Ramona V Flowers: What kind of tea do you want? Scott Pilgrim: There’s more than one kind? Ramona V Flowers: We have blueberry, raspberry, ginseng, sleepy time, green tea, green tea with lemon, green tea with lemon and honey, liver disaster, ginger with honey, ginger without honey, vanilla almond, white truffle, blueberry chamomile, vanilla walnut, constant comment and...earl grey. Scott Pilgrim: Did you make some of those up?
That was from the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Half a decade later, few of us are more knowledgeable about our chais. Visit any of the trendy cafes and leaf through the beverages section on the menu card. Orange earl tea, Jasmine tea, Kashmiri kahwa, White tea, Black tea, Oolong…the list is never-ending.
Not only the hip eateries, if you are a guest at some of the posh homes in the cities or even some of the smaller towns, you will be bewildered with the tea options on offer. Tea is no longer a humble beverage. Drinking tea is a ritual, a culture, a lifestyle.
“Being a Parsi, I always enjoyed masala chai – that is, until I came across some of the newer tea blends. I have always loved vanilla flavour and the thought of having tea with a blend of vanilla was really exciting. And then, there was rose blend too. I just couldn’t have asked for more,’’ says Farzana Patel, who’s so much in love with these tea blends that they have become a favourite gifting option.
Chai, as we have known it, has pan-
India popularity, whether it is the cutting chai of Mumbai, adrak-ilaichi chai of Delhi or masala chai of Ahmedabad. But in recent years the aam brew has undergone tremendous change. Having tea is turning into a gourmet experience, something to be savoured with style and the right attitude. And this trend is fuelled by the luxury tea boutiques and cafes that have come up in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kochi and Kolkata, amongst others. Decorated with sleek tables and chairs, lined with colourful storage tins on the shelves, these hi-end outlets, catering to a niche clientele, are giving a boost to the newly-evolving tea culture.
Tea connoisseurs are now talking about personalised blends and flavours. Add to that, all the new research about tea’s health benefits. Little wonder then that coffee’s little cousin is gaining such popularity. However, there are enthusiasts like Amit Mehta, co-founder of Chado Tea in Mumbai, who believe in tea for tea’s sake. “I don’t like this talk of tea and health benefits. Drink tea to enjoy it, not for some health benefit. The joy factor vanishes when you associate fitness with it,’’ he reasons.
Tasting and brewing
The fascination for blended tea, experts concur, started with exposure to international travel, especially to tea-drinking countries like Japan, China and Thailand. Most travellers are known to have returned with their tea-tales of long leaves, beautifully-coloured brew and the endearing brewing rituals.
Tea calls for precision. “A perfect tea requires the exact amount of water, heating time and precise quantity of tea leaves. Slight change in this combination will change the flavour,” warns Anamika Singh, founder, Anandini Himalaya Tea Boutique in Delhi.
To get the best blend, tea sommeliers often have to experiment with various combinations of infusions, until they strike gold. So, apart from the now common blends of lemon, mint and tulsi-infused tea, which are easily available off supermarket shelves, tea sommeliers try unique blends like saffron, chamomile, rose petals, mari-gold, lemon balm, pomegranate flowers and so much more.
To make the most of their passion, tea boutique owners invest much of their time learning the art of making the perfect tea. Snigdha Manchanda, founder of Tea Trunk in Goa, did a tea-tasting course in Sri Lanka and became a certified tea sommelier before opening her tea boutique. Anamika, on the other hand, grew up in Darjeeling in a tea estate, and tea has been an integral part of her life since the toddler years.
Many of them conduct tea-tasting and brewing workshops. In fact, drinking tea at such places is an experience to remember. As the first step, you are offered small rice cookies to help clean your palate. Next, tea is offered in attractive containers and you are enlightened about the different aromas emanating from the tea. The fragrance could be that of saffron, marigold, cockscomb flowers or just about anything exotic. The ambience and the muted glamour associated with tea drinking makes it a romantic affair, which needs to be enjoyed at leisure.
Isaac Alexander, owner of Pepper House cafe in Kochi swears by the goodness of white tea. “I like the gentle taste of this brew. It’s soothing,” he says. Although it’s one of the costliest teas available – a box of 15 sachets, that is 15 gm of white tea costs Rs 1,350 – a true connoisseur knows it’s worth the money. The high price is due to the method of plucking the tea leaves; white tea leaves are plucked only on full moon nights. This is when the leaves retain maximum moisture content and need minimum processing in order to maintain the quality and aroma. The high price is a factor for most of these teas. While you can easily buy a packet of your regular tea for Rs 200 to Rs 350 per kg, the boutique teas cost anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000 for a 100gm pack! Between the two extremes, the neighbourhood shop and super-markets fill the gap with teas in flavours like mint, tulsi, lemon and the like that are infused with green teas. They are a bit more expensive than your regular fare, though a lot cheaper than the unique boutique teas.
Sipping on these gourmet teas is an acquired skill. Some of the super blends are perfect to be paired with certain food items, say at a fancy lunch or dinner. Wine pairing is old news. Try a pinewood-smoked tea with pork chop, or handmade flowery green tea with grilled chicken.
The biggest hindrance, right now, to a bigger customer base for these teas is the cost factor. But the tea experts are confident that it’s only a matter of time before people wake up to the beauty of drinking real tea and not a concoction of milk-sugar syrup brewed with tea dust. The trend will catch on. Chai pe charcha, anyone?