Purple tea potential in Assam

Dr. Pradip Baruah, Senior Advisory Officer (Principal Scientist), Tocklai Tea Research Institute, Jorhat, Assam

Dr. Pradip Baruah is a known name in the Indian tea fraternity and has done extensive research on the Assam tea industry. In this interaction with IBEF, he discusses the potential of purple tea production in Assam and the efforts being undertaken to leverage the same.

IBEF: What are the key health properties of purple tea and what practices need to be adopted for the manufacturing of this variety of tea?

Dr. Pradip Baruah: Purple tea offers a totally new type of tea to the world, which is very attractive with a unique color of the liquor and has many medicinal properties. Purple tea contains anthocyanins, which imparts the purple color to the tea leaves. It thus has all the goodness of tea, with additional health benefits of anthocyanins. It is also low in caffeine content than the normal black or green teas which is particularly looked for by many people. It offers an excellent new diversified product to the tea consumers around the world besides black, green, and white teas with certain high medicinal properties beneficial to human health. Purple tea can be manufactured both as black and green teas with purple-colored tea leaves.

Anthocyanins are flavonoids rendering vivid red to a blue color to fruits and vegetables. Research studies and human clinical trials suggest that anthocyanins possess anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic activity, cardiovascular disease prevention, obesity control, and diabetes alleviation properties, which are associated mostly with their potent antioxidant property. Out of these, cardiovascular disease prevention property is particularly significant. Anthocyanins appear to control cholesterol levels and blood sugar metabolism, as well as fight oxidative stress (a process known to play a key role in heart disease). Some of the important findings of the research on medicinal properties of purple tea presented at the ‘International Conference on Tea Science and Development’ at the Karatina University, Karatina, Kenya last year was – purple tea, besides being rich in anthocyanins also contains lower catechins and caffeine, and is high in antioxidant effects that provide anti-cancer benefits, and improves vision, cholesterol and blood sugar metabolism. Overall, purple tea is found to have cytoprotective effects on external oxidative stressors. In addition, purple tea also has all other enormous medicinal properties of tea, being produced from Camellia assamica.

Anthocyanin supplements are marketed for their health-enhancing properties and are also used as preservatives in the food industry. Purple tea plants with anthocyanin content will, thus, provide an alternative raw material from which these flavonoids can be extracted.

Purple tea potential in Assam

IBEF: Tell us about the potential of Assam to produce purple tea? How can it be leveraged going forward and how can the area under production be increased?

Dr. Pradip Baruah: The purple tea clone released in Kenya for commercial cultivation in Kenya, as TRFK 306 in 2011, was selected from the germplasm stock of Tea Research Foundation of Kenya. This important clone for Kenyan tea was originally selected from Assam and is an Assam variety. Such anthocyanin-rich purple teas are also found in Assam and wild purple teas were recently discovered in Karbi Anglong Hill district of Assam. I am informed of the availability of more such plants in Karbi Anglong Hills near Bokajan. But that area is yet to be visited. Such plants are also available in different tea growing areas of Assam, which are commonly known as ‘oxblood’, because of the color. I have been exploring tea growing areas of Upper Assam and found such purple tea plants in an area near Teok, close to Jorhat town, and another few plants near Dibrugarh. Newspaper reports at the national and international level on the possibility of producing purple tea in Assam have now generated tremendous curiosity and hope among the tea planters and small tea growers of Eastern India. They are eagerly waiting for the right kind of purple tea clone with high anthocyanin content to be available to them so that they can start production.

