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 earned an outsized reputation for innovation.
Sharad Subba, who lives two minutes from his factory, is breathing new life into the tea scene. Subba was born and raised in the village. For as long as he can remember, he says, he has seen his parents growing and harvesting tea there.
“One of the reasons why I couldn’t continue my studies was because of the tea,” he smiles.
The statement seems odd at first, but after an afternoon of observing it, it’s easy to imagine its commitment to a life of learning tea. Subba is consumed entirely with tea leaves. It becomes clear that the closeness between his professional and personal life is not a mere accident but his design.
I don’t know 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 house. However, he probably doesn’t because his daily life would disrupt the tea too much.
A center of activity
In April, the Jasbire Tea Processing Center was open all day. Due to its unique and favorable microclimate, the first harvest of Jasbire is earlier than that of the surrounding villages.
The factory gate welcomed the cool air from Ilam to counteract the hot air drying the tea leaves. People, especially women, came in with their blue nylon bags filled with pickings of a leaf and a bud. Some arrived by scooter; some walked with their children right behind them. They traveled from all parts of Jasbire.
Subba temporarily employs small tea garden owners to harvest the very first leaves. Last year, Subba created a visually stunning green tea called Farmer’s Green tea.
Farmhouse green tea
“I couldn’t believe it was green tea,” recalled one tea buyer after tasting the tea for the first time. Inside were tender rolls of white buds and leaves. The heavy layer of trichomes in the leaves was full of promise,” he said.
To stock up on the finest quality fresh tea leaves, Subba has partnered with nearly 80 farmers in the neighborhood. This is one of the many ways Jasbire Tea Processing Center maintains common tea making and provides some of Nepal’s finest teas. Thus, the tea made in the Subba factory truly represented Jasbire, and the quality is respected. All the bags of freshly picked tea leaves that entered the factory while I was there weighed just over five kilograms. One-fifth of the raw material turned into that much sought-after micro-batch first harvest loose leaf tea. Thought that was disappointing, but didn’t feel the same in the busy teapot. Subba seemed rather proud of that fact.
Before opening the Jasbire Tea Processing Center, Subba worked in other factories. For twelve years he was a tea picker, supervisor and 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 can’t just think about the expense. That’s why I wanted to make good tea that could represent Jasbire,” Subba said.
As a factory owner, Subba constantly wobbled from corner to corner. Relying on his heightened senses, he skipped a few steps as if the tea leaves were calling to him, while floating in conversation with visitors.
He took care of the arrival of fresh teas and kept a close eye on what was left to dry. The tea being prepared was a spring tea.
His fingers swayed back and forth among the withered troughs. He stroked the drying leaves several times throughout the day and encouraged us to take a closer look. “The leaves are constantly changing,” he said.
When the time finally came to change the lot, Subba became calm, composed and deliberate. His polite demeanor and quick manners showed that no tea should be wasted.
And none did.
Wilted leaves were transported to the upper level of the factory, where the air there was more controlled. The aroma of the aroma of fresh raw leaves 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 in charge of standing beside it, diligently watching. The machine ran smoothly as if it were automated, but it is clear in this factory that the machines do not control the process.
Tea makers look forward to a specific aroma or, as they say, “let the teas speak”. The machines turn off as soon as the leaves release this particular aroma. The rolled pieces of darker, thicker leaves are then transported to the drying machine. There, another skillful worker waits for the leaves.
This machine has been preheating for a few hours now. The temperature is high enough that the teas are only dried and not roasted. Tea makers play local upbeat music that accompanies the loud hum. All these machines run simultaneously.
Everyone is serious, but there is an air of celebration. The young tea makers, aged 19 and 20, smile occasionally as if to remind themselves that they are still young, but with a few pauses they spend their time learning to converse with tea.
Music plays a mathematical role. No more than two songs pass before the machine begins to pull the now dried leaves, and at the right processing, the tea makers wind them up.
The dried leaves fall directly into the ground by the machine and are picked up manually in a thick, stained cloth. Leaves that fall to the ground cool, a technique that ensures the leaves don’t continue to roast due to retained heat.
Subba is waiting. He seemed everywhere at once, lacking nothing concerning his precious teas.
When asked what motivates him and the energy behind his motivation, he replied, “I feel like if I can make the best tea possible, people not only here but all over the world will will taste. It is possible these days. This is what keeps me going. If there was no tea, I would be completely lost.
The hard work of the day produced Jasbire’s Spring White Tea.
Tasters describe the flavor of white chocolate and toasted nuts with a buttery sweetness. Steeping the tea revealed a colored consistency of tender olive green unoxidized leaves with tiny bits of oxidation at the bare ends of the picking.
“The brew is a smooth, light liqueur with a floral and fruity blend that immediately envelops the palate. The sweet sweet butternut notes emerge as you swirl the liquor around and end with lovely green grapes and light citrus undertones,” according to one buyer. He said the tea revealed flavors of steamed vegetables, specifically butternut squash, with a buttery-sweet finish. The soothing liquor it produced was a creamy yellowish hue and gave off an extravagant aroma of floral and sweet fruitiness.
The dry leaf had an aroma of white chocolate and roasted nuts. Immediately after opening the small sample pack, the buttery smoothness enveloped the viewer. The medium-sized, slightly curled leaves appeared greenish-white, with prominent silvery tips and a few darker olive-green leaves. With patience and a bit of humidity, the tea revealed a colorful consistency of tender olive green unoxidized leaves with tiny bits of oxidation at the bare ends of the picking. “The brew is a smooth, light liqueur with a floral and fruity blend that immediately envelops the palate. Sweet sweet butternut notes emerge as you swirl the liquor around and end with lovely green grapes and light citrus undertones,” the overseas buyer said.