Indian Tea Culture
India vies with China for the title of world’s largest producer of tea. There are more than 100,000 tea estates employing millions of tea workers across the geographically and ethnically diverse subcontinent of India. Tea is so engrained in the fabric of India’s culture that 70 percent of the million or so metric tons of tea it produces is consumed by its own people.
India’s terrain defines its tea-growing regions by the subcontinent’s significant differences in climate and geography. The three main Indian tea regions are Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri. Northeastern India is home to both the Assam region, located in the lush, dense jungles at the foot of the eastern Himalaya, and the Darjeeling region, which bumps up against Tibetan Himalaya and stretches between high mountain ridges and deep mountain valleys. Nilgiri, by contrast, is situated in the mountains of the southernmost tea-growing region in India. The Nilgiri (Blue Hill) Mountains feature high altitude ridges that boast lush forests and jungles where tea plants thrive.
The tea grown and produced in India varies as significantly as its population and its geography. Each tea-producing region of India provides a different yet perfect climate for tea growing, leaving us so many ways to explore the subcontinent through its culture of tea.
Assam is the largest tea-growing region in India and some say in the world. It is home to India’s indigenous, wild-growing tea plant variety, Camillia sinensis assamica.
The discovery of this native tea plant in 1815 was a huge boon for English trade in British-colonized India. The British were quite literally addicted to tea at the time and relied on tea export from China to supply their growing demand. Conflict between China and India as well as shipping and trade competition with the Dutch made it harder and harder for the English to keep up a successful tea trade.
English explorer and botanist Robert Bruce is said to have confirmed the discovery of India’s native tea plant in 1823. Charles Bruce, Robert’s brother, took over the research when his brother died. Bruce explored the wild Assam tea plants growing across the region and learned that local tribes had been using tea for centuries as both food and beverage. By the 1830s, Bruce figured out how these plants could be propagated and cultivated to create what ultimately became a British-dominated tea industry in India.
By the late 1870s, the English had invented machinery to help speed up the tea production process using less labor. Tea leaves that were originally hand rolled, slowly fired over coals, and left for hours to dry were now being processed with machinery that replaced by 8,000 machines that could perform the work of half a million people. In just a short time, the British had the tea plantations and resources to increase the per capita tea consumption in Great Britain from 1 pound per year in 1820 to more than 4 pounds in 1880. More importantly, Indian black tea was now on its way to eclipsing Chinese green tea as the most consumed tea in the world.
Assam is a large, tropical river valley. In the northern part of Assam, The Brahmaputra River, one of the longest in the world, descends down the center of the region from Tibet and provides the water that sustains the tea gardens of the fertile plains. The southern part of Assam sits in a valley that bumps up against the Himalaya. The mountain backdrop keeps the hot, humid air in the valley and traps the river water to produce flood plains that feed the valley’s tea gardens.
Assam’s tropical weather, hot and humid with lots of rain, fuels a hearty tea bush that is known for producing thick and lush plants with large, abundant leaves. The resulting processed leaf produces a characteristically strong, full-bodied and malty tea.
Assam’s tea plucking and producing season runs from March through November. The Assam tea leaves are generally harvested twice during a season; the harvests are know as “first flush” and “second flush.” The first flush is picked during the early spring harvest in March and produces the more delicate teas coming out of Assam. The second flush in mid-summer produces the “tippy” teas considered to be the most distinctive of the Assam teas. These more mature, tippy leaves (more coppery in color and covered with fine, delicate hair) brew into a creamy, full-bodied, and brisk cup of tea. Because Assam is the largest tea-growing region, it produces anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of India’s total tea output.
The Assam region is mainly known for its production of black tea; there are some green and white teas produced here but they are not as well known. Assam black tea has a hearty, bold flavor that is drinkable on its own but also stands up well to milk and sugar. Because of its strong and rich flavor, Assam is often used in breakfast tea blends popular with the British and other cultures around the world.
While the discovery of the native Assam tea bush was playing out, the British were also trying to smuggle the much-prized tea plants and seeds of China into India. Many doubted that the native India tea bush could ever compete with the high quality of tea that came from China’s tea bush. The British were eventually successful at smuggling in seeds and growing the China varietal tea bush, Camellia sinensis sinensis, in the high-altitude, cool, rainy, and rugged mountains of Darjeeling. This part of India mirrored the environment in which Chinese tea bushes grew so well.
By the mid 1850s, tea growing in Darjeeling had been so successful with both the China and native India varietals of the tea bush (and even with a hybrid of both) that the British-led government continued to send resources to develop the tea industry in this part of India. While the region grew in number tea gardens, acres of tea estates, and amount of tea produced, it would never reach the output of tea from Assam. Darjeeling to this day only produces 1 percent of India’s total tea output.