Tocklai germplasm collection already has several purple tea plants. The Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat, tea area also has purple tea plants in it. This area and the plants originally belonged to Tocklai. The scientists have to explore these for their properties and release the best possible plants from these and collections from the wild teas and old tea growing areas, for facilitating commercial production of purple tea, in the near future. Assam being the origin of naturally growing purple tea plants in diversified forms and also has all the favorable agro-climatic conditions, it is well suited for the best growth and production of promising purple tea clones. There is a possibility of even finding better plants naturally growing, in Assam- an area that is not yet explored fully. The particular clone, released by Kenya (TRFK-306) was under development by Kenyan Tea Research Institute for 25 years, but in the case of Assam, it has the advantage of being the origin of tea with large biodiversity and with the possibility of finding even better plants for purple tea production. As the demand for purple tea is likely to increase in India and globally with the better promotion in the near future, the production of purple tea can be taken up by both large and small tea estates. With all these advantages and possibilities, I am chasing a purple dream for the tea industry of India and I am very confident that it would come true very soon benefiting the entire humanity of the world with its medicinal properties. Not only purple tea – Assam and the Eastern India tea have great potential with traditional and handmade organic teas produced by the tribes and the small tea growers which are having exceptionally good qualities.

Purple tea plants in Assam

IBEF: Tell us about the role that the Tocklai Tea Research Institute has played through its R&D initiatives towards improving crop outcomes and farmer income across tea plantations.

Dr. Pradeep Baruah: Tea Research Association is an autonomous R&D organization funded by the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, and the tea industry and is one of the oldest organizations in PPP mode since 1964.

Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI, earlier known as Tocklai Experimental Station) is the oldest and premier institution on tea research in the world, established way back in 1911. Over the years, exhaustive research has been carried out in the fields of integrated nutrient management, agronomic practices for young and mature tea crop management including optimum pruning cycles, efficient chemical and biological control measures and testing of new molecules and for bio-efficacy against the major pests and diseases, plant physiology, biochemistry, the establishment of limits for pesticide residues and heavy metals, drainage management strategies, mechanization in tea, tea processing and manufacturing, and development tea by-products, etc. It has also carried out DNA fingerprinting using RAPD techniques in TV clones developed at Tocklai and their registration with the National Bureau of Plant Genetics in the country to protect their identity. Looking at the impact of climate change touching the tea industry also in North East India, Tocklai is working on the identification of physiological parameters influencing drought resistance and in identifying promising drought-resistant germplasm.

One of the major activities of the Tea Research Association popularly known as ‘Tocklai’ has been the strong Advisory Department spread across the major tea growing areas of Eastern India in eight zones. The Advisory officers keep visiting the various tea estates in their areas and provide on the spot advisories on immediate, short term and long term measures to be adopted by the tea estates with regard to various problems faced by them on-field management and to achieve sustainability. These visits and the regular bulletins issued on the practices to be adopted in-field management practices help the tea estates to undertake timely measures on maintaining the tea estate and to boost the tea productivity of the tea estates. Besides attending to the big tea estates, Tocklai supports the small tea growers also to get the awareness of the appropriate cultural practices to be followed to achieve higher tea yields from their small gardens and achieve higher income generation from tea.

However, the major contribution of Tocklai to the tea industry in North East India has been the development and release of high yielding clones and seed stocks for Assam, Dooars and Darjeeling which has helped the industry to improve the total tea production in North East India significantly. To indicate as an example, just in Assam valley the tea production has increased from 201 million kg in 1971 to 574 million kg in 2013.

Temi, tea & Sikkim

Just outside my home state is the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim and in this state, most of the rural population depends, directly and indirectly, on small-scale food crop agriculture, fishery, or rural wage labor associated with tea plantations. Located in South Sikkim, the Temi Tea Garden in Ravangla was established in 1969 by the Government of Sikkim. The grading of tea from Temi Tea Garden is of top quality tea, generating huge demand in the international market. The British traditions of making and taking tea have little relevance in Sikkim as tea plantations here are a post-independence affair. So, it may be succinctly observed that unlike the British cup of tea, tea in Sikkim is not served in a setting where the leaves are steeped separately. Rather, tea here is consumed with both milk and sugar, and the tea leaves are not prepared separately by being steeped. Instead, the tea leaves are boiled along with additions and then boiled again after the addition of milk, sugar, and spices like cardamom and cinnamon.

