During my two-week trip to Kerala, India, I was lucky enough to visit the tea plantations and factories of Munnar. We spent a whole day driving around the tea plantations on 4WD jeeps, first visiting the local women who pick the tea leaves and then learning about how the tea is processed at the local factory. For me exploring the tea plantations of Munnar was one of the highlights of Kerala Blog Express.
About tea production in India
Commercial production of tea in India began as an attempt by the British to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. The British East India Company took over large areas of land, that were then converted for mass tea production. Tea is a very popular drink in India, so much that 70% of the tea produced in India is consumed in India itself. There are a number of different states in India that produce tea, with Munnar being one of the most popular and beautiful tea plantation regions.
Munnar is a region in the hills of Kerala, famous for having some of the most elevated tea plantations in the world. Back in the day British colonials used to come to Munnar to escape the Indian heat, and it is still the perfect place to do so. High in the hills, the climate is considerably different from its surrounding low-lying regions. In Munnar you can relax while enjoying stunning views over the valleys and tea plantations, while enjoying cool weather and escaping the Indian heat.
Touring the tea plantations of Munnar
We started the day by meeting the jeeps at the edge of the tea plantations. Since we were travelling around Kerala in a coach we would not have been able to drive on the unpaved roads of the plantations with it. We got on-board our vehicles for the day and set off on a beautiful drive with stunning views over the tea plantations and valley of Munnar. The road is unpaved so the journey can be a bit bumpy, just make sure to hold on and enjoy the ride! During our drive we learnt that the tea plants are actually trees that could grow up to 4 metres, but are kept short to make it easier to pick the leaves, which is why they look like bushes in the photos.
While visiting the tea plantations we got the opportunity to meet some of the women that work as tea pickers, who showed us how tea leaves are picked. All the leaves are handpicked either by hand (as the name implies) for the more delicate tea plants, or with the device you can see in photos below. Each woman must collect a minimum of 13kg of leaves a day, however the tea pickers usually collect between 100kg and 120kg of tea leaves a day. They get paid daily depending on how much they picked that day in kilos. The average salary of a tea picker is $8 a day.
Tea production in Munnar
Our tour of the tea plantations ended at the Lockhart tea factory, where they showed us how fresh tea leaves are processed to become the tea we drink. We arrived at the factory after a long morning spent driving around the plantations and were welcomed with tea and cakes. After our snack we started our guided tour of the tea factory. The tour started in the withering room, where the fresh leaves are placed on long tables to dry. The tables are actually made of a fine mesh as opposed to a solid surface, and hot air is pumped from below through them to aid the withering process.
Once the leaves have been withered and they are now more pliable they are moved on to the next step of the process; the rolling. This is done by huge machines that spin in circles and break up the tea leaves. When we walked into this room we were met by the deafening noise of the rolling machines, which they had to momentarily turn off to give us the opportunity to hear our guide and understand how it worked.
After the rolling takes place the leaves are now broken up and will naturally begin oxidising. They are then moved into a special room where they are left out to oxidize. When the oxygen reacts with the tea leaves it turns them brown, determining the tea’s taste, strength and colour. The darker the leaf the more oxidised it is.
Once the oxidization process is over the tea leaves are passed through another hot drier, which reduces their water content even more. The final step is for the tea leaves to be sorted and packed. The leaves go through another machine that detects the level of oxidation from the size and weight of the leaves and sorts it down different chutes. Here the factory workers sort the various bags with the right tea labels and it’s ready to be used for drinking! I was very surprised to discover that this whole process lasts only 24 hours from the moment the leaves are picked to when they are ready for shipping. I was equally surprised to discover that the same tea plant produces multiple different types of tea, it just varies depending on how it is then processed.
Have you ever visited a tea plantation? How did you find it? Let me know in the comments below! Visiting the tea plantations of Munnar was one of my favourite experiences of Kerala Blog Express. After the long journeys on the coach driving from one place to another; cruising the backwaters of Allaphuza or doing intense adventure activities in Wayanad, it was the perfect way to relax and enjoy being outdoors. Learning about how tea leaves are picked and processed was also extremely interesting. If you’re planning a trip to Kerala, I highly recommend visiting Munnar and its tea plantations.