri.  The seed given to him to plant had been designed specifically
for the English to grow tea in this area.

Unfortunately the Opium War prevented any further development
or planting until 1959.  Later it was both the English and Scottish
that developed tea plantations in Nilgiri.  That is why today there
still exist tea estates named Dunsandle and Burnside, next to those named Kairbetta and

One of the first tea estates built in 1859
was Thiashola which is still in operation to-
day, acquiring
organic certification in 2003.

After British rule ended in 1947, many tea
estates became privately owned.  Today
there are more than 20,000 small land own-
ers and a few large tea estates in Nilgiri pro-
ducing tea.

The Nilgiri region experiences two monsoons
a year, the southwest and the northeast,
giving the tea two distinct wet and dry sea-
sons.  Each season is an important part of
the flavor characteristics taken on by the tea.  

The tropical climate of Nilgiri is closer to that of neighboring
Sri Lanka, than to India's northern
growing regions of
Assam and Darjeeling.  That's one of the reasons Nilgiri tea shares more
          similarities with
Ceylon teas than it does with its Assam and Darjeeling cousins.

          Plucking is carried out throughout the year, but the main
          season is from December to March.  The tea plucked during
          this season is called "frost tea," for the frosty, cooler winter
          weather, and the real threat of frost that could damage the
          tea crop.

          The Nilgiri tea growing region produces about 200,000 met-
          ric tons of tea which accounts for about 25% of India's total
yearly production.

          Known as "the fragrant ones," Nilgiri teas are flavorful, brisk, and bright.  One distinct
          characteristic of Nilgiri teas is that they don't cloud when
making iced tea, but remain a
          nice clear color.

                                                            Even though recently they have begun to produce a few
orthodox teas, most Nilgiri tea produced is CTC black
                                                            tea used in
blended teas and for tea bag blends.  CTC
                                                            teas are so named for the steps in their production pro-
                                                            cess; cut-tear-curl (or crush tear-curl).

                                                            Invented in 1931 by Sir William McKercher, to crush, tear,
                                                            and curl the fresh tea leaves in one simple process, the
          machine revolutionized tea production forever.

          The CTC machine is like a huge sieve, with fresh leaves fed in then extruded out as tiny
          bright green pellets.  They are then carried along on a conveyor belt as air is blown from
          above by powerful blowers, with oxidation taking place in less than an hour.

          Today nearly 95% of the
world's tea is CTC tea, which is also the primary ingredient in
          tea bags. While Nilgiri was once the market leader in
CTC tea production it now faces
          stiff competition from countries like Argentina and Vietnam, providing a glut of tea and
          driving down prices for all.  

          So, together with recent changes in the global economy,
          along with  low prices for its main export-CTC tea, Nilgiri is
          being hit twice as hard.

          To help turn things around Nilgiri growers have begun con-
          centrating on quality rather than quantity.  Many growers
          are turning to organic tea production as a way to single
          themselves out in the marketplace.
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Some others are also working on producing orthodox specialty teas such as Nilgiri green and Khukri Hari green.  This
is a smart move as the market for orthodox specialty teas is continually growing, with no signs of slowing down,
meaning there is more than enough room for more distinguished, flavorful teas like those from Nilgiri.