Originally published on the Tea Journey website in 2022.
In six years, the Jasbire Tea Processing Center in Jasbire, Ilam, a village of 150 households less than 20 miles from the main tea hubbub of Eastern Nepal, has established an outsized reputation for innovation.
Sharad Subba, who lives two minutes from his factory, is pumping new life into the tea scene. Subba was born and raised in the village. Ever since he can remember, he says, he’s seen his parents growing and harvesting tea there.
“One of the reasons why I couldn’t pursue education is because of tea,” he says with a smile.
The statement seems odd at first, but after an afternoon of observing him, it’s easy to imagine his commitment to a life of learning about tea. Subba is utterly consumed with tea leaves. It becomes apparent that the proximity between his professional and personal life is not a mere accident but his design.
I am not sure which came first, the house or the factory, but I know that if he could, Subba would live in his factory or have his factory inside his home. However, he probably doesn’t do it because his daily life would disturb the tea too much.
A Center of Activity
In April, Jasbire Tea Processing Center was open all day. Due to its unique and favorable micro-climate, Jasbire’s first flush harvest is earlier than its surrounding villages.
The factory door welcomed cool Ilam air to counter the warm air drying the tea leaves. People, especially women, walked in with their blue nylon bags full of one-leaf-and-a-bud pluckings. Some arrived on scooters; some walked with their children close behind them. They travelled from every part of Jasbire.
Subba temporarily employs small home tea garden owners to collect the very first of their leaves. Last year, Subba crafted a visually stunning green called Farmer’s Green tea.
Farmer’s Green Tea
“I couldn’t believe it was green tea,” recalled one tea buyer after he first tasted the tea. Inside were tender rolls of white buds and leaves. The hefty trichome coating in the leaves was full of promise,” he said.
To get his fill of the best quality fresh tea leaves, Subba has partnered with almost 80 farmers in the neighborhood. This is one of the many ways Jasbire Tea Processing Center keeps the manufacturing of tea communal and delivers one of the finest teas in Nepal. So the tea made in Subba’s factory truly represented Jasbire, and the quality is adhered to. All the bags of freshly plucked tea leaves that entered the factory while I was there weighed just over five kilograms. One-fifth of the raw material turned into that oh-so-looked-after micro-lot first flush loose leaf tea. I thought that was disappointing, but I didn’t sense the same in the busy tea maker. Subba seemed rather proud of this fact.
Before opening Jasbire Tea Processing Center, Subba worked at other factories. Over twelve years, he was a tea picker, a supervisor, and a tea maker. One of the main reasons he felt the need to establish his tea factory was to have the freedom to make ramro, good tea.
“I’ve always known that good teas are expensive to make. If you want to make good quality tea, you cannot think only of the expenses. That’s why I wanted to make good tea that could represent Jasbire,” said Subba.
As a factory owner, Subba constantly oscillated from one corner to the next. Relying on his acute senses, he skipped over a few steps as if the tea leaves were calling to him, all the while floating in and out of conversations with visitors.
He dealt with the fresh teas’ arrival and kept a close eye on what was left to dry. The tea in the making was a spring tea.
His fingers swayed back and forth among the withering troughs. He stroked the drying leaves multiple times throughout the day and encouraged us to take a closer look. “The leaves are always changing,” he said.
When the time finally came to switch out the batch, Subba became quiet, composed, and deliberate. His polite demeanor and swift ways made it apparent that no tea must go to waste.
And none did.
The withered leaves were taken to the next level of the factory, where the air there was more controlled. The aroma of fresh raw leaf aroma filled the room as the owner, with a sense of urgency, filled the rolling machine. As the imported Chinese rolling machine came to life, someone was assigned to stand beside it, diligently watching. The machine was operating smoothly as if it were automated, but it is clear in this factory that machines do not control the process.
The tea makers eagerly await a specific aroma or, as they say, “for the teas to speak.” The machines are switched off as soon as the leaves emit that particular aroma. The rolled hunks of darker, chunkier leaves are then hauled to the drying machine. There, another dexterous worker awaits the leaves.
This machine has been pre-heating for a couple of hours now. The temperature is hot enough to ensure the teas are only dried and not roasted. The tea makers play local upbeat music that accompanies the loud hum. All these machines are running simultaneously.
Everyone is serious, yet there is an air of celebration. The young tea makers, aged 19 and 20, smile once in a while as if to remember they’re still young, but with few breaks, they spend their time learning to converse with the tea.
The music plays a mathematical role. Not more than two songs go by before the machine starts hauling out the now-dried leaves, and at the right cure, the tea makers haul them up.
The dried leaves fall directly into the floor by the machine and are collected manually into a thick, stained fabric. The leaves falling to the floor are cooling, a technique that ensures that the leaves don’t continue roasting from retained heat.
Subba waits. He seemed everywhere at once, missing nothing regarding his treasured teas.
When asked what drives him and the energy behind his motivation, he said, “I feel like if I can make the best tea possible, people not just here but all over the world will taste it. It is possible in this day and age. That’s what keeps me going. If it weren’t for tea, I would be completely lost.”
The day’s hard work produced Jasbire’s Spring White Tea.
Tasters describe the flavor of white chocolate and toasted nuts with buttery sweetness. Brewing the tea revealed a colorful consistency of unoxidized olive green tender leaves with tiny bits of oxidation at the bare ends of the pluck.
“The brew is beautifully light-bodied smooth liquor with a floral-fruity mix that envelopes the palate right away. The soft sweet butternut notes emerge as you swirl the liquor and eventually end with nice green grapes and slight citrus undertones,” according to one buyer. He said the tea revealed flavors of steamed vegetables, more precisely butternut, with a buttery sweet finish. The calming liquor it produced was a creamy yellowish hue and gave an extravagant aroma of floral and sweet fruitiness.
The dry leaf had an aroma of white chocolate and toasted nuts. Immediately after opening the small sample pack, the buttery sweetness enveloped the beholder. The medium-sized loosely rolled leaves appeared greenish-white, with prominent silvery tips and some olive green darker leaves. With patience and a bit of moisture, the tea revealed a colorful consistency of unoxidized olive green tender leaves with tiny bits of oxidation at the bare ends of the pluck. “The brew is beautifully light-bodied smooth liquor with a floral-fruity mix that envelopes the palate right away. The soft sweet butternut notes emerge as you swirl the liquor and eventually end with nice green grapes and slight citrus undertones,” said the overseas buyer.