Darjeeling is often dubbed the “Champagne” of teas. Like the fickle grapes of France, the tea crops of Darjeeling may vary from year to year depending on the weather, soil conditions, and accessibility to the unique and varying mountain terrain where the bushes grow. Like Champagne labeling in France, a tea must be grown, cultivated, produced, manufactured, and processed in tea gardens of the Darjeeling region of India to be called a Darjeeling tea.
Darjeeling is located in the state of West Bengal in eastern India. Darjeeling’s tea gardens range in elevation from 2,000 feet to 7,000 feet and spread across hills and valleys and wind through steep vertical mountain ranges and up into alpine forests. Because of the radical changes in elevation, there are many microclimates throughout Darjeeling, from cool misty breezes to subtropical forest humidity and strong sunshine to monsoon rains. The challenging geography and rough, sometimes inaccessible, terrain are what make Darjeeling such an exclusive tea.
The terrain itself is said to define the unique and prized flavor of Darjeeling tea. The teas grown at higher elevation in colder temperatures are said to be the most prized of the region. The Darjeeling bush is also more difficult to harvest, sometimes because of the fickle weather and sometimes because of the steep terrain where the plants are located. This is one of the reasons why the supply of Darjeeling tea will never meet the unending demand.
Another reason Darjeeling tea is so prized is that it is completely unique to this region of India. While some Darjeeling tea gardens cultivate the native India tea bush variety (assamica), much of the tea cultivated in this region is the China variety (sinensis) that has acclimated to the high elevation and rugged climate that is similar but unique from China’s. What’s more, many Darjeeling tea bushes may be a China-India hybrid, which can be found nowhere else in the world.
The China bush variety of Camellia sinensis sinensis cultivated in Darjeeling produces small, delicate leaves compared to its India bush cousin Camellia sinensis assamica from which Assam tea is produced. It takes about twice as much China bush tea leaf to equal the same weight of India bush tea leaf. Which is another reason why Darjeeling produces such a small fraction of the annual tea yield in India.
Because the winter weather is severe across the Darjeeling region, its tea bushes are dormant for many months of the year. Depending on the tea garden location, harvest season runs from February to November and yields several seasonal “flushes” along the way. Each “flush” represents the new growth on the tea bush and reflects the seasonal affects on the leaf as the leaves mature.
- The “first flush” is the picking of the brand new two leaves and a bud in the earliest spring growth of the plant in February and March. These early leaves are usually more delicate and tender and therefore more light, floral, fresh, and astringent in flavor.
- The “second flush” is picked in May and yields a larger, more mature leaves with a purplish hue and silver tips or leaf buds. These leaves are known for their full-bodied, muscatel, and fruity flavor.
- The “monsoon flush” from June through October yields large leaves that brew into a stronger color and bolder flavor that is less nuanced than the previous flushes.
- The “autumnal flush” happens in October and November and yields a rich copper-colored liquor that can be described as full and smooth in flavor.
No matter which “flush” it comes from, each batch of fresh leaf will be different from one day, one garden, one season to the next. Darjeeling leaves are processed…withered, rolled, oxidized…in a technique that reflects the conditions of the season and of the plucked leaf. So no batch of Darjeeling will ever be the same.
Like fine wine, Darjeeling is often enjoyed and even critiqued batch by batch. The best Darjeeling teas should be sipped according to the specific brewing instructions of the tea maker to really appreciate the flavor nuances that come from the tea-growing region and artisanal production technique. Lower quality, less nuanced Darjeeling (like the “monsoon flush”) may be used in some Indian households as a base for chai masala, tea brewed with strong spices and milk and sweetened with sugar or honey.
The same China tea bush seeds that thrived in Darjeeling were sent down to southern India’s Nilgiri (Blue Hill) Mountains in the state of Tamil for experimental planting. The high-altitude geography was similar although not as severe as Darjeeling’s, so it proved a fertile tea-growing region.
While the size of the growing region and number of tea estates was similar to that of Darjeeling, the Nilgiri tea itself never received the prestige or price that teas from Assam and Darjeeling claimed. Much of Nilgiri’s tea was destined for Eastern Europe and Russia, which were smaller tea-drinking countries than England and the Americas. These countries also didn’t demand the same quality out of tea that other worldwide consumers did, so the production quality of Nilgiri’s tea suffered. Fast forward 150+ years and Nilgiri’s distribution reach and quality experienced vast improvements. Nilgiri now accounts for about 25 percent of India’s total tea production, about 50 percent of which is exported to the United Kingdom and Europe. In 2006, Nilgiri tea growers had their first tea-buying auction in the United States and it was met with great success and high praise for the quality of Nilgiri-grown tea.
