Perry - Derek

I live in Australia on the Sunshine Coast hinterland some 90 kms North of Brisbane. 

Born 1935.

I was employed by the Andrew Yule group 1954 to serve on estates in the Dooars and Assam leaving in 1962 just after the huge China invasion scare.  

For years after I pined for those glorious times in Tea as I worked a sedentry career with banking and finance in England, New Zealand and Queensland Australia.  

Now with my Twitta Tea Estate I am able to relive those lovely times in N E India.

‘Twitta Tea’ is quite possibly the world’s smallest tea plantation. The plot of 45 bushes is to be found on Derek Perry’s Witta property.

Gay Liddington joined him recently for a brew to hear of a family tea journey which began in India in the 19th century and finally reached the Hinterland in 2002.

The roots of Derek’s family tea tree reach back to the early 1800’s in India. His great, great grandfather trader and adventurer Robert Bruce discovered a native tea plant in north-east Assam.

“I have a passion for tea and say it’s in my blood,” said Derek.

“Robert and his brother Charles, also a trader, went into the hills and plains of Assam along the Brahmaputra Valley where there was no European settlement.

“The brothers noticed that the hill people were drinking a brew very similar to the tea that they knew. At that time the East India Company was importing from China. It coincided with a huge popularity in tea drinking right across Great Britain.

“In 1824 plants were sent to a botanist in Calcutta. It was confirmed that indeed there was a relationship to the tea plant that existed in China.

“Robert Bruce died that year but his brother Charles who was a go ahead individual began experimenting.

“Soon it was confirmed that there was huge potential for this tea. Charles found the tea trees growing wild. They pruned them to a level that was easy for picking and under Charles Bruce’s guidance many acres of tea were established. He created what we now know as the modern tea plantation.”

Chests of tea were sent to the London market to test how it would be received compared with tea from China. The outcome was favourable. As a result, tea companies were established in London with public capital.

Derek recalls, “I was born and educated in the hills of Assam at Shillong. I didn’t have any idea about my ancestors and their involvement with tea until I was about 14 years of age.

“I learned that my great, great grandfather was responsible for planting out four different tea gardens in the area of the town of Gauhati, now the capital of Assam. It was inspiring.

“After finishing school I went to London to take up an apprenticeship. But the call of Assam and tea planting was too strong.”

A passage to India, a bungalow, servants and a car allowance afforded the 20-yea- old bachelor the lifestyle of a rajah. Add to that the many clubs built by the British establishment. They offered expatriates a heady social scene.

“I went out on a contract in 1954. They liked me and I was developing my management skills.

“Labour for the Assam tea plantations was imported from central India. Workers were allocated a plot of land and by the standards of the day, they were deemed better off than other contemporary labour but gaining their trust was paramount.”

The early sixties spelt uncertain political times in India. As a result there was a mass exodus of expatriates. Derek and his family returned to England where he began a new career as a bank officer.

In 1973 Derek joined his sister in Auckland, New Zealand, began a new life and remarried. It was his home for 25 years.

Visits to Australia with his wife Beverley, a wedding in Montville, and thoughts of retirement led the couple to discover their place at Witta 14 years ago.

I asked Derek how his hobby of growing tea in Maleny began.

“After leaving India and living in England in a semi-detached style house with a small backyard plot, I fantasised about having a little tea plantation. It was impossible there and not suitable in Auckland.

“You have to have a humid climate, hot sunshine and wet weather to grow tea. That’s the first thing I thought when we came up here. This is ideal.”

Derek then sourced the Camellia Sinensis seed from a tea estate in New South Wales. He grew the seedlings and once mature, they were transferred to a bush line.

“It took about four years to produce the tea. What you’re trying to achieve with pruning is a wine glass effect. A flat top like a hedge makes it easy for the shoots to pop up. The essence of good tea is ‘two and a bud’.

“It’s those fresh succulent leaves that are picked and processed. Harvesting season is November to April.”

While we were drinking a brew of ‘Twitta Tea’ Derek explained the process.

“The leaves are picked in the evening then placed on a tray to wilt overnight. The following morning I put them into an old fashioned meat mincer.

“The ‘green’ tea has to oxidise for an hour and a half by which time it changes from green to a coppery colour. An hour and a half later I put it into the kitchen oven to dry…very rudimentary.”

A four-cup a day man, Derek shares his tea leaves with friends and neighbours. Its mellow flavour and fresh floral aroma has also found its way into teapots in England and Canada.

It is obvious from Derek’s reflections that this journey with tea remains close to his heart.

“I feel that spiritually tea is in my psyche. I talk to my ancestors too. I do this for them as much for myself. I would talk with them as I followed their footsteps in the Assam Valley.

“I’d say, ‘I’m just retracing your footsteps from 100 years ago’. So that’s the fulfilment of my little hobby…”

Andrew Yule Group

Andrew Yule Group

Andrew Yule Group