There are many other popular variations of Sikkim tea depending on regional affiliations. Like in Hee Gaon (an indigenous village in West Sikkim), popular tea is brewed with Seremna (an intensive cardamom seed found only in Hee Gaon). My journey to Hee Gaon & Temi Tea Garden made me realize that all tea produced here are organic. In growing organic tea, agro-chemicals are avoided by the tea estates and that results in low production costs. There are losses incurred on the other hand due to lower realization, but the result is a much healthier cup of tea. Many European countries have shown a strong preference for tea produced by adopting the organic manuring method in Sikkim.

The floral composition of the tea estates in Sikkim is also exclusive as it consists of broadleaf vegetation comprising UttisKattus, and Malata. Temi Tea estate’s surroundings and approach road have also been made more scenic by planting pine, prunes, and cherry trees. In Hee Gaon and certain areas of West Sikkim, large cardamom plantations are also present in forest patches in the vicinity of the tea estate. Sikkim Solja, Mystique, and Kanchanjunga Tea are some of the popular brands of tea from Sikkim. The Tea Board has already started exporting Sikkim tea to Canada and Japan in small quantities at attractive prices. Its export potential is gradually increasing and the Tea Board is making efforts to have direct links with international markets. So it’s not surprising that Temi Tea is sold in the international market at prices that go up to Rs 2,500 per kg (US$ 50 per kg). That’s the international scenario, coming back to tea-drinkers like us, let me tell you that Sikkim tea is indeed unique for its quality and its vigor can be best felt with an infusion of cardamom & cinnamon. On the whole Sikkim’s tea gardens are a perfect treat for the five senses.

Rejuvenation of tea and coffee estates, the POABS way

Poabs Estates of Kerala is committed to the plantation sector in India and has taken up rejuvenation of tea and coffee estates as a strategic endeavor. The growth of Poabs Estates, part of the Poabs Group, over the past 25 years demonstrates how century-old abandoned estates can be revived, for the greater good of society and contribution to Indian exports.

Nelliyampathy

The story begins in 1989 when Poabs Estates took over the then 100-year old Seethargundu Estate in the Nelliyampathy Hills of Palakkad district of Kerala in the Western Ghats of India. The estate was in a derelict condition having existed, for all practical purposes, in an abandoned state for some 16 years. Poabs took up the challenge of sorting out the pending problems left by the previous owners and resolved to revive the estate. Much inspiration came from the late Mr. P.A. Jacob, then the Founder Chairman, who strongly supported organic agriculture as the means for the supply of quality, hygienic, and safe food products.

The previous neglect of the estate was taken as a blessing in disguise, as this had in effect allowed the land to lie fallow, laying the ground for organic farming. A key step forward in the rejuvenation process involved replanting: old plant material was replaced with improved varietals of coffee, cardamom, and pepper. Tea planting was done afresh to bring in an additional crop – creating in the process the first such large-scale tea plantation established since the colonial era, furthermore, under entirely organic systems. The initial years were spent in designing and adopting good soil conservation and water harvesting techniques.

A fresh trajectory came about in the year 2000 when Poabs Estates took a strategic decision – many considered it a risky move at that stage – to adopt Biodynamic processes. Biodynamic agriculture requires a holistic approach that is now recognized as a variant of organic farming.

The conversion to biodynamic agriculture started in 2000, and within three years of regeneration, the estate was thriving. However, getting to this point required a lot of commitment, in terms of finance and will power. Compared to conventional farming, biodynamic agriculture requires practically double the effort. Fortunately, there was a significant drop in the incidence of pest and disease attacks ever since converting to biodynamic processes.

The plantation remains till today the largest perennial multi-crop organic estate in the world, at an average elevation of 3500 feet, and grows Arabica and Robusta coffee and tea along with inter-crops of pepper, cardamom, orange, and vanilla. Certified since April 2003 by Demeter, the oldest organic certification label for biodynamic products, the estate is a veritable demonstration farm for biodynamic processes.

