1862 Tea Growing in India

1862 - Tea Growing in India




                     A wonderful story from the New York Times of 1862

                                                           From p.3: New York Times. March 23 1862


The Territory—Companies Engaged in the Business—
Particulars of the Cultivation, &c., &c.

Correspondence of the New-York Times.

    SIBSAUGOR, ASSAM, India, Monday, Jan. 6, 1862.—Probably few of your readers are aware of the importance that attaches to the new enterprise of tea cultivation in Northeastern India, an enterprise which is destined ere long to make a decided impression upon the tea markets of the world.

    Assam, the principal tea-producing province of India, comprises an extent of territory about 400 miles in length by about 50 in width, lying on both banks of the Brahmaputra River, and situated from 600 t0 1,000 miles to the northeastward of Calcutta. On the north and south lie vast mountain regions inhabited by savage tribes. The latitude of Assam is about 27 degrees north, being, I am told, the same as that of the best tea-growing regions of China.

    It is now more than 25 years, I believe, since tea was discovered growing indigenous in the wilds of Upper or Northeastern Assam. The India Government commenced the cultivation, but soon made it over to a private company, called "The Assam Tea Company." Owing, however, to bad management and want of experience, the success of the enterprise seemed so doubtful that at one time the shares sold at 10 and 12 per cent., which now cannot be had at 240. This subsequent success of the Assam Tea Company so stimulated private enterprise that grants of land began to be taken in all directions, and men of small means soon found themselves possessors of wealth.

    At the present time great activity prevails in every direction. The best portions of forest land are hunted out, and beautiful plantations are taking the place of the deep forest wilds. Government officers, both civil and military, manage to evade the form of law which prohibits Government servants engaging in private enterprise, and nearly all are investing their splendid salaries in this most successful speculation. New companies are formed, so that now there are also The Central Assam Tea CompanyThe Jorhaut CompanyThe Sylhit and Cachar Tea Company, all having large capital, and a certain prospect of success. Capitalists in Calcutta and elsewhere are most eager to invest; and, from the furor of excitement, one would imagine that a new California or Australia had been discovered.

    Speaking with the Government Officer of this place the other day, he informed me that he had then in hand some forty new applications for land, and that it was with great difficulty he could get the grants surveyed fast enough. Yet his jurisdiction extends over only one of the six or eight districts of the Province.
    Thousands of acres are now cleared every year; and many of the plantations are only just beginning to be productive—four years growth being required for the shrub before it becomes remunerative; yet the aggregate produce in Assam last year is estimated at near two million pounds. This figure will advance yearly with great rapidity, till tea will form one of the most important exports of Calcutta.

    The lands at present being taken up consist of those forest lands most accessible from the great river; but further back on the borders, and in the hills, the best of tea land exists to an extent that knows no limit. The hills are known to be full of indigenous tea trees, whose unchecked growth... emulates the loftiest monarchs of the forest. Seed is brought down by the Nagas, or hill people, and sold to the planters. These people are, however, extremely jealous of the foreigners, and are, for the most part, under British control only to the extent of keeping the peace on the borders, under penalty of their much-valued trade with the plains being prohibited. The time may come, however, when these wild tribes will be brought into subjection, and the cultivation may then be extended to a degree limited only by considerations of accessibility to market, and the demands of trade.

    Indeed, further down toward Calcutta, where the hill people are under British rule, the tea culture is beginning to be most vigorously and successfully prosecuted. About half way between Calcutta and Assam is the province of Cachar, which, some five years ago, was a vast, howling wilderness—and "howling" means what it says, in these Oriental climes—but which now is becoming a scene of the most active enterprise. Though all the plantations are still in their infancy, and many just entered upon, still the Government revenue of the province has risen, within five years, from some $25,000 to six times that amount. Some sixty or eighty Englishmen are already there, and capital to the extent of half a million dollars is yearly expended. In a few years this whole district will become one vast tea plantation; for, owing to its being so much nearer Calcutta than Assam, the profits are much greater. Moreover, from its vicinity to the vast and over-populous plains of Bengal, the great difficulty of securing native labor, which is such a serious drawback at Assam, will be much less felt.

    There are, in all these tea-producing districts, two kinds of soil, one high land, and which, in its wild state, is covered with forest, and another low land, covered with reeds and tall prarie grass. This last is the rice land of India. Whenever the English settler goes in and takes up forest land and opens out roads, the native settler follows and takes up the rice land—a matter of the utmost convenience to both. This is especially the case in the province of Cachar. In Upper Assam, however, the country is very sparsely settled, owing to a Burmese invasion from the South some 40 years ago, by whom the country was almost depopulated. For this cause, and from the fact that the Assamese are exceedingly disinclined to labor as coolies, great embarrassment is felt by the tea planters, many of whom are obliged to import labor from Southern India at great expense. Still the business pays, in spite of every embarrassment.

    The soil best adapted to the growth of tea is a sandy loam of a reddish or yellow color, light, and loose, into which the long root of the tea plant runs down to a great depth, and which does not retain much water.

    There are three kinds of tea plant cultivated in Assam, one called the Assam, or indigenous plant; another the China plant, and a third a cross between the two, called the Hybrid. The Assam plant is best, producing much more than the China, and having a tenderer leaf, or a leaf that retains its tenderness much longer. The Hybrid is, however, considered about as valuable as the Assam, from its being, it is said, more hardy, and nearly as productive.

