India

Rolling forward: Assam tea rides bicycle balls for quality control

Ballometric system of separating fine leaves from the coarse involves 100 steel balls of 1 gm each from the rear wheel of a standard bicycle

The tilinga (bell) of a bicycle and the power of its pedal have been woven into popular, romantic Assamese songs.

The ball bearings in the rear wheel of the common man’s mode of transport are now helping infuse quality into the cup of tea that often brews romance or business in Assam.

The 110-year-old Tocklai Tea Research Institute in eastern Assam’s Jorhat had in the 1950s developed the ballometric method for separating fine tea leaves from the coarse ones to ensure quality. While many of Assam’s 803 major tea estates have been following this method, the unorganised sector has largely avoided it.

The ballometric system entails weighing 100 grams of freshly-plucked tealeaves from the withering trough in a factory. The weights on the scale are 100 steel balls from the rear wheel of a bicycle, each weighing 1 gram.

Every 100 grams of tea leaves is then separated into fine and coarse leaves.

“Fine leaves mean the standard two leaves and a bud (unopened leaf), a leaf and a bud or a banji (sterile leaf) at the tip of a stem of the tea bush. These are sorted from the more mature leaves and the stems that are categorised as coarse leaves,” Tocklai’s Director A.K. Barooah said.

The sorted fine leaves are put back on the scale and weighed again with the steel balls. If the weight of a bunch of such leaves is equivalent to 55 balls, the percentage of fine leaves for processing is taken to be 55%.

Tea industry captains said the ballometric method has been back in focus because small tea gardens (STGs), which now account for more than 52% of the average annual tea production of 692 million kg in Assam, need to be sensitised for insuring against a dip in quality.

In July, the STGs had in a meeting with the Tea Board of India and other stakeholders agreed to supply at least 40% fine leaf to the tea factories. This arrangement will be in force until the Board comes up with a new minimum quality benchmark.

“Good tea cannot be produced from poor quality green leaf. Quality assessment is made using the simple inexpensive ballometric count method. Although everyone understands it, all stakeholders have a tendency to confuse themselves, either for their vested interests or for some reason rooted in social issues,” Tea Board Chairman Prabhat Bezboruah said.

“It was the duty of scientists to devise a robust fine leaf assessment method. Our responsibility is to ensure maximum dissemination of this method so that count controversy becomes a problem of the past,” he added.

According to Bidyananda Borkatoky, advisor of the North Eastern Tea Association, enforcing the ballometric method would do a world of good for mass-produced Assam tea that suffered from lack of quality control.

The associations of STGs, a category of planters who own up to 10 hectares of land, agree that the six decades-old fine leaf count method can add value to the leaves they offer to the factories. Assam has about 1.72 lakh STGs.

Ballometric has an alternative in the tea-growing belts of Assam — paisometric, involving 100 coins, each weighing 1 gram.


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