The Full Tea Experience

Skyline of Jakarta.

Arriving in Jakarta

Exhausted from the three-flight trip to Jakarta, my colleague Emily and I found ourselves darting through empty Indonesian highways at 1am to reach our destination: a hotel in the heart of Jakarta. This was, of course, only the beginning destination. Our 10 day journey would bring us through many cities, hotels, and proposed another 7 flights; a large traveling enterprise for two rookie adventurers. Thankfully our fearless leader Charity (a well seasoned traveler), as well as a friendly Filipino agriculturalist, Fais, met us in the city, following a deep and much needed rest. Our first full day in Indonesia brought our party of four to a beautiful old hotel, where we all gathered to experience high tea. To our disappointment the hotel did not serve Indonesian tea, but rather a Western brand that was sourced elsewhere. While the food was delicious the tea left something to be desired...

A lavish courtyard.

Tea Auction

Our second day in Jakarta led us to a tea auction. Arriving at the auction center, we were greeted with blooming greenery, soothing fountains, and when stepping inside, delightful air-conditioning (something we had come into a greater appreciation for during our stay.) Only two of our group at a time could enter the auctioning room to represent Chariteas, so Emily and I attended the first half. Comfy office chairs and complimentary tea welcomed us to our seat. The room itself was an architectural delight, with high arched ceilings curving down to the contemporary patterned walls. Much like a college classroom, there were longs rows of tables, all facing the podium where the auctioneer would reside. As people began shuffling in there was an air of excitement. Attendees made their rounds to greet peers with energetic conversations, warm smiles, and high fives. Once the room quieted, the auctioneer began to introduce the lots that would be up for sale. As our understanding of Indonesian and Sundanese language is, well, nonexistent, it made it impossible for us to understand the auction, save the occasional “no bid”, and “withdrawn”. Knowing that we were unlikely to gain much insight from this, we decided to give Charity and Fais the opportunity to try interpreting the auction. After a half hour of enjoying the outer courtyard, our counterparts returned with excitement as they had gotten the chance to smell and view all of the teas that had been up for auction. Although we did not buy any tea, they did get the chance to converse with a few other vendors and gain some insight into the tea trade practices in Indonesia.

Mountainous views from our train-ride to Bandung.

To the train!

Following the auction, we made our way in a “taksi” through crowded streets of hand-trucked food vendors, motorbikes, and cars; squeezing through intersections and missing the scrape of a side mirror by a mere centimeter. I was always in awe of Indonesian drivers’ ability to navigate along lane-less roads and through hordes of bikers. We safely made it to our next stop: the train station. An hour of waiting in a stuffy train station granted a stop by one of the air-conditioned fast-food restaurants. We decided on ice-cream. A charcoal cone was topped with creamy soft serve and dipped in green tea chocolate. It was a dreamy respite from the bustling city outside.

Rice Paddies

Our three hour train ride began by traveling through the poorer areas of Jakarta, a bit of a culture shock from the lavish and beautiful architecture in the main part of the city. Haphazardly built shanties were sometimes stacked on top of each other, though clean clothing lines and swept front doors were a testament to the fact that even in the roughest of areas you can see people's’ pride in taking care of what they have. What really struck me was the amount of people living so close to the train tracks, comfortably ignoring the loud dangerous train as it whipped past their homes. The longer we traveled the more the terrain evolved. The city-scape became flatter farm-land where we watched many people tending to their goats and burn piles. From Jakarta’s mere 25 ft elevation, we began to see the earth rise, as we wound our way past steep cliffs, rice-patties and beautiful terracotta-roofed cottages nestled in the hillsides. We finally arrived in Bandung, the capital of Indonesia’s West Java Province. This city sits at 2520 ft and is surrounded by volcanic terrain with very nutrient rich soil and a mild tropical climate- the perfect place to grow tea. After enjoying the sights and smells of the big city we rested up for our next adventure. A trip to a tea farm!

Entering the Kanaan Estate.

Heading to the Fields

Our morning began with a hearty breakfast and a 3.5 hour drive through mountainous villages on the outskirts of Bandung. Our destination was the Kanaan Estate, a sister farm of the Dewata Estate from whom we purchase sustainably grown teas. Both estates are owned and operated by the Chakra Group, a leader in the Indonesian tea industry. We passed through “Strawberry country”, a sweet smelling stretch of bountiful strawberry gardens, street vendors, and homes. The small lots of berry gardens tapered slowly into fields of- you guessed it- tea!

