At Donyi Polo Tea Estate in Arunachal, exotic organic teas break records

Donyi Polo Tea Estate, located in a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh, has been smashing auction records with its Golden Needle and Purple teas

January 12, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated January 13, 2019 09:47 am IST

One of a kind: Organic tea brewed at Donyi Polo

One of a kind: Organic tea brewed at Donyi Polo

The process is relatively simple for such an exotic tea: Bring the water to boil, pour the boiling water into a cup containing some tea leaves, wait for around two minutes before pouring it into another cup. Transferring the water from pot to cup to second cup reduces its temperature by some 25°C, and therein lies the trick that will bring out just the right flavour of Oolong.

This is what Manoj Kumar, senior manager of Arunachal Pradesh’s Donyi Polo Tea Estate, told us. He should know: Donyi Polo produces six varieties of ‘speciality teas’ (of which Oolong is one) and was in the news last year when its Golden Needles tea sold for a whopping ₹40,000 a kilo, making it the most expensive tea sold at any auction in India till date.

Made with care

Located in the hamlet of Oyan in East Siang district, Donyi Polo has been producing tea since the 80s, but has become famous lately because Golden Needles sold for a fortune at the Gauhati Tea Auction Centre (GTAC) in Assam. And soon after, 1.2 kilos of its Purple Tea auctioned last October for ₹24,501 per kilo.

Kumar, who joined the estate as assistant manager in 1995, says that a speciality tea is “made with care,” reaching its full potential only when “everything, including weather conditions, align”. Which means that these teas — Oolong, Yellow, White, Silver Needles, Golden Needles, and Purple — cannot be produced throughout the year. Golden Needles requires dry and sunny weather, typical of higher altitudes, to grow. Donyi Polo, located in the foothills, does not enjoy that weather throughout the year, Kumar points out.

Manoj Kumar trying out samples in the tea testing room

Manoj Kumar trying out samples in the tea testing room


Rare brew

In his bungalow on the estate grounds on a sun-dazzled morning, Kumar sounds like a museum curator talking about a prized painting when he says that while golden-tipped tea is grown and sold elsewhere in the country, the Donyi Polo estate is the only one that produces tea made from the distinctive needle-shaped, golden tea buds. The difference is fine but significant — the variety grown in some other estates consists of buds with golden tips, but in Donyi Polo, the entire bud is golden.

“Outside China, Golden Needles is grown only here,” Kumar says, adding that recent developments in the tea sector are encouraging tea-plantation owners in the Northeast, who are slowly growing in number now, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.

Assam tea is known worldwide but tea in Arunachal Pradesh is relatively new, still considered a non-traditional growing area. In the past few years, the local market has been flooded with home-grown tea. The State’s potential in terms of climate and its numerous Himalayan-fed rivers and streams is only just being tapped.

Many Arunachal Pradesh teas are marketed as organic. The importance of the organic tag is not lost on Donyi Polo, where efforts are underway to turn the entire estate organic. Around 100 hectares of the 421.94 hectare gardens already have that distinction.

It is believed that Purple Tea originated in the Northeast, but was never widely cultivated. This strand of

tea has been grown in Kenya for the past few years. Kumar thinks that the British took saplings from the Northeast for cultivation in Africa. “Negligence led to its discontinuation,” Kumar says. The discovery of Purple Tea in Donyi Polo was accidental.

Workers at Dony Polo sifting tea leaves

Workers at Dony Polo sifting tea leaves

Chance discovery

In 2014, while exploring the grounds, the estate’s team chanced upon some leaves growing ‘wild’ — they turned out to be Purple Tea. Soon after, 500 plants were cultivated and around 6 kilos of tea produced by Donyi Polo.

After tasting and testing of the anthocyanin-rich antioxidant tea, it was auctioned at GTAC. The leaves, which produce an exotic purple-coloured tea, are said to to be good for fighting cancer, building immunity, and helping with heart conditions.

The Donyi Polo batch will be presented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Vibrant Gujarat summit starting in Ahmedabad on January 18.

There are plans to expand the production of Purple Tea but the attention to detail required to bring out to the correct flavour means that it is an uphill task. The tea sector is labour-intensive: Kumar says that even the high prices that Donyi Polo teas are fetching at auctions are still lower than what they deserve. Only the best quality of buds and leaves can go into the making of speciality teas. For Golden Needles, plucking just 100 grams of buds fit for sale can take around eight hours.

About 15 kilos of Purple Tea can be plucked at one time. In contrast, 25 kilos of any non-speciality tea such as CTC can be plucked during an eight-hour shift. Also, Golden Needles requires special treatment — only its buds are to be plucked, then hand-rolled to give them the needle-like shape. All this means that for speciality teas, the plantation cost alone can be ₹3-3.5 lakh per hectare.

The day I visit is a Sunday, and the estate is eerily quiet. Workers laze around, go cycling, some play football. Kumar tells me that speciality tea may have brought the spotlight on Donyi Polo, but it is the humble kadak doodh chai (the distinction is important in the Northeast where the preferred chai is without milk) that is still an integral part of life in in the estate — for workers and managers alike.

After having been in the estate for almost 25 years and overseen some of the rarest of teas, Kumar still needs that one cup of doodh chai in the morning to keep him going through long days of inspections and tasting sessions.

The writer is an Itanagar-based journalist and blogger writing about the Northeast.

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