Day 6: Puttabong (Turkva) Estate

Day 6: Puttabong (Turkva) Estate

The night before we had driven back over to Darjeeling from Teesta Valley, about a 3 hour drive. Just a few kilometres north of Darjeeling, winding down the hill, our little gaggle had been deposited at the Puttabong Estate. 

Puttabong, meaning House of Green Leaves, is the oldest commercially planted estate in Darjeeling. Dr Campbell, the Governor of Darjeeling planted experimental tea bushes provided by Robert Fortune from his China expeditions in his garden at Beechwood. Soon he had very positive results so gave instruction to the government nurseries to begin propagating young plants for commercial planting. By 1952, Turkva, as it was then known, Steinthal and Aloobari were planted out as commercial tea estates.

We were staying in the Puttabong Bungalow, at the kind invitation of Jay Shree Tea Industries. The bungalow, built in the 1850s, was refurbished in 2018 and is now a resort hotel managed by the Taj Hotel Group. Beautifully and respectfully rebuilt, It is a little above the usual standard of Darjeeling bungalows. And it still retains a lot of the original charm of tea estate life. 

We are up at 4.00am to get into the factory before the days production is complete. As the tea is only just coming into flush, and due to the low rainfalls through the winter, the first days of production can be very limited. Today only 100 kg of tea has been produced.

With withering taking 12-14 hours for first flush teas, the team is in the factory around 2.00am. With just 100 kg to produce they are finished up in 2-3 hours, cleaned down and ready for the next day’s pick to arrive. We arrive just in time to see the end of the production. 

First, in the withering room, they are collecting the tea from the trays. By this point, the tea will have reached around 60% humidity.

The tea is piled up on top of the chutes above the rolling machines on the floor below. It is still very green in appearance at this stage.

Dropped down the chute, it arrives into the rolling machine that gyrates the tea over the base plate to gently roll the leaf into small twisted ropes.

The tea is laid out on tables to further oxidise the tea. For first flush teas this will only be left for 10-20 minutes, compared to 2-3 hours for second flush that require a much darker and richer character. The length of oxidation determines the body in the tea, and the darkness in colour of the liquor.

It is important to note that this process is oxidation by enzyme action, not fermentation. In the factories this stage is often called fermentation but Mr. Pareek, the Estate Manager, sets us straight here. Oxidation by enzymes will happen to any vegetable matter once it is separated from its plant. Just like when we cut an apple and it starts to go brown, so do tea leaves once they are plucked from the bush. This is the first stage of natural decomposition. 

Only Pu Erh teas are actually fermented. This is a much longer process, instigated by yeast and bacterial action over many years, that leads to a rich, earthy tea. The process is much like composting a good soil. 

I clarify this here, because producers of tea based drinks will often state that they use fermented teas, whereas in fact they are just using traditionally oxidised teas. It is only REAL that produces a truly fermented tea which refers to the process of fermentation in large stainless steel vats in a very similar manner to the production of sparkling wines.

Following oxidation, the teas are loaded into the dryer. After just 20-25 minutes heated at around 60C, the tea starts to look like what we are used to drinking. Rich dark and nutty in aroma.

When the tea comes out of the dryer it is hot and needs time to cool. It is mounded up in large piles to cool before sorting.

But there all sorts of different bits and pieces in the tea at this stage:

  • Matted balls of tea that have clumped together
  • Stalks
  • Full leaf tea (rated 08 - 16 in particle size)
  • Broken leaf (rated 16 - 20)
  • Fannings (rated 20 - 30)
  • Dust (rated 30 and above)

Each of these need to be separated in order to create the different grades of tea. Here is how tea grading is explained on Wikipedia. At REAL, for our Royal Flush, we only purchase TGFOP or FTGFOP teas that provide the most delicate of flavours.

Whole-leaf grades




Orange Pekoe: Main grade, consisting of long wiry leaves without tips.


More delicate than OP; long, wiry leaf with a light liquor.


Bolder than OP; long leaf tea which ranges from tightly wound to almost open.


Orange Pekoe Superior: Primarily from Indonesia; similar to OP.


Flowery Orange Pekoe: High-quality tea with a long leaf and few tips, considered the second grade in Assam, Dooars, and Bangladesh teas, but the first grade in China.


Limited to only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification.


Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: Higher proportion of tip than FOP. Top grade in the Milima and Marinyn regions, but uncommon in Assam and Darjeeling.


Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: The highest proportion of tip, and the main grade in Nepal , Darjeeling and Assam.


Limited to only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification.


Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: Highest quality grade.




Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe: Limited to only the highest quality leaves in the FTGFOP classification.

Broken leaf grades




Broken Tea: Usually a black, open, fleshy leaf that is very bulky. This classification is used in Sumatra, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and some parts of Southern India.


Broken Pekoe: The most common broken pekoe grade; from Indonesia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Assam and Southern India.


Broken Pekoe Souchong: Term for broken pekoe in the Assam and Darjeeling regions.


Flowery Pekoe: High-quality pekoe. Usually coarser with a fleshier, broken leaf. Produced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Southern India, as well as in some parts of Kenya.


