Inside the Indian Factory That Makes Your Favorite Tea Bags
Lockhart Tea factory in Kerala produces 20 million kilograms of tea every year. “The tea grown here is the purest in India,” says owner Asumugam. “All of our tea is exported—everywhere from Iceland to China to England, of course.”
"I drink no less than six cups of tea a day," explains Asumugam, owner of the Lockhart Tea Factory cafe just outside the town of Munnar in South India.
His teenaged son Abhishek, a heavy metal fan, refuses to drink his tea hot, only iced. Seconds after the five o'clock bell signals the end of work at the largest cultivator of tea in the country's south, a third man, Aldrin, interrupts.
"I drink 15 cups every day, just like my father does," he informs me.
A simple cup of tea might seem like the definition of Britishness, but to trace its origins, I find myself thousands of miles away in India's most southern state of Kerala. At 5,000 feet above sea level, Munnar is the highest tea-growing region in the world. The locals claim it's the best commercial-grade tea available, and many British companies agree. You can find tea grown on these lofty hills in the everyday blends of Tetley and PG Tips.
Harrisons Malayalam, owners of the Lockhart factory, produce 20 million kilograms of tea every year, and they're far from the only company operating in the area.
"The tea grown here is by far the purest in India," claims Asumugam, who has worked in the industry for 44 years. "We don't sell to Indian companies, all of our tea is exported—everywhere from Iceland to China to England, of course."
It's peak monsoon season when I visit the factory, which might be bad for my tan, but it's exceptionally good for tea. Comparisons to a rainy day in Stoke don't do justice to the gallons of water that fall from the sky every single day at this time of year. With the dreamy smell of cardamom and brisk chill in the air, Kerala has the kind of climate where a good brew becomes a necessity.
Luckily, every restaurant, shack and street seller has a steaming cup at the ready.
My first misconception is that there are different plants for each type of tea. Not the case, my rickshaw driver Ganesh carefully explains, holding out multi-pronged tea leaf against the backdrop of rolling hills.
"All types of tea come from the same leaf. The top part is white, the youngest bud," he says. "This mostly goes to China because they love the herbal flavor the best. The second is for green tea, the third black tea and the fourth dust—the lowest grade—which is filler."
Ganesh has driven round the precarious, monsoon-damaged paths surrounding Munnar all his life, and is married to a tea picker. From the roadside, hundreds of these pickers can be seen through the mist, braving the strong winds and harsh rains, traversing steep paths among the tea plants.
"The East India Company planted this tea 130 years ago," Ganesh explains. "The older the tea plant the better the taste, we say. The tea plants growing highest are more superior in taste."
Using this philosophy, the very same plants exist to this day, flourishing at more than 6,000 feet at their highest point.
When the British eventually lost their appetite for empire in the 1960s, the Indian holding company Tata bought many of the plantations, bringing with them what I'm told are better conditions and much-needed social reform. Ganesh sees me writing this down in the back of his rickshaw and wants to make a point about his wife's employer.
"Tata pays for the houses of its workers," he says. "They pay for healthcare of their workers' families and provide schooling."
Indeed, Ganesh lives in one of the many brightly painted Tata houses in the town, while his young children attend Tata schools.
Munnar is steeped in British culture, running far deeper than just its addiction to tea. Men at roadside stalls will sell you carrots, blackberries, and apples—never mangos or coconuts, owing to the rainy climate. Rickshaw drivers will greet you with a "lovely jubbly," while the main crossing point in town is named "Churchill Bridge."
Over on the fields, tea pickers use pairs of industrial scissors-turned-picnic-baskets to catch the leaves as they fall. For 30 kilos—a good day's haul—they are paid 301 rupees, about £3.40.
It's harder than it looks but the tea pickers scurry across the steep, wet slopes at frightening speeds. During the rainy season, each of the thousands of plants needs to be harvested every seven to ten days. From here, they're taken to the tea processing plant.
The first thing to hit you in the Lockhart factory is the smell. Sweet drying leaves and an intoxicating aroma to fill a thousand quaint Yorkshire tea shops. If Willy Wonka grew up as a Keralan tea fanatic, this would be his paradise—with the "Strictly no photos" signs only adding to the allure.
"When the leaves get here, we need to get all of the water out," says Arun, the factory tour guide. "This will take up to 17 hours."
Next, the tea leaves are rolled together in 100-year-old faded pistachio green machines. Men in forest green overalls shovel piles of tea into one of the oldest rollers, Britannia. The name being a clue of its previous owners.
"Here the leaves are twisted and made small," Arun explains, holding out a small piece of tangled tea.
The oxidation process is where the magic happens, with each strain adopting distinctive flavours. Tea will turn from a grassy green to the deep brown we're more familiar with at home.
"The longer the tea is left here, the stronger it becomes, with the darkness of the leaf being the best indicator of strength," Arun adds. From here, blisteringly hot dryers get rid of any leftover water.
The final room is a short-sharp shock into the 21st century, where Arun and other workers proudly tell me each leaf is filtered six times by electronic sensors by their new laser-guided contraption. The factory's recent purchase is not only a sign of our eternal demand for a good cuppa, but our growing insistence of the highest purity.
If you hadn't guessed, tea is a serious business here. Harrisons Malayalam won big at the Golden Leaf India competition, scooping eight awards in this year's contest. Inside the "Quality Assurance" building, contented men lounge around sipping cups and writing down notes all day, doing what seems to be one of the most chill jobs in the world.
Finishing in the factory cafe, it's time for a cup of Lockhart's Orange Pekoe. Though it might sound like a distant cousin of Earl Grey, the name lends more to the delicate copper colour than the flavour. Asumugam serves it black, without any kind of sweetener, in a clear glass cup to show off its amber glow.
We share that knowing sigh that comes after the first sip of any good cup of tea, his fifth of the day.
All photos by Ellie Pashley.