The story of the new miracle drink that is yellow tea, and how a lady in the remote town of Barpathar in Assam, is growing it with love and popularising it among tea drinkers and health enthusiasts. By Monalisa Borkakoty
Travel is full of surprises, and exploring a new place never ceases to amaze. While travelling across Northeast India, and sourcing some of the most authentic produce for Tea Amo—a Goa-based curating company that works towards popularising tea from the Northeast, I met quite a few like-minded individuals doing some amazing work with the tea shrub. One of the most revered products from the Northeast, tea is also the most celebrated. However, more than 50 per cent of the tea grown in the region is exported, and the rest is distributed without any proper mechanism, thus failing to create the impact that it is capable of. To see the reinvention that is taking place for the revival of the industry, hence, is heartwarming.
Amongst all, Rakhi Saikia commands special mention. Apart from being a successful entrepreneur, her efforts are not limited towards just producing quality tea. In 2011, her family acquired the Pabhojan Tea Estate (estd. in 1913) at Barpathar in upper Assam, at a time when it was in need of extreme care and nurturing. Saikia did not leave any stone unturned in its restoration. Four years since she began, the estate is fully organic—using manure like cow dung, cow urine, manure from weeds, and organic waste. Together, she and her family are working towards the upliftment of tea culture.
An unexpected opportunity led her into researching about yellow tea, and subsequently to China, where she understood the regality of it. During her visit, she realised that not too many Chinese connoisseurs know about it either. Called huangcha in China, yellow tea is only drunk by royals. Upon her return, she did her own experiments and came up with a version that has no caffeine and is full of health benefits. Saikia’s variant of yellow tea is now in the process of being patented.
Her yellow tea variant comes from the processed leaves of the plant, camellia sinensis, and is processed in almost the same way as green tea, except for an additional step of encasing and steaming the tea leaves, which gives it a smoother feel. It also has a mellower taste than other variants. It takes up to five days to process, while green tea takes just one.
There are quite a few health benefits of yellow tea. It helps in weight loss, as it boosts metabolism due to the polyphenols and catechins present in it. The polyphenols are also good for the liver, and help in the treatment of hepatitis. Yellow tea can help prevent Type 1 diabetes, and has anti-ageing properties to give you flawless skin. If consumed an hour before a meal, it can even increase your appetite.
Saikia’s tea events during winter are hearty affairs—she organises high teas and serves the beverage in traditional bell metal cups, reviving conventional tea rituals along the way. Her packaging is eco-friendly, and the usage of tin, jute, and other classic packaging makes it all the more alluring. Reading her book, Assamica, gave me valuable information about the beverage; for instance, the fact that except for black, white, green, orthodox, and oolong, other varieties cannot actually be treated as tea, and that only the variants of the beverage that originate in India and China are regarded as actual tea. Saikia also runs a cafe that gives you the entire tea experience and a taste of all the other variants the factory produces, apart from the yellow tea. White, green, oolong, black, and camellia blossom tea can all be tasted and bought here.
The family home is right across from the cafe, and one can even rent the house on stilts that they have converted into a homestay for travellers. Set amidst lush greenery, the estate has two rooms and one cottage to give you the feel of the tea estate life.
THE PERFECT CUP
• Use plain water free of iron content. It should be boiled to about 70-75 °C.
• Pour water into the cups. Add the yellow tea leaves to a strainer and let it steep in the hot water for a minute or two.
• A proper steep will give you a golden yellow brew.
• Remove the strainer with the tea leaves, and enjoy your cup of good health. It may taste like plain water, before the sweet aftertaste kicks in.
The nearest airport to Barpathar is in Guwahati. You can book a taxi, or take a bus from Guwahati Airport to Golaghat (302 km), from where Barpathar is one hour away.
The Pabhojan Tea Estate rents out two rooms (starts from INR 1,500/ US$20) and a cottage (priced at INR 3,000/US$40), including breakfast.
Avoid monsoons. Other months are pleasant.
Tea lovers and solo travellers.
Visit the tea factory and take an early morning walk amidst the tea gardens. Sign up for a four-day tea course at Pabhojan Tea Estate any time between March 25 to October 25, 2020. It will be presided over by faculty from Assam Agricultural University, and expert tea tasters.