Broken Orange Pekoe: Main broken grade. Prevalent in Assam, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Southern India, Java, and China.


Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe: Coarser and broken with some tips. From Assam, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh. In South America, coarser, black broken.[clarification needed]


Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings: The finest broken orange pekoe, with a higher proportion of tips; mainly from Ceylon's "low districts".


Golden Broken Orange Pekoe: Second grade tea with uneven leaves and few tips.


Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: As above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the GFBOP classification.


Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1: High-quality leaves with a high proportion of tips; finest broken First Grade Leaves in Darjeeling and some parts of Assam.

Fannings grades[edit]




Pekoe Fannings


Orange Fannina: From northern India and some parts of Africa and South America as well as Nepal .


Flowery Orange Fannings: Common in Assam, Dooars, Nepal and Bangladesh. Some leaf sizes come close to the smaller broken grades.


Golden Flowery Orange Fannings: Finest grade in Darjeeling for tea bag production.


Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings


Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings: Main grade in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Southern India, Kenya, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and China. Black-leaf tea with few added ingredients, uniform particle size, and no tips.

Dust grades[edit]




Dust 1: From Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Africa, South America, Southern India, and Bangladesh.


Pekoe Dust


Pekoe Dust 1

Mainly produced in India.


In sorting, or grading, first balls need to be removed from the tea. These are clumps that have formed in withering or drying. 

Most tea is sorted semi-automatically, by machines, but for the finest delicate teas in Darjeeling, this may still be done by hand. This is a laborious process, but it ensures that the leaf is not further broken or damaged in the vibrating sorters. Here the sorter will remove not only matted balls, but will also pick out stalks, and pan the tea to take out any dust, fannings or broken leaf, leaving only pristine full leaf tea.

The majority of the tea, however, goes through 2 stages of sorting. The first sorter is called the Myddleton sorter. This is a relatively gentle vibration, the tea passing over little volcanoes pressed into the steel base. As the plate vibrates, the broken leaf, fannings and dust are lifted and then drop through the small holes. Only the full leaf then continues the full length of the sorter and is collected at the end.

Next, the remaining tea is put through the Arnott tea sorter. This grades any remaining full leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust. 4 beds, each with a narrowing grade of mesh vibrates letting progressively smaller particles through.

And there we are. We now have a series of different grades of tea for blending, packing, and shipping to buyers all around the world.

The afternoon takes us out into the tea garden to watch the pluckers picking the delicate new season’s leaf. 

The season is both late, and the harvest is very limited so far this year. Before our arrival, Darjeeling had had no rain since October, one of the worst rains on record. This is very challenging for the tea estates as the flush doesn’t really start to grow until the rains come. In order for the tea to grow effectively, the garden will need around an inch (2.5cm) of rain per week in the peak growing season. 

Luckily, on the day we arrived in Puttabong, we had the first rains of the season. We now have a standing invite from the estates that they will call on us as rain makers in the future! Today there was only around 1cm of rain, but the following day more came so the planters were feeling much more upbeat. You could feel the sense of positive optimism in the air.

But it takes around 10 days for the rain to percolate through the soil and begin to have an impact on tea growth and condition. So still a while to wait.

In peak season, a single plucker might pick 15-20 kg in a day. But at this time of the year, and with the limited rainfall, this number is down into the low single digits. 100kg of packed tea will require about 400 kg of green leaf. So with over 200 pickers on the estate they are achieving less than 2kg each per day. 

And you can see why. The first flush leaf and 2 buds are delicate and tiny on the bush. And whereas in peak season the plucker may stay on a single bush collecting leaf for 5-10 minutes, at this time of the season there may only be 10-20 buds that are ready to pluck on any one bush. And many bushes are not ready to pick at all.

The plucker is working across the “Table”. This is the flat top of the tea bush. A well tended garden will have a good even height of table, and appropriately sized bushes for the plucker to reach the leaf without having to strain across the bush. 

The pluckers seem in good spirits. They banter among themselves good heartedly, and are very excited to have their photographs taken. They lead a simple, and hard life up her on the mountain. But the relationship between the pluckers and planters seems positive.

We return to the factory with the team. Mr Pareek, the Estate Manager, is joined by Mr. Sunil Jah, the regional manager for the Jay Shree estates in Darjeeling. He is 41 years in tea in Darjeeling with Jay Shree and is enormously knowledgeable about all things tea.

Puttabong first flushes are excellent traditional Darjeeling teas. They are clean and clear, light in colour with a beautiful leaf with a good mix of tip, and lighter and darker leaf. We are still very early in the season so the leaf is still very green, giving quite a lot of astringency, and light citrus notes.

We are searching for just the right teas for this season’s Royal Flush. We are here slightly too early to get a full understanding of how the season will develop, so will be tasting most of the appropriate, slightly later invoices back at the Fermentery in earl April. But there is certainly very good potential here at Puttabong that their teas will deliver all the delicacy, fruit and not too much astringency to deliver a great Royal Flush.

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