The Curious Case Of Tea And India’s Obsession With It

Is India a Tea drinking nation? Why is it that we don’t experiment as much with tea (aka Chai) as much we do with coffee? What makes tea taste different? And is there a perfect way to make tea? 

One of the side-effects of watching Turkish TV shows on the internet is the insatiable urge to drink tea. The characters in the show I’m watching currently, Her Yerde Sen, constantly talk about wanting to drink tea, sometimes several times a day, and their tea doesn’t look anything like that most of us drink in India. It was out of sheer curiosity that I wanted to understand more about tea and if there’s a right method to make tea. And so, I rang up a friend of mine, Madhuri, who is also the co-founder of The Tea Planet in Hyderabad, to ask some doubts about tea, and the conversation turned out to be a lot more informative than I could imagine. This blog is a result of that conversation. Excerpts :

The history behind how India began cultivating tea, which for several hundreds of years was restricted to China, reads like a thriller. By the early 19th century, Britain had become so obsessed with tea that they had to figure out a way to break China’s monopoly over tea. In 1820’s, British officials realised that a wild variant of tea was consumed by tribes in present-day Assam, and they struck a deal with Ahom kings to cultivate tea in Assam. On the other hand, soon after the First Opium war ended between Britain and China in early 1840’s, a Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was sent to China on a mission to find out more about tea cultivation. And he ended up ‘smuggling’ a few tea saplings and a few Chinese tea cultivators, who knew how to grow them, to India. You can read a lot more about how they pulled it off and how it helped the British empire in Sarah Rose’s book – For All The Tea In China.

Is India obsessed with Tea?

It’s been more than 180 years since tea was introduced in India and behind its astronomic rise, the industry has been criticised for its working conditions, wages, how it treats labourers among many other things., Today, India is the second largest producer of tea in the world; however, in terms of consumption per capita, it ranks 27th, as per the data from 2016. Turkey was at the top of that list! In a country where it looks like a tea-shop / tea kottu / tea kadai at every nook and corner, how is it possible that tea isn’t India’s most favourite drink or is it? Madhuri offers a different take on this debate and says something that isn’t too obvious until someone underlines it. 

“India is neither obsessed with tea nor with coffee. We are crazy about milk. And a lot of times, drinking tea or coffee is just an excuse to consume milk. That’s also the reason why anything to do with milk, like milkshakes, are so popular.” 

She has a fair point. Think about it? How many types of tea do you actually experiment with other than the usual masala chai or masala ginger chai? Sometimes, we might drink lemon tea, and of late, green tea has found more takers. But how many of us have taken an instant liking to something like jasmine tea? Or even hibiscus tea? The list of teas available at high-end outlets is pretty long; however, we often hesitate to try it out. One of the reasons behind this could be our reluctance to accept tea as a premium product. We are okay with spending at least Rs 100-250 on a Cafe Latte or a Cappuccino; however, it really hurts when someone bills us Rs 100 for chai. Naturally, it has a lot to do with how tea is produced and marketed in India to a wider section of the consumers. 

The Many Teas In India

Tea comes in two variants – CTC tea and Orthodox tea. At a basic level, CTC tea comes in the powdered format and it’s aimed at the mass market, and it’s comparatively of less rate. On the other hand, orthodox teas come in leaf format and they are considered more premium, and this more costly. Then, geography too plays an important role in determining the value of teas. Tea is predominantly cultivated in Assam and Darjeeling in North-East and in Nilgiris in South. “A lot of factors determine the quality of tea. Since tea grows at a much higher elevation in Assam and Darjeeling, its properties like viscosity and colour are different. And they are considered more premium. On the other hand, because of the climatic conditions in Nilgiris, the tea we get from there tastes different. It used a lot for blending and there’s a huge market for it,” Madhuri shares. Then, the time at which the tea leaves are plucked also determine their quality. “The first flush is usually the best,” Madhuri says, adding, “The life span of teas, if preserved well, is between 12-24 months. So, it’s important that the lots we get move fast.” Incidentally, due to the lockdown, the tea industry is expecting a major loss and it could even lead to a steep hike in tea prices in near future.

The Uphill Task 

Considering the number of tea-brands that are on the shelves, from Taj Mahal to Gemini, and how each one claims to encompass the best of Assam’s finest tea, it’s also worth noting that tea trade is controlled by a select few business houses, which have been in this trade for more than 100-150 years. Even the tea auction is controlled by a select few, and it doesn’t leave enough room for new players to enter the business at the production level. But more than that, the tea industry itself is so heavily regulated that it deters people from entering the business. Consider this – if you want to sell blends or infusions, it comes under the purview of adulteration. And so, by law, you are required to describe the ingredients and formulation to get a license. That’s not all. The license is given to a profile and not a process! “So, if I want to sell 20 types of teas, I have to take licenses for all 20 of them, even though the process might be the same. That makes the whole thing so expensive,” Madhuri says, “This is also the reason why a lot of people in the business, especially in Kolkata, end up as private label manufacturers and also end up packaging stuff for exports. By the way, the margins are massive once it’s actually exported. Other countries might not regulate it so much. So, for instance, someone can buy tea for Rs 10 and add an infusion and sell it for Rs 500! The margin is huge!” 

In recent times, however, there has been a positive change in this field. Teabox, which has received funding from Ratan Tata, is selling infusion teas and others are hopeful that it’ll open more doors for others. “Sri Lanka does a fantastic job with tea production and exporting them to other countries, and their government supports the tea industry a lot. There’s a need for more reforms to increase ease of doing business in the tea industry in India,” Madhuri adds. 

It’s going to take a lot of effort to change the tea drinking culture in India and for something that’s more of an acquired taste, it’s going to take a lot of effort to do that. Madhuri says, “We see coffee as a fancy drink meant for socialising; however, we don’t attach that sort of premium thing for teas. Like cold coffees, there are also cold teas. Tea Latte is amazing too, but not many people know about it. Turkish teas are usually hot water blended with spices, the British are quite fond of English Breakfast tea and black tea, which are orthodox teas.”

The more I spoke to Madhuri about her fascination with tea, the more she told me about how tea is consumed in other countries. “I love the way Chinese consume tea. There are specialised tea tables everywhere and they keep serving you tea as soon as you gulp it down. And really, tea could be anything that you mix in hot water. It doesn’t even have to have milk or tea powder. In China, they keep sipping this sort of mix (hot water + ingredient) several times a day and it has a lot of health benefits. The simplest, and yet quite effective thing, we can do is carry a flask that has hot water and green tea leaves, and keep sipping that water every now and then,” Madhuri says. 

So, is there a right way to make tea, afterall? “There are no rules to be honest. It all depends on how you prefer it,” Madhuri says, adding, “But one thing that people should keep in mind. For any kind of tea, to get the colour and flavour, you need to boil it in water for a certain amount of time instead of putting it directly into milk. Then, the taste of tea also changes with the quality of milk and water that you pour into it.”

So, the next time you see bubble teas or kombucha on the menu, along with masala tea and green tea, don’t be surprised. Like everything else, tea is changing. Maybe, we should too. Now, go have tea, chai, tee, cha, teh, o-cha, tey. 

(The author,  Hemanth Kumar C R , is a Hyderabad-based journalist and he writes about Telugu cinema, TV shows, and his work has appeared in publications like Firstpost.com, TheNewsMinute.com, SilverScreenIndia, New Indian Express, Film Companion. And 845show.com is his new blog. You can reach out to him on Twitter @crhemanth )

About crhemanth

Hemanth Kumar C R , is a Hyderabad-based journalist and he writes about Telugu cinema, TV shows, and his work has appeared in publications like Firstpost.com, TheNewsMinute.com, SilverScreenIndia, New Indian Express, Film Companion. 845show.com is his new blog. You can reach out to him on Twitter @crhemanth or email him at hemanth[dot]cr[at]gmail[dot]com

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