The Tea Factory, Coffee Pulping unit for washed coffees, Pepper Mill, and Freeze-Drying facilities were made operational in stages. Within five years of going biodynamic, the estates were visibly transformed – and now yield a variety of organic produce in demand in international markets.

Central Travancore

Poabs Estates has made a significant entry into the Central Travancore planting district in Kerala, with the acquisition of several tea estates which were originally part of Travancore Tea Estates, a British sterling tea company which commenced operations in 1897. Currently, Pambanar, Granby, Manjamullay, Injikadu, Nellikai, Pasumallay, and Thengakal tea estates are part of Poabs Estates.

On June 25, 2008, the Poabs Group re-opened the estates which had been ailing for nearly a decade and were closed on the orders of the Local Government since 2002.

After taking over, Poabs reached a settlement on the wage dispute and effected the payments to the workers. Simultaneously, an enormous effort went into the rehabilitation of the estates – clearing weeds and getting the over-grown tea-bushes back into the bearing. While each estate originally had factories attached to them, the factories were in complete disrepair when Poabs took over, and general infrastructure including estate bungalows, roads, facilities for estate workers, etc., were in bad shape.

By end-2009, tea harvesting had re-commenced on a regular basis, re-planting, in-filling and planting of shade trees were undertaken in phases. Initially, the leaf was sold to other factories for processing, while three factories were taken up for renovation. Currently, the Granby and Thengakal factories are fully operational, and all tea harvested in our seven Travancore estates is processed on-site between the two factories. The Nellikai factory is being completely modernized with the latest tea manufacturing machinery.

The combined assets in the Nelliyampathy Hills and in the Central Travancore region make Poabs Estates one of the large plantation companies in Kerala today.

Certifications

Poabs Organic Estates is certified ‘biodynamic’ by Demeter-International of Germany and is also farm certified by organic certifiers Naturland of Germany and Skal International. The estate conforms to requirements under the National Organic Programme of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS). Bureau Veritas Quality International (BVQI) of the UK has awarded Poabs an ISO 9001:2000 rating for quality management systems at the farm, and the tea factory, established in 2001, has implemented and certified food safety assurance systems under ‘Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point’ (HACCP).

Poabs Organic Estates is certified “Organic” by Control Union Certifications, an authorized certification agency as per the guidelines of the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) initiated by the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India. Control Union has identified Poabs Organic Estates as the “largest perennial multi-crop organic farm in the world” and refers to it as such in all documentation.

The tea produced at Poabs Estates is Fairtrade-certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO), and tea, coffee and spices endorsed by Bio-equitable Fairtrade. Poabs Estates was the first plantation company in South India to be certified by Rainforest Alliance, in January 2014. Poabs Estates is part of the Ethical Tea Partnership and Poabs teas are Kosher-certified.

Global recognition

Poabs Estates has received several awards over the years for coffee in the Flavour of India – The Fine Cup competitions operated by the Coffee Board of India, and for organic orthodox, black and green tea at the Golden Leaf Awards operated by the United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI).

Notably, Poabs received the Sustainability Award – 2007 from the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) at the 19th Annual Conference and Exhibition held at Long Beach California, the first company from India to receive this prestigious award, which is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the world of coffee cultivation. The SCAA is the world’s largest coffee trade association with member companies from more than 40 countries. In 2007, a total of 22 projects from around the world made it to the final round.

The citation stated that Poabs Organic/Biodynamic Estates “is an exemplary global model for sustainability. It is an example of a holistic, self-sustainable, bio-diverse eco-system. Workers and their families benefit from housing, education, dairy farms, and medical care. Coffee is planted under a double canopy of shade with much of the original native trees intact.”

Poabs Estates is part of the Poabs Group, a diversified enterprise with interests in plantations, biotechnology, waste management, infrastructure, and eco-tourism headquartered in Tiruvalla, Kerala.