Tea ‘master’ B Manickam is frothing up milk in his two-roomed home when we walk in. His house is on a hill called Kanuvai in Coimbatore, and he has elephants for neighbours, although they keep to themselves. “They don’t come to this side of the hill,” he says, pouring steaming hot milk from an aluminium jug into a wide-mouthed vessel. The 57-year-old is the brain behind ‘layered’ tea, and is a latte artist in his own, rough-edged way.
He has placed four tea glasses at his counter by the stove. On a plate filled with thick tea decoction, are small heart, star, and lotus-shaped figures that he has fashioned out of copper wires — he will use them to give the final touch to his tea. He rubs his hands and gets to work.
Into one glass goes hot water that takes up one-fourth of the space. Manickam then introduces a one-inch-long layer of milk into it that sits on the water like a dream. It doesn’t mix. It floats over the water, while he creates another layer of decoction over it. The overall effect is beautiful — he lifts the glass to show us how it has three different shades. He creates similar glasses of his unique ‘layered’ tea — one has four layers (he can create up to five), which is made of deep-brown decoction, milk, light tea and froth. Another has a layer of tea sandwiched between two layers of milk. His final touch is the orange pattern of decoction he stamps on the froth in each glass with his copper-wire shapes.
“I create the layers using decoctions of varying consistencies,” explains the 57-year-old, settling down on stone steps overlooking a flight of steps leading downhill.
“Froth plays an important role in getting it right,” he adds. Manickam grew up in tea shops. “I ran away from home when I was 16 and worked in several tea shops. I assisted tea masters, learned how they worked, and often slept at the shops.”
Manickam came up with the innovation some 15 years ago. “I wanted to offer something unique for customers,” he says. Since he spent most part of his life at tea shops, he spent all his spare time trying out various techniques, and finally arrived at ‘layered’ tea. “I enjoy doing this,” he says. “Tea has given me a life and I’m happy that I’m able to create something new out of it.”
Manickam has worked at several tea shops in Coimbatore, but has never made enough money to start his own. He currently ferries tea to workshops on his moped, making around 500 cups a day. His innovation hasn’t gotten him anywhere. What he’s doing is art, we tell him, and he waves his hand, saying, “I make it for people who ask for it, otherwise, it’s regular tea that brings in my income.”