    The tea-plant, or shrub, is not allowed to grow higher than about three feet, or, in the case of very large plants, three and a half to four feet high. They are planted in straight rows about six feet apart, and in the best soil, even wider apart than this, as they frequently grow to a bush of six feet, or even eight feet wide.
    When the producing season, which is from April to October, is past, the plants are usually sheared or clipped, so that the top level is gracefully rounded, thus bringing the next season's flush of tender leaves out upon the surface, where they will be easily accessible for plucking.

    It is a sight for mortal eyes to feast upon and never grow weary of beholding, to gaze off as far as the eye can reach upon tea—all tea—oceans of faultless green, with the delightful associations of "the draft which cheers but not inebriates," and all the pleasant thoughts that memory brings. I must say, that among all the agricultural associations, I know of none which I think would be so agreeable, baiting some of the vexations connected with native labor, as that of growing tea. Talk of the great cotton plantations! Out upon them! I wish we could make cotton cloth out of tea! But let that pass.

    The process of manufacturing tea is extremely simple. The small and tender leaves, being plucked and brought to the tea-house, are partially wilted in the sun, as the first day's process. On the second day the wilted leaves are taken in large handfuls, and rolled or kneaded with the palm of the hands, by a sort of double motion, one hand rolling backwards while the other rolls forward, thus giving the mass in hand a twist, producing the rolled or twisted shape which characterizes the market tea.

    During the process, which is done upon a slightly rough braid, or mat-like basket work, the juice of the leaves exudes so that the mass is drenching wet. It is next thrown into a large heated iron kettle—called the pan—which is so set in mason work that no smoke can come in contact with the tea—one breath of which would spoil it all—and the mass is stirred briskly with a short hand-broom, and the other hand keeping it moving so rapidly that it has no chance of burning; and when it steams and crackles nicely it is quickly swept out, not a fragment remaining in the pan.

    This hot mass is seized again by the manipulator and rolled as before, after which it is once again subjected to the roasting process, and then rolled again.

    It is still wet, and now remains to be carefully dried. For this object it is placed over charcoal fire till it is bone dry. Next comes the sifting process, to bring out the different qualities of tea. That which passes the first, i.e., the fine sieve, is the best or finest quality of tea. What remains is then put into a coarser sieve, giving the second quality; a still coarser sieve gives the third, and so on.

    It is then taken and subjected to a final drying, and immediately packed in the lead-lined boxes, pressed very close (nothing so good as the natives' feet for this, I believe!) then soldered up to be looked upon no more till it turns up behind the merchants counter, and is dished out by polite clerks to become the delightful beverage of "fair women and brave men" in far-off Western lands.

    The tea manufactured in Assam is black tea only. And here I will, with due modesty of opinion, venture a word or two about green tea. I have made inquiry of every tea planter I have met in Assam, as to whether the lively flush on the green tea of China is caused by some extraneous drug, or whether it depends solely upon the process of curing the leaf. The greater number have said that there is no need of any poisonous matter to make green tea, and that they can make it themselves.
    I will not trust my memory so far as to say in what this different process consists, but will simply say that I have seen green tea and drank it—that it is stronger than the black, but is made by a slower and more laborious process, and the planters say it does not pay. I must in justice, however, mention that the green tea which I have seen lacks the particular flush of our market tea, and while I do not feel prepared to speak with confidence, I am, nevertheless, inclined to think that "John Chinaman" puts in the least bit in the world of something to give the tea a finish for the "outside barbarians," a process similar to that invented, I believe, by our polite neighbors, the French, to give a healthy complexion to their pickles!
    Probably if any extraneous matter is put in, however, it is not much, and that here, as in many other things, a little goes a great way. That green tea, though of a rather faded color, and that, too, which will play pranks with delicate nerves, can be made from the pure leaf, I have seen with my own eyes; so I think our fair friends may sip their green tea in—yes, say—in peace!

    Assam tea enjoys the reputation of being a better flavored and stronger tea than the China, and commands, I am told, a higher price in the English market, it being much used also to mix with weaker teas, to give them tone and flavor. As far as I have heard, all who once become accustomed to Assam tea prefer it to the China, and think it a hardship to go back to it again. At first, however, Assam is frequently not liked as well.
    I have heard that some years ago a Committee of scientific men in England made examination of all the teas in the English marketplace, and that the Assam tea was found to be the only pure and unadulterated article, and that it was pronounced to be strongest and best-flavored of them all.

    It is rather remarkable that Assam tea has never yet found its way to our own tea-drinking America. It is not long, however, since the people of Calcutta, even, turned up their noses at it; but now it is much sought after, and has an extensive sale there. Once our people get the taste of it, it is sure to be preferred, unless the present high price be thought an objection. It will become cheaper, undoubtedly, in a few years. To be sure of securing the genuine article—without wishing any offense to John Bull—I would recommend, if that were my business, which it is not, that is be procured directly from the store-houses of Calcutta.

    I have now only to repeat what I have stated, that before many years elapse, tea will form one of the most important exports of Calcutta; that tea cultivation in India will soon affect the markets of every land, and that China will soon cease to enjoy a monopoly of the tea trade of the West.

    The words "Assam Tea," moreover, are certainly destined to be read upon the merchants signs in Broadway, alongside those nasal-sounding names, and that barbarous scrawl which, all we can or care to know, mean China and Tea.