Government owned tea fields.

Vast fields enveloped the steep hillsides in terraced rows of tea plants. We learned that those fields we had driven past were government owned, and the harvested teas often sold locally. They were kept up, but not particularly well. The contrast from the government owned fields to those of the neighboring Kanaan estate was drastic. While the privately owned fields were dense and bright green, the others were often slightly sparse with the occasional tea-flower and sometimes littered with rubbish- a big problem in Indonesia due to the unfortunate lack of recycling centers and public education on how to manage waste properly. Although this is a worldwide issue, Indonesia has faced some serious waste problems in the past decade. In regions where recycling is not an option, many have resorted to burning their trash, suffering from the negative air quality as a result. Community driven groups have begun making some impact in Indonesia’s “Waste State of Emergency” by building recycling centers, coming up with incentives for people to compost and recycle, and creating a waste-to-energy system that converts waste to methane that is collected and used to create electricity. One thing we are proud to support by partnering with the Dewata Estate (the first and premier estate owned by the Chakra group) is their self- sustainability. In the 90s the estate owners utilized the many streams running through the estate to create hydro-power. They create enough energy to sustain their village of over 2400 residents as well as power the tea processing facilities located on the estate. Being part of the Rainforest Alliance, the Dewata Estate protects the rain-forest surrounding them and aids in reforestation by regularly planting trees.

Kanaan Estate Tea Fields

The Kanaan Estate

Our troupe finally arrived at the tea farm following a long, rough drive through winding gravel roads. The first section of field we saw had lovely bright green shoots, just a week or two away from harvest time! Our hosts brought us to the main cottage where we were introduced to the folks in charge of maintaining the farm. After a delicious cup of White Tea Bud we headed down into the heart of the fields, passing cottages that housed the employees and their families on the way. We were greeted with lots of delighted waves and smiles from all the local kiddos.

We learned that the pest causing the most damage was this little caterpillar and his buddies.

With Fais asking all the right questions about the soil, shade, pest control, and harvesting practices, Emily and I got to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding fields and rain-forest.

Tea Harvesters

We hiked into the dense fields toward a group of people who were machine-harvesting the tea rows. It took three people to manage the harvester. Two at the front, guiding the cutter at the right height over perfectly manicured rows and one person at the back, making sure that the bag collecting the tea sat upright and gathered all of the cuttings. After the bags were filled they were brought to a clearing where they were opened and sorted by hand. The sorters picked out leaves that were too mature and removed any accidental cuttings from other plants. Though weeds were well managed by putting mulch between rows, there were the occasional weeds growing within the rows which had to be pulled by hand.

We helped sort through some of the tea before taking pictures with all of the workers and thanking them for their expertise. After this incredible stop, we headed back towards the other end of the farm where cuttings from tea plants were trimmed and propagated for future planting. The tea babies lived under a partially thatched roof to break up sunlight. We learned how to properly trim a cutting so that it would root and become a healthy adult plant.

Tea cuttings being planted in mini greenhouses.

The cuttings were lovingly planted in tiny green-houses to hold in humidity and protect the plants. We also found propagated shade tree cuttings that were to grow very tall and would be used to break up the sunlight within the fields of adult plants. Just outside the nursery there were women plucking tea using a method I had never seen before. They had large scissors that had a small basket attached to the side so that they could trim leaves with more accuracy. Though the machine plucking was far from precise, it yielded a large harvest in a short time and helps keep the estate profitable. The finer teas that the estate produces are often processed from just one or two of the newest leaves and a bud. Or in the case of most white teas, just a bud. The precision in scissor or hand plucking is necessary to yield these higher grade teas. After our stop at the nursery we went back to the main cottage for lunch. A buffet of classic Indonesian dishes greeted us and we feasted on fried banana and sticky rice, veggies, unfamiliar fruits, and a couple different kinds of meat which everyone seemed to enjoy immensely. We then embarked for the neighboring processing factories.

Freshly harvested leaves ready to be withered.