While the high altitude of Nilgiri is similar to Darjeeling, the terrain and climate is less extreme with more rain and tropical-like weather. It borders the Indian Ocean instead of the Himilaya, so the region is peppered with lush forests, tropical jungles, cool misty valleys, sunny plateaus, and grasslands fed by numerous streams and rivers.
The region is home to two national parks and four wildlife preserves, which make up the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the largest of its kind in India. Outside the parks and preserves, Nilgiri is mostly a plantation district. More than 70 percent of the district is dedicated to tea gardens. And some of the most famous spices that grow in India can be found here: cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, peppercorn, and vanilla.
Nilgiri’s monsoon seasons, with distinct wet and dry periods, define the growing and plucking schedules for the tea. The tropical climate allows for year-round plucking and production, although the best Nilgiri teas are those harvested between November and March. The China tea bush variety has adapted to its tropical surroundings to produce a hearty bush that produces an abundance of dark, rich leaves, which give the tea its deep color and rich flavor. The tea is grown among cypress and eucalyptus trees as well as a myriad of spices, which all influence the tea’s fragrant taste. It is a high-yielding crop compared to that of Darjeeling. And it is more reliable in flavor and production yield than both Darjeeling and Assam.
Nilgiri is typically described as fragrant, bright, and full-bodied. Nilgiri teas tend to have the fruity characteristics of Darjeeling but are strong and bold like Assam. Unlike most black teas, Nilgiri doesn’t “cloud” when chilled, which makes it a dependable choice for producers of iced tea. Because of its strong and consistent flavor, it is also a popular choice as a base for chai masala, in which the black tea needs to stand up to fragrant spices.
Nilgiri tea also contains very little tannins, so it can be brewed for a long time without succumbing to the astringency that other black teas face if over steeped. This is another reason Nilgiri is a great base for both iced tea and a traditional Indian chai, which requires a strong black tea than can withstand being boiled for a good period of time with milk and strong spices.
The name “chai” is the Hindi word for “tea,” which was derived from “cha,” the Chinese word for “tea.” The term chai means a mix of spices steeped into a tea-like beverage. Recipes for chai vary across continents, cultures, towns and families. But the traditional ingredients of a spiced tea usually include black tea mixed with strong spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and black peppercorns. The spiced tea is typically brewed strong with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey.
The origin of chai dates back more than 5,000 years, when a king in what is now India ordered a healing spiced beverage be created for use in Ayurveda, a traditional medicinal practice in which herbs and spices are used for healing. A variety of indigenous spices would be used to prepare the healing drink depending on the region of the continent or even the neighborhood where the beverage was being made.
Original versions of “masala chai,” or “spiced tea,” contained no actual Camellia sinensis tea leaves. The addition of tea, milk, and sugar were popularized thousands of years later (in the mid-1800s) when the British created the now famous tea-growing regions of India and popularized tea as a beverage.
You can’t visit India without witnessing its chai culture. Masala chai (spiced tea) is a drink consumed in almost every corner of India. Although it is consumed everywhere, chai may be spiced and prepared in completely different ways depending on the customs of the region, the town, or the person preparing it.
If you’re not sipping chai at someone’s home in India, you’re likely sipping it on a street corner. Chai “wallahs” are Indian chai makers that sit, stand, or set up shop with their chai-making gear on nearly every street corner in nearly every town in India, from big cities to desert outposts. (Think of how many Starbucks you see in a day in your own town and multiply that by 100 and you’ll get an idea of how many chai wallahs set up “shop” in India.) Each chai wallah may have his or her own style of brewing and spicing the chai they make and most prepare chai in small batches to order.
While specific preparations vary by the person preparing the chai, the tea leaves are almost always boiled with spices and then boiled again after the addition of milk and sugar. This is the opposite preparation of a British-style tea, where the tea leaves are steeped in hot water and the milk and sweetener are added later.
While the concept of a chai latte only became popular with Western consumers a decade ago, chai brewed with milk and sugar has been a way of Indian life more than a hundred years and one that will likely last for a hundred more.
Darjeeling Tea via Wikipedia
Produce of Nilgiris via District of the Nilgiris
Chai Wallahs of India
Assam Tea via Wikipedia
Nilgiri Tea via Wikipedia
The Story of Drinking Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss
New Tea Lover’s Treasury by James Norwood Pratt