A tryst with tea

A tryst with tea

Find out why tea is the wine of India

There are two kinds of beverages that we associate with tea leaves — there is tea and there is chai. Before I proceed, let me tell you that camellia sinensis is the name of the Chinese variety tea plant available only in Darjeeling. Other tea regions in India like Assam, Nilgiris and Munnar house another variety of tea called camellia assamica. Sinensis gives you a light-bodied aromatic tea, while assamica gives a more heavy-bodied tea, which is very robust in liquor and taste.

In olden times, tea in India was typically herbal in nature, incorporating herbs and spices like tulsi, cardamom, cinnamon, etc. With the arrival of the British and the East India Company in India, who set up tea gardens in Darjeeling and other parts of the country during the late 1800s, Indians got used to the black chai that we know today. Sometime during the early 1900s, an enterprising British trader invented the CTC tea — a process of manufacturing only black granular teas to reduce the production cycle and for mass consumption. This CTC tea changed the drinking habits of Indians and citizens of other countries where British exported their tea.

What’s in your cup?

Teas made using the original handmade method, called orthodox tea, now remain within regions like China and Japan where the British hadn’t established their presence. Therefore Indians, for more than a century now, grew up drinking CTC tea which is considered inferior to orthodox tea. CTC tea can only be consumed when mixed with milk and sugar, which Indians converted into a concoction of milk, water, sugar and dust tea. This beverage that we relish every morning is the chai the world knows of. Though we, as Indians, vouch for our chai, this tea is not only harmful to our health but it also doesn’t have all the goodness that it is supposed to have.

During the last few years, orthodox tea has gained popularity in India as well, thanks to globe-trotting Indians travelling through China, Japan and Korea, where this has been a staple for the last 5,000 years. Such teas are not only unique in their character but they also come in 
different varieties — white, green, oolong, and black — offering innumerable health benefits as well as in many cases snob 
values just like a premium scotch or 

It’s not that Indians were not producing such teas, in fact, we were one of the largest suppliers of premium orthodox teas in the world after China. But unfortunately, all good teas were and are still being exported away to those countries who consider drinking tea as a fine art and tea time a celebration.

Premium beverage

Take for example the Darjeeling orthodox tea — they are not only the favourites of the royal families all over Europe, Japan and the Middle East, they are actually called “champagne tea”. But very few Indians have even heard of champagne tea.

These fine orthodox teas are not only cherished and valued for their character, aroma and flavour, but also for their places of origin, premiumness, manufacturing process, variety as well as the legacy attached to their estates or gardens; just like wine. For example, the Darjeeling tea is fondly called champagne tea because of its unique muscatel flavour, its season-based produce as well as the heritage and ancestry attached to each of the estates producing this tea. The value of Darjeeling tea, whether it is black, green, oolong or white is comparable to that of any fine wine produced in the valleys of France or Italy. In fact, green, white and frost tea from the Nilgiris or a silver needle or golden tip tea from Darjeeling, Kangra or the Nilgiris, are extremely rare and as exotic as any premium wine from its most precious origins. Like champagne, Darjeeling tea is exotic, rare and flawless. Like champagne, Darjeeling tea comes only from Darjeeling — the high altitude Himalayas. Like champagne, Darjeeling tea is premium (price has gone up to Rs 100k for a kg as well).

Both tea and wine have tannins and astringents — which in wine is called dryness and in tea is called briskness. Like wine, the premiumness of the tea depends on its origin — single origin teas are more expensive and premium than blended tea. Like wine, teas can also be light-bodied or heavy-bodied. And like wine, teas are also to be paired with the right food.

With so many similarities between wine and tea, I often wonder why tea in our country, which ironically produces the champagne tea as well as other very fine teas, is not considered a celebratory beverage but rather used as a bowel 
movement-inducing milkshake in the morning.

It is really sad that we as Indians are yet to appreciate this wonderful beverage that we have been producing for hundreds of years now. We are so oblivious to our own heritage that we will spend thousands of rupees to attend a wine appreciation workshop or in buying wine and champagne without batting an eye, but hesitate and question when it comes to buying a good Orthodox tea from India. It’s time we Indians become like the French and bask in the glory of this beautiful Indian beverage.

Let’s also keep in mind that the variety of wines come from a variety of grapes, but most varieties of tea come from only one plant. Incredible, right?

(The author is a tea artist and the organiser of Tea Festival India)