Makaibari Tea Estate

After our trek in the Himalayas, our next adventure on our Indian trip was a homestay at the Makaibari Tea Estate.  India is the second largest producer of tea in the world after China. The annual tea production in the Darjeeling and the surrounding area (including Kurseong) is estimated at 10,000 metric tons. Makaibari is the world’s first tea factory and was established in 1859. Prior to growing tea, the area grew corn.  Hence the name Makaibari which literally means corn field: makai means corn, bari means field. The Makaibari Estate sustains seven villages and 1,587 people.  It extends over 1575 acres of hills, valleys and forests at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. It is still managed by the original founding family. Rajah Banerjee, the current owner, is the 4th generation scion of this tea dynasty.

Our homestay was owned by Dilip Bhujel who is the cook of Rajah Banerjee.

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A painting in our room depicting the area.

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Soon after we arrived, the son of the homestay owner offered to take us on a walk around the village and surrounding area.  We walked to a lookout area over the surrounding hills where we could see some of the neighboring villages.

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Josh and our host looking out over the hills and the Makaibari villages.

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We watched as the sun was setting over the hills.

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Back at our homestay, we heard music coming from one of the homes next door.  Our host explained that it was some sort of blessing for the house.  The music went on well into the evening.

Back in our room after dinner.  The pet kitty was very friendly and joined us!

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The next morning after breakfast we headed over to the small volunteer office of the tea factory to meet our guide to start our tour.

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A shot of the small factory.

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Once inside the factory, we were taken to the room where the previous days’ plucking of tea is withered.  The leaves are laid out on big tables in a cool breezy room for several hours to pull moisture out from the leaves. The leaves sometimes lose more than a quarter of their weight in water during withering.

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The tea is then removed from the tables and dumped down to the lower level of the factory for further processing.  Here the factory worker is pushing the tea leaves down a hole in the floor.

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The tea leaves are now rolled.  This process bruises or crushes the tea leaves in order to promote and quicken oxidation.  Oils and juices are released with the rolling process that give the tea its distinctive aroma. Below a worker is putting tea leaves into the roller where they will be crushed or rolled.  The leaves are rolled for 40-60 minutes.

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After the leaves are rolled, they are taken for fermenting.  This process is different depending on whether Green, Oolong or Black tea is produced.  The most common misconception is that the different types of tea come from different tea plants. Black, Green and Oolong teas are all derived from the same plant. The difference comes from how the plant is processed. Black tea involves full, 100% oxidation (or fermentation).

Green tea processing does not involve oxidation. In order to neutralize enzymes and prevent oxidation, the leaves are typically steamed.

Oolong leaves are oxidized only 50%. The process is halted after two hours and then the leaves are fired in hot woks.

White Tea is derived from the first flush buds of the tea bush. It isn’t rolled first but is immediately fired so there is no withering or fermentation/oxidation. There is no rolling, breaking, or bruising of any kind. White tea is very pale in color, and mild tasting in the cup, reminiscent of Magnolia.

After fermenting, the leaves are dried. They are placed in an oven with temperatures reaching up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  Once dried, the leaves are sorted according to size. The larger grade is considered “leaf grade,” and smaller “broken grade” are usually used for tea bags.

Below tea leaves are placed into a machine for sorting.

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After our tour of the factory itself, we headed out into fields to observe the plucking of the tea leaves from the plants.  An overview of some of the nearby tea fields.

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Heading out across the fields.

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Women in the fields plucking the tea.

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We continued to take a walk around the surrounding area and fields.  We came across one coffee plant.  Coffee is not grown here commercially but this was someone’s private coffee supply.

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A nearby little girl with her teddy bear waving at us as we walked by!

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Another shot looking across the tea fields.

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On our walk we happened to run into the owner of the tea estate, Rajah Banerjee.  We had no idea he was the owner until our guide told us later.  He had a great sense of humor.  When we first met up with him in the fields, he asked what we were doing at Makaibari.  I told him we had come to see the tea.  He looked at me and said, “There’s tea here!”.  He also gave our guide a hard time.  We found out later from our guide that Mr. Banerjee walks the fields every day.

Later that afternoon, I took another walk on my own up into the small village above the tea estate.  A few pictures from my walk.

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Looking down on the Makaibari Tea Factory.

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Later in the afternoon we went back to the Makaibari Volunteer office to sample the various teas including First Flush, Second Flush, Green Tea, Oolong, White Tea, and Silver Tips.  First Flush pickings occur in March and April.  The Second Flush pickings occur in May and June.  July until November are devoted to green and white tea making.

The Silver Tips tea is a handmade semi-fermented light Oolong Tea which is plucked only on full moon days and nights during the plucking season.

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Some shots of the kitchen, our host preparing dinner, and eating dinner.

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Bitter squash was on the menu tonight.  I’ve never had it before.  It lives up to its name – it’s bitter!

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The next morning we took a few pictures of us with the host’s son before heading on our way to the airport in Bagdogra for our flight back to Delhi.  During breakfast he was telling us we needed to come back in October for the many festivals they have going on then.  He was very serious, had gotten out the calendar, and was telling us which festivals were when, telling us we should arrive on a particular day to have at least a day to rest before attending the first festival the following day!  He was planning that he would take us to the festivals and show us around.  And, he was sincere and I’m sure if we contacted him in October and told him we were coming, he would be very excited about it!

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5 thoughts on “Makaibari Tea Estate

  1. Interesting, informative, and a tough way to make a living. It was a joy to visit a country I knew nothing about and a country that is friendly and willing to teach others a way of life.

    • I always find it interesting to see and experience how people in other parts of the world live. It certainly provides a new perspective on how we live here in the United States.

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