After dawning boot covers, hair nets, and smocks we entered the black tea factory which was not currently processing. We began in the withering area where fresh clean leaves were brought in by the truckload and laid over large trays to wither in a room that was kept very humid to aid in the process. We then moved onto the rolling and firing room where teas were mechanically rolled in order to release the flavors in the tea, oxidized for a period of time, and then fired (or dried) to stop the oxidation process. Next was the sorting room which was just finishing up a batch of tea. Long slanted tables shook vigorously as they sifted the black tea into different grades, or sizes of leaf. This room smelled delicious with a light dusting of tea particles in the air. Our next stop was the green tea factory. This facility had a table of newly harvested leaves ready to be processed and we had the opportunity to really see everything in motion. The factory was fragrant with the fresh, slightly sweet and vegetal smell of green tea. We watched the teas go through a cutting, rolling, and firing before finishing the day in the tasting room.

Magic in the tasting room.

We had six teas to sample. First off was the familiar Grey Dragon, a slightly nutty white tea with characteristics similar to a green style oolong. Next was the always incredible White Tea Bud, a sweet and floral white tea that always blows me away. We also tasted a White Peony King and Sencha, two teas known to originate in China and Japan, but that have been remarkably recreated by this factory in Indonesia. They also had a green tea that looked a lot like a gunpowder green and a classic black for us to try. The Gunpowder was bitter, but bright and full of flavor. The black tea was full bodied and nicely balanced, with a gentle undertone of apricot. After a bit of goofing around with our hairnets and some silly photo ops, we said our final thank yous over another cup of tea and fried banana. The proprietors of the farm sent us home with samples of all of their fresh white teas.

Arriving at the Cinchona Forest Reserve

Final Destination: Cinchona Forest Reserve

After three more plane rides and a couple hours of driving we arrived at our next stop. The gorgeous home of our business partners and fellow farmers at the Hineleban Coffee Headquarters in Bukidnon Province in the Philippines. Chariteas has partnered with Hineleban in building the very first Organic tea farm in the Philippines. Since our tea seedlings were on a very far end of the property we did not get a chance to see them but we did get to see Hineleban’s coffee trees and the neighboring pineapple farms, an incredible view even if from the car window. Now why did we partner with Hineleban? We believe that the best agriculturalists are conscious of their environmental and social impact. Hineleban does just this by planting a tree for every bag of coffee sold and by treating and paying their employees fairly. Chariteas is now planting trees though the Hineleban foundation with our tea sales. That’s why we work with Hineleban: ‘Cause they’re awesome.

Wild growing coffee cherries.

We stayed with our generous hosts for a couple of days. During our stay we took a trip up to the Cinchona Forest Reserve. We were met there by the caretakers of the reserve who took us on a brief hike around the surrounding forest. We hiked past gushing streams and glorious bamboo trees some with a diameter larger than our heads! As I have never been in a rain-forest, my breath was taken away by the enormity of all the plants and the immense diversity of life. The chorus of birds and bugs was outstanding and our path was littered with bright orange flowers fallen from the treetops above us. They pointed out to us the coffee and tea trees that were growing wild and had us taste bright red coffee cherries. The outside of the berry was a little bit like eating bark but the inside was juicy and sweet though not super flavorful. The little coffee bean inside was familiar, but was white and had a slimy film covering it.

Tea tree tops full of seeds and flowers.

The caretakers would often harvest these wild growing beans and process them in old traditional ways. Near the American-style home on the property there was a tarp covered in the little beans drying in the sun, just one process in making coffee. We found many tea seeds littering our path too and just out of reach were bright white blooming tea flowers. As we circled around the area we walked past the reason we had come to see this incredible nature reserve. Tea trees! Big ones! Though not native to the Philippines these trees had been growing here for 50-70 years. You could tell that they were purposefully planted since the oldest trees were growing in clear rows.

Tea Tree Bark

Their bark was a canvas of marbled lichen, too beautiful not to take pictures of. Above us in the canopy were hundreds of tea seeds. The tea addict in me was freaking out a little bit at this point, to be quite honest. Never had I seen naturally growing tea trees (not the manicured shrubs in farms) full of seeds and flowers. While I doubted the tea would be any good if it were to be harvested, Charity reminded me that there are ancient tea trees in China that harvesters will climb in order to pick the young leaves at the top to be used in puerhs. After asking around to try to get more information about how the trees got here and why, we were still left with the mystery about their origin.

As we concluded our journey back at the Hineleban Farm, we thanked Fais for his witty humor, knowledge, and friendship before saying farewell. During our last morning in Bukidnon we shared a final meal with our hosts and discussed sustainability in farming practices and food trends. It made me feel hopeful to meet people who have focused their lives on creating positive change. Just to think that in the simple sale of a bag of coffee or tea we are making an impact, even if it is made halfway across the world.

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