William Jameson, superintendent of the Botanical Gardens at Saharanpur and the Northwest Frontier Province, was the man who brought the tea plant to Kangra. In 1849, he planted Chinese hybrid shrubs at three places in the valley: Kangra town (altitude 750m); Nagrota (870m) and Bhawarna (960m).
Kangra town was too warm and dry, but the plants did well at the other two places. This was all the encouragement the local administration needed. Three years later, in 1852, it set up a commercial plantation at Holta near Palampur, at an altitude of 1,260m.
In the next seven years, a number of private planters, both locals and Europeans, got into the business. They set up 19 tea estates in the region, covering a total of 2,635 acres. In another 15 years, the area under tea had increased to 7,994 acres, and by the end of the 19th century, it stood at 10,000 acres and produced almost 1,000 tonnes of tea annually. At least 80% of these plantations were around Palampur, which had a congenial climate and abundant water.
In the space of half a century, Kangra had entrenched itself on the world's tea map. Its black and green teas were travelling to Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asia via Amritsar. On the other side, it could hold its own among teas from Assam and Darjeeling in the Kolkata market, from where they were shipped to Europe and America.
The devastating earthquake of 4 April 1905 reduced the entire valley to rubble, crippling Kangra's tea industry for years to come. The English planters, who had till then led the way with new techniques, machinery and marketing, left the valley for good.
The locals who took over the abandoned estates were unable to meet the same standards of quality and productivity, and Kangra's tea started losing ground. In 1980, Kangra's estates produced only 132kg of tea per hectare, the lowest in the country, and well below the 284kg that the English planters averaged in 1892.
Happily, the worst seems to be over for Kangra's tea. In the past two decades, the acreage under tea has started increasing, production is up, the quality of tea is much better, earnings are higher, even the estates are now a sight to behold.
Prizes, even if only national ones, have again started coming Kangra's way. In 2006, Kangra also won recognition as a "geographic indicator" for tea (like Champagne is for wine and Chanderi is for cloth). Today, Kangra tea has its own significant symbol: two leaves and a bud.
Why significant? Because two leaves and a bud are ideal for plucking. As Hiren Mittra, manager of the Palampur Cooperative Tea Factory, explains, "When two leaves exist along with a bud, they are small, tender and pale green. At that stage, they are rich in flavour and ideal for rolling." So, now you know that all tea leaves are not equal and the pluckers are after a certain kind of leaf combination.
Flavour is the unique selling proposition of Kangra tea. The Chinese hybrid variety grown here produces a very pale liquor, which is the reason why Kangra does not produce any CTC (crushed, turned, curled) tea—the staple tea of India.
All you will find in any of the several factories that dot the countryside are leaf teas—either green or black orthodox. And you can see them being made in any of these factories. The cooperative factory in Palampur makes only the black orthodox variety, but it is a tourist friendly place and you can spend an enjoyable half-hour there.