History of Tea in India
When I started researching this article, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do this subject justice.
You see, unlike the natural development of tea and tea rituals in China, tea culture didn’t develop organically.
Tea growth in India goes hand in hand with politics, so I’ve condensed some of the events that led to India becoming a tea loving country. It doesn’t cover everything, and I’m sure Indian historians may cringe, but is should be an easily digestible summary of the history of tea and tea culture in India. We’ll chat about the teas that have developed as a result of the politics in India too.
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Here’s tea’s history in India in a nutshell.
Tea wasn’t a popular drink in India until it was mass produced by the British East India Company.
Britain created the East India Company in 1600 to take charge of trading operations in the east. It dealt primarily with China and India. The British discovered they loved tea when they traded with the Chinese in the 18th century. Unfortunately for them, China wanted premium prices, and they had a monopoly on the tea market.
The East India Company discovered that there were a few indigenous tea plants in the Assam region of India (that borders China), and thought, “why don’t we just make our own tea to sell to the Brits?”
There weren’t enough tea plants in India to create a profitable crop, so unfortunately for the Indians, the East India Company began buying up land and burning it down to make room for tea plants around the mid-nineteenth century. They grew well in certain regions, but the plants they’d transplanted from China weren’t yielding big enough or tasty enough crops. The company decided to send in a spy/botanist to China posing as a tea buyer to learn how they made their black teas. This botanist brought back the knowledge of oxidation of tea leaves, and about 80 Chinese tea farmers, to start creating bigger and better tea crops.
Over time, the East India Company took over most of India and had its own army. The unsuccessful Indian Rebellion of 1857 (y’know, for taking over their county and imposing their own taxes and rules) devastated the indigenous populations and villages, and the Brits weren’t too happy about this. The British Empire blamed the company; the government took over from the East India Company including the armed forces the company had grown over the years. It was only in 1947 that the British Empire left India and slowly returned the lands used for tea to the Indian people.
A tiny portion of the Indian population drank tea before the British popularized it there. The Tea Board of India campaigned to popularize the drink with the Indian people. Now India is second behind only China in terms of how much tea their people consume.
The four tea growing regions in India are the Nilgiri Hills, Sikkim, Assam, and Darjeeling. The latter two are the ones you’ve likely heard about.
The Nilgiri Hills
The Nilgiri Hills are situated in the southeast region of India just south of Bangalore. These hills are part of the range known as the “Blue Mountains.” Its tropical climate allows growers to pluck tea all year long. Most of the tea is destined for CTC (tea made with the crush, tear, curl method, which creates uniform tea dust that will brew in tea bags). However, there are some growers (like Neelamalai Organics) that grows tea of a higher quality.
The Neelamalai Winter Black tea tastes of cherry wood and tobacco and has those same aromas. Its mouthfeel is bright and a tad astringent. It leaves your mouth a bit dry after you’ve sipped it.
Want to form your own opinion as to how your teas taste? I’ve broken down the tastes and aromas of teas in a handy guide. Click here to get it free.
The Sikkim State is a small area just north of Darjeeling between Nepal and Bhutan. The teas there aren’t well-known like Assams or Darjeelings, but in a few years, they may well be. The growers there are working with Darjeeling growers to create more delicious teas.
The Assam State is located in northeastern India bordering Bhutan and Myanmar. This is where Indian tea plants were first discovered by the East India Company. The Brahmaputra River feeds into this region and the tropical climate creates the perfect environment for the indigenous tea plants. The plants there are the assam variety of Cameilia sinensis.
About 90% of the tea plants grown in India are destined to become CTC tea. About 50% of that CTC comes from Assam plants.
The Assam tea featured here is the Orthodox Long Leaf grown by Heritage Tea Assam harvested in Spring of 2015. The leaves are plucked by hand, then processed. It has the malty flavor characteristic of Assams generally, and it has a hint of citrus. It has raisin and rose aromas.
Teas can have lots of flavors and aromas that you may not notice until they smack you in the face. This handy (and free) guide can help you out if you’re looking for just the right word.
Darjeeling (and why it’s not being produced right now)
Seated in the Eastern Himalayas, the hills of Darjeeling are the only place in the world that produces prized Darjeeling tea. There are 87 tea gardens, and at this time of this writing no more tea is being harvested.
That’s right: no more tea is being harvested. (I’ll get to why in a second.)
The tea plants used to grow this “champagne of teas” is grown from the variant of the tea plant grown in China (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis for you sciencey types). The region has rich soils and the perfect climate to grow these tasty teas.
One of the last batches of Darjeeling was produced by a small tea cooperative called Yanki Tea (featured in this post). The people behind Yanki Tea are Darjeeling (or Gorkha) locals. They are the first tea factory to be started by indigenous people in the area and also licensed by the Tea Board of India. 99% of all tea workers in Darjeeling are indigenous Gorkhas.
There