MUNNAR, India — Much of the tea that Americans sip comes from plantations around Munnar, a cool, hilly town in the South Indian state of Kerala.
Munnar is the southern domain of Tata Tea Ltd., the world's largest integrated tea company: It grows, processes, packs and distributes tea, unlike companies that merely buy and blend it.
Tata is India's leading manufacturer of instant tea, and the United States is its main market. Some 1.5 million pounds of tea powder are shipped annually to a Tata factory in Plant City, Fla., near Tampa, for final processing. Some tea is sold to supermarkets, which use it for house brands, and some goes into the institutional trade. None is distributed under the Tata label.
Although most companies make instant tea from fermented and dried black tea, Tata has a patented process to produce it directly from green leaves. The process yields a superior product, company officials claim.
In India, Tata's main competitors are Brooke Bond India Ltd. and Lipton (India) Ltd., which sell more tea but do not have the extensive plantations maintained by Tata.
Tata's customers include the Soviet Union, the major buyer of Tata's leaf teas; Iran, which in 1987 placed the largest order for black tea in Tata's history, and the United States, which gets about 500,000 pounds annually.
Sales are also brisk in India, where tea is the liquid staff of life.
"It's the cheapest food item available at the subsistence level," said Percy Siganporia, deputy general manager for marketing and sales in Tata's southern division.
Tea, usually with milk and sugar, is the drink of choice in India. It is vended everywhere, from sidewalk tea stalls where it can be purchased for practically nothing to five-star hotels. At construction sites, laborers are provided sweetened tea mixed with milk, for energy. Shopkeepers offer it to customers while haggling over prices. In Indian homes, serving tea is a gesture of hospitality.
In 1987, the latest year for which complete figures are available, Tata produced roughly 108 million pounds of tea, a company record. About half of Tata's tea came from northern plantations in Assam and West Bengal. Southern plantations produced the rest, despite a prolonged drought. With better weather in 1988, southern output rose 20% while the northern crop remained the same.
Tata's main office is in Calcutta. Its southern sales office is in Cochin, a port city in Kerala, a 3 1/2-hour drive to Munnar. As tea country approaches, the road winds high through forests. One is greeted by striking panoramas of soaring mountains, coconut palms, banana trees and rice paddies.
Closer to Munnar, the rugged terrain is veiled by a soft carpet of greenery--tea bushes. The sultry heat changes to a chill as estates rise to altitudes of 7,000 feet, among the highest in the world. Anaimudi, the highest mountain south of the Himalayas, dominates some of the vistas.
Pioneered by British
The tea plant thrives in this climate, and a sizable amount of premium tea from the highest estate--Chundavurrai--is snapped up by New Jersey-based Thomas J. Lipton Inc. for its American market. The mountains here are known as the High Range, or the Kanan Devan hills. Tata has 24 plantations in the region and a handful of others in neighboring Tamil Nadu state. The company's total acreage in India is 65,000, about 28,200 of it in the south.
British planters pioneered tea cultivation in 1878. In the 1890s, Finlay Muir & Co., which later became James Finlay & Co., entered the scene. In 1964, Glasgow, Scotland-based Finlay joined the Tatas, India's largest business group, to found an instant tea factory. The company became Tata-Finlay in January, 1976, as the result of government regulations that required Indianization of a significant portion of foreign shareholdings. Finlay bowed out completely in 1983, and Tata Tea Ltd. was the result.
Munnar was once a bastion of British India. British planters flourished here. Now their tea estates and factories, the airy bungalows where they lived and the clubs where they socialized are all in Indian hands. But although India has been independent since 1947, British traditions continue.
At the venerable High Range Club in Munnar, members still gather in a dark, rosewood-lined, men-only bar. After 30 years or more in the area, a member is allowed to hang his hat on the wall. One of the hats there now shows a starting date of 1899. A dinner jacket or high-collared Nehru coat is mandatory for formal events, and men must don coat and tie to enter the "mixed" bar, where women are allowed. Guests lodging at the High Range Club start the day with "bed tea."
Care for Workers
Munnar is virtually a company town, and Tata manages its estates in paternalistic fashion. Workers get free housing and medical care, and their children are guaranteed jobs. The work force in this area totals 25,000, said Sunil Pratap, industrial relations manager.