Tea is one of the most universally enjoyed beverages, bringing friends, family and cultures together across the globe. There’s little better than a cup of brew to make your day a little better, at least that’s my opinion! BOH Tea Plantations Sdn. Bhd. in The Cameron Highlands, Malaysia has been producing an eclectic range of tasty tea for over 90 years and continues to uphold its prestigious legacy. Covering the rolling highlands as far as the eye can see, over 1,200 hectares of land, the estate is not only especially characteristic but is also a site to behold. In fact, the iconic 20-foot overarching balcony facing the Sungei Palas Tea Garden, offering stunning panoramic views, is an absolute must for tourists and locals alike.
The plantation was founded in 1929 by Scotsman John Archibald ‘’Archie’’ Russell, son of a British government official, during the Great Depression. Archie invested in tea because he noticed it was one of the few commodities which had not lost its trade-value when the global stock markets crashed. Together with Ceylon planter, A.B. Milne, Archie transformed an area of virgin rainforest into the first Malaysian highlands tea garden. Now producing 70% of all tea in Malaysia, BOH tea has come a long way since it was founded.
BOH Tea has a colourful history and its success was not without challenges. From the onset, building and developing a plantation in the middle of an underdeveloped Malaysian district was never going to be easy. In the 1920s, the Cameron highlands looked very different than it does today, with no roads and few residents the initial set-up was an extremely hard labour-intensive endeavour; Archie dedicated his life to BOH until he sadly died of tuberculosis at the young age of fifty.
During World War 2 the estate was also briefly occupied by Japanese troops and following independence in 1957 most of the British planters abandoned the plantation. The founding family, however, remained and Archie’s son Tristan became Chairperson of the company in 1966. Tristan’s role in revitalising and developing the tea estate was pivotal giving BOH Tea its unique character that still pervades today. Significantly, Tristan introduced the quality ‘Ummph’ to describe the good quality and unique flavour of the tea. This notion of ‘Ummph’ was a national hit in Malaysia and became a key tagline for the ‘BOH’ brand; it is still often used today when marketing BOH tea products. Colloquially meaning ‘power’ or ‘welly’ in British vernacular, the introduction of this ‘Ummph’ into routine Malaysian life denotes the fascinating hybridisation which characterises Malaysian culture.
BOH is not just known for its characteristic tea or its interesting and turbulent history, but the family-run company is also renowned for its involvement with the community and as conservationists. As a low export producer, they are clearly invested in Malaysian culture and environmental sustainability. Partnered with Kakiseni, a Malaysian arts and culture non-profit platform, BOH Plantations launched the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards in 2002 to recognise and celebrate outstanding performative arts. Speaking in an interview with Awani Review, now-CEO Caroline Russell explains that this is ‘’perhaps a personal passion of the people in the company’’ with the hope to ‘’raise public awareness on the diversity and richness of performing arts in Malaysia.’’
BOH Plantations is also partnered with the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) to protect and preserve Malaysia’s rare, indigenous plants and forestry. Caroline reasons their commitment to conservation and sustainability as: ‘’We are close to the land, we are close to the environment. We have a sense of that.’’ In touch with the pressing environmental revolution, BOH also manufactures biodegradable pyramid teabags for a ‘’better, cleaner environment.’’
Though staying close to the traditional roots and legacy, BOH adapts their product availability according to cultural and consumer changes in Malaysia. Caroline notes that with people becoming more health conscious BOH diverted from being a solely black-tea producer by looking into the green tea industry. She also illuminates how convenience has grown in importance in the region, perhaps due to the influence of globalisation and modernisation, instigating a shift from primarily drinking tea leaves to preferring using teabags. This, too, is something Caroline and the rest of the BOH family has incorporated in the directional development of BOH Plantations.
The future of BOH Plantations is undoubtedly bright with the company continuing to uphold standards and looking into new innovative technologies. I would highly recommend visiting the Sungei Palas Tea Garden, where I drank, quite possibly, the most atmospherically pleasing cup of Ummph! You can reach the garden, by car, with a tour, or by taking a tranquil walking route from nearest town, Tanah Rata. Once there, simply sit back, relax and enjoy the view with a tasty brew in hand; I promise it will not disappoint.