Monday, November 01, 2010

Macwood's Tea Estate

Around Nuwara Eliya (elevation 2,000m), we stopped at Mackwood’s Tea Estate for a tour. Founded in 1841, this company includes 27,000 acres of plantations consisting of 17 tea and rubber estates. In addition to exporting vast quantities of tea, it also exports essential oils, organic/biofoods, coconut/fiber geotextiles, and rubber. After some sampling of the orange pekoe tea, I went on a short tour of the factory.

The first step in tea is plucking. Only women do this job, as their hands are considered more nimble. These women deftly pick two leaves and a bud. About 10,000 kilos per day of leaves are picked on 1,200 acres. According to my guide, each bush yields about ½ kilo per pick. Each woman picks approximately 10-15 kilos per day and makes between 500-600 rupees ($4.40) a day. The company does provide health care, education, and other services for the families. Four times a month a bush can be picked again. About 1,000 workers are employed – most of whom are women. Men do work such as pruning (every five years a bush is pruned, after which plucking can be done in three months), weeding, and factory work. A natural tea bush can last 100 years. Macwood’s uses cloned ones, which last only about 60 years but produce a much higher yield.

The second step is withering. After about 14 hours, over 50% of the moisture from the leaves is gone. The crushing machine then takes about 250 kg of leaves at a time. Then the leaves are rolled for about 20 minutes, which twists the leaf and brings the juices to the leaf’s surface. Fermentation, the fourth step, takes about two hours. The tea is further dried for about 20 minutes in a special firewood kiln which reaches 105°C (220°F). Only about 2-3% of the moisture remains at this point. The extractor then separates the fiber from the leaves, with the leaves being graded by size and shape. Taste tests are conducted and the tea is packed in large bags, which are hauled to Colombo where they are auctioned. 80% of Mackwood’s tea goes for export. Asian and Arab countries are common destinations.

More costly tea grades such as silver tips follow a slightly different process, with the leaves drying in the sun. Seven kg of leaves yields only 1 kg of tea for this process. More expensive teas are flavorful by themselves and are not served with milk or sugar.

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