Winter is time for Frost tea
Most tea regions across India close for winter because the plants are dormant — but not the Nilgiris!
December-January frost is a true time to shine for the Nilgiris frost tea. “Frost teas” are a special category of tea that comes into being when temperatures drop to sub-zero levels. The extreme cold and frost create a unique tea that’s high in flavor and quality.
This tea that is only found in the Nilgiris, or the blue mountains, is famously described as floral. Winter frost emphasizes its flavor, due to the higher presence of methyl salicylate in leaf cells. The cell sap is concentrated as shorter days and long, cold nights slow growth.
One of the highest gardens in the Nilgiris is Korakundah, about 8,000ft above sea level. As the sun rises on a freezing winter morning, the light of the dawn reveals the tea fields covered in a layer of ice, “giving the appearance of having snowed”. But while temperatures at night can plunge to minus 5-7 degrees Celsius, daytime temperatures hover between 23-25 degrees Celsius. This wide disparity in temperature results in low humidity create the conditions for an outstanding tea.
Plucking takes place early in the morning, when it’s still very cold. The green tea leaves are plucked and processed with great care, to ensure the leaves aren’t damaged. If the leaf is “injured”, it enters the oxidation stage too soon. Extremely cold and dry air is used for leaf withering. The rolling is gentle, just enough to release the leaf juices so that they smear the leaf surface. The leaves then undergo oxidation/fermentation at low temperatures.
Many tea enthusiasts try to find a parallel between these teas and a Darjeeling (also high-altitude terrain, like the Nilgiris) but if you ask me, it is an unnecessary comparison. Darjeeling sure produces some exceptional teas, but the frost tea from the Nilgiris hills are simply its own category.
When made well, the winter frost tea from the Nilgiris has a cheery bright orange color. It smells of the hills, of winter mornings, of flowers and plants growing wild. It tastes great and yes, that floral aroma makes for quite the celebration of the beautiful Shola forests. If you enjoy lighter flavorful black teas and Nilgiris oolongs, you’ll love Frost tea!
*Adapted from the article by Aravinda Anantharaman