From their home in Siliguri, we drive with the Lochan Family to their family farm: Doke Tea Estate. Like most of low-lying Bihar, it is almost at sea level. Given the humidity of the late spring, walking through the farm feels almost like swimming through warm water, but the beauty of this all-natural farm and its pleasant bustle of people and livestock are worth it. Birds chirp loudly in the trees, attesting to the health of the land.
Neha "Dolly" Lochan, the family's daughter and tea crafter, says that you won't hear birds like that on a conventional, chemical-based farm. She leads tea harvest and production here at Doke Tea Estate, and is actively involved in developing new teas, cultivation styles, and utilities for their small local community. >> Learn more about the Lochan Family's mission.
And who is Dolly's most important teammate? Brownie, the Doke tea dog. Brownie follows Dolly the entire way as we tour the Doke Tea Estate, walking along the river and the trails that lead through the fields. She's a constant of Doke tea culture, and travels with the family between Siliguri and Bihar.
We walk through the estate, and see some bushes that have browned from the sun. Dolly explains that the trees scattered throughout the estate, called "neem", act as shade trees, protecting most of the tender bushes from the harsh Indian sun. Some varieties of neem have anti-pest properties. The lower trunks are painted white to ward against fungal infections.
The tea plants on Doke Tea Estate are mostly Camellia sinensis assamica, the large leaf variety that is common in most of South Asia. Many people say that this variety is not well-suited for quality tea production, but the Lochans are trying to challenging that. Whenever possible, instead of having the workers sell the leaf to the factories, Dolly makes a specialty microlot of tea entirely by hand, training the workers along the way. She invited us to help her craft some tea, and to start, we joined the estate team to pluck a small harvest of one leaf, one bud sets.
It takes our (inexperienced) team of foreigners more than half an hour to pick just this small amount of tea. It's a lot of work to pluck according to quality standards, but it's worth it, as all the leaves are young, tender, and flavorful with no breakage. Most tea pickers in South Asia also pluck lower-grade, older leaves, since the large factories just want more quantity for tea bags. Dolly has taught her team how to pluck specifically for quality material, which she needs to craft her specialty teas.
With our harvest in tow, it's off to the small processing unit that the estate team has built by hand using the bamboo and clay along the river. It's not fancy, but it's functional: sunny areas to wither teas, shaded areas to rest them, a drying oven, and a firepit for hand-firing tea. We set the leaves out to wither in the sun, reducing their moisture content enough so that they are ready for crafting later.
As the leaves wither in the back, Dolly gets started with the processing session by heating the chimney under her new iron wok. She's experimenting with pan-firing, the traditional Chinese method for making green tea. In comparison, the green tea she first developed, Doke Diamond Green, is steamed. She tosses the withered tea in the wok while Brownie keeps guard in the shade.
It's hot and intensive work, so she has some of her experienced team help her toss the leaves in the wok and roll the leaves in between pan-firing to help shape the leaves while they cool. The entire time, Dolly and her team have to make sure that they're careful with the leaves to prevent breakage, moving fast enough so that the tea doesn't overheat, and avoid burning themselves on the hot wok! We tried to help craft the teas ourselves, and learned how careful and skilled you have to be to even begin to make quality tea at all.
After about an hour and a half of pan-firing, rolling, resting, and repeating the process, the tea is finished and set out to dry. Fast forward to its completed stage during tasting (the tea on the right), as we joined Dolly in comparing it with a previous batch that was steamed.
The pan-fired tea was more potent and sharp, but had more flavor as well. The steamed tea, the original Doke Diamond Green, was more smooth and mildly sweet, but had less body. She will be trying the pan-fired tea again after it has been able to rest a few weeks, which is important for the tea to settle into its true profile.
In the meantime, American tea farmer Jason is busy with other farm things, like greeting the cows that supply natural fertilizer for the farm, and sharing tea seeds with his fellow tea farmers. Jason brought some tea seeds from Georgia in Europe, as a gift of increased tea diversity for the Doke Tea Estate.
Genetic variety is important for tea farms, as it ensures that some plants will be able to resist strains of disease or provide certain desirable characteristics for tea. The exchange of knowledge between tea farmers is important too, as they can share valuable experiences and perspectives.
It was a good day at Doke Tea Estate, learning about tea cultivation and processing. We all learned a lot from one another, and there is great progress that can be made both on the estate and in Bihar. Dolly has already developed some fan favorites for the Tealet collection, particularly the Doke Black Fusion, her newest developed tea. She plans to move closer to the farm to be able to process tea regularly, and create more specialty teas that are uniquely Bihar.