Friday, April 18, 2014

Madagascar Tea

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Throughout our travels, we were never at ease with what we called the ‘show and sell’ program.  This was nominally a visit to see a local craft or art; however, it quickly turned into a sales pitch for those same wares.  It was never something we sought out; however, there were times when a guided tour was the most effective way to see something, and often a show and sell was part of the tour itinerary.  It was easier when we were part of a group, as we didn’t feel pressure—someone else in the group always bought something.  In Madagascar, we talked our guides out of most of the very few that were on our itinerary—they were generally on travel days between places, to fill time.  However, when Dorique asked us if we wanted to see the tea factory, we said ‘yes!’
We were guided through the Sidexam Tea factory by a pleasant woman; her hand appears above and below, holding finished black tea and freshly shredded tea plant leaves, respectively.

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The factory was fascinating and terrifying at the same time.  There were no safety precautions anywhere.  As we walked in, we ducked under/between the moving hooks running in an overhead track, used to deliver leaf baskets to the conveyor belts.  We were surrounded by machinery that could crush, tear, and curl us just as well as it did the tea leaves, and there was nothing between us and injury but common sense and good balance. 
Here is a quick glance at the crush-tear-curl assembly line.  After that, you can see the macerated leaves left to oxidize in a long tray—the ones near the end of the video are visibly darker brown already, having been spread out first.

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The leaves are hand picked from the 800 acres of tea plants surrounding the factory, and dried for a period.  The leaves are  moved to this portion of the factory in baskets, which are placed on the moving hooks—which at times are moving at face height.  The baskets are unloaded by hand onto the conveyer feeding the first stage of the CTC machine.  The leaves pass through three stages (crushing, tearing, and curling) on conveyors.

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The black tea is then spread out on long trays to oxidize for 2 hours; it is stirred regularly to expose green leaves to the air.  Tea that is destined to be green, and black tea that has sufficiently oxidized are then fired in an even scarier part of the factory which was both too dark, and too dicey to photograph—we were just concentrating on not walking into any exposed belt/pulley mechanisms, or brushing up against the metal furnace sides while navigating the narrow path between them.

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The furnace stops the oxidation process—or in the case of green tea, prevents it from starting—and also dries it out, which prevents natural deterioration.

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The roasted tea now looks like the very first picture—a mix of sizes, with some stems and dust in the mix.  That is passed through this conveyer, which uses light bulbs to electrostatically charge the black rollers, which pick up the dust and stems, and allow just the useful tea to pass through.

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Then it passes through a series of sifting tables, which sort the tea into grades.  This factory produced five grades; two dust grades, two of fannings, and one of broken pekoe.

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Finally, the tea is packed into huge bags (130 lb) for distribution.  The bulk of it is shipped to Kenya to be sold at auction, but some percentage of their lower grade teas are sold locally as bag tea. 

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At the end of the tour, we got to taste a selection of their teas.  They were quite good, and we purchased a small variety package of several of their teas, black and green.  It was neither the first nor the last tea we bought on our trip.

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As the show and sell went, this was at the top.  We always tried to enjoy them much as possible, but this one was right up our alley, as tea lovers.  It was definitely the most interesting, despite being fraught with peril.