No fertilizers, no insecticides, no pesticides. Tea made of wild forest leaves–not pruned bushes–grown in the hilly terrain of the Indian state of Manipur, is now available commercially. The wild forage tea is processed and packaged for sale on par with high-grade orthodox tea.
The wild tea plants are of the Camellia assamica varietal commonly found in parts of Assam and the adjoining north-eastern states of India. Over centuries the artisan tea makers catered to a small population of locals. Now they are catching the attention of tea enthusiasts.
Manipur-based Forest Pick was founded in 2017 by three sisters: Aijulie, Jemshe and Julie Gangte – with the support of their brother, Boi. Growing up in southern Manipur, where smoked teas made from forest leaves is part of their way of life, they decided to increase quantities harvested and package the tea for a consumer market. The idea took shape over more than a year leading to pre-launch trials before the teas were made commercially available. Says Julie Gangte, “We are still testing the market, we are still figuring out, we are testing our ability, and we are learning each day. Yes, we are quite happy with our initial response and experiences. We can improve in all areas but one thing we have established is that the product has inherent strength and demand; it’s unique and different.”
Last year, the company sold their entire inventory of 200 kilos. Although they began with a safe choice of orthodox black tea, they have since expanded processing to include white, oolong, and green teas as well as a few blends.
Wild teas are drawing favorable attention as a repository of biogenetic material and unique terroir. Last January Pradip Baruah, a scientist at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute in Assam discovered large patches of wild tea trees growing near Old Doidam in southeastern Arunachal Pradesh, north of Myanmar. Interestingly, Arunachal Pradesh, a state that borders Assam, is India’s fifth-largest tea producing state (after Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala). The tribal peoples native to this region drink tea for its medicinal properties.
Falap or coin tea, is produced by the Singpho tribe, is also from these parts. In fact, the Singpho village of Margherita in Assam is thought to be the origin of the Assamica varietal. Falapis made fromwild tea leaves that are pan-fired, dried and stuffed into bamboo hollows that are smoked above the kitchen hearth.
Forest Pick’s smoked teas more closely resemble lapsang souchong, a Chinese black tea from the mountainous north of Fujian. Coarse leaves from the lower branches of Camellia Sinensis are smoked on bamboo trays over smoldering pinewood in long outdoor trenches. Souchong refers to the fourth or fifth leaves, well down from the bud.
Forest Pick is exploring both wholesale and retail and is seeking new consumers within India and for export. Interest from global customers has been significant, with orders coming from specialty wholesalers in Europe and North America who appreciate forest produce.
“We want to explore these markets not just from a price point of view, but also for its intrinsic product value,” said Julie Gangte.
In ancient times the region was known as Kangleipak. Manipur is home to five tribes with a combined population of 2.2 million. The Meitei comprise the majority ethnic group. Residents are collectively known as Manipuri. The state is known for its lush forest and beautiful Lake Lohtak near the capital Imphal. Mt. Tenipu at 9,800 feet (2,994 meters) is the tallest peak in the state.
Wild teas are naturally organic, growing in forests without human intervention. But this makes certifications challenging as the tea trees are scattered across the region and harvested by foragers in several villages in the mountains, unlike typical tea gardens where the plants are concentrated. Two or three members of the Forest Pick staff travel from village to village to process tea onsite bringing a mobile but somewhat makeshift processing unit. “They set up base in one of the village households and process tea for a week. This is done when the tea leaves are in huge quantity,” says Julie Gangte.
Forest Pick showcases the organic and natural origins of its tea with videos and images on their website.
Villagers point to how harmoniously the trees exist in nature. Tea gardens throughout India are largely monoculture and clonal. Plantations are criticized for displacing large tracts of forest land, causing environmental fragility. Wild tea is seed propagated, and not stem-cloned. The Forest Pick team believes that wild tea plantations can reforest lands that have been abandoned by villagers who follow the slash-and-burn method of agriculture. Says Gangte, “We have seen in our mountains that tea thrives in a very diverse environment, and that tea grows under the shade of much bigger trees. Tea is a very resilient and highly resistant plant when it grows in a bio-diverse environment.”
The full-grown trees have a deeper root system, which absorbs and retains higher concentration of nutrients from the mountain soil, giving a unique and complex flavor and aroma,” she explains. These trees are nurtured by the natural eco-system of the forest mountain.
The novelty of wild tea is an attraction and the team are rightly focusing on the tea quality and the brand ethos. The scale of production is still small, and expansion is organic. The company recently opened a small processing factory at Churachandpur that has been fitted with locally produced equipment. This year’s production stood at 500 kgs of tea but that is growing as orders come in. Sustainably foraging the tea forests could be the alternate and eco-friendly model that offers a new future for tea.
Edited by Aravinda Anantharaman
Source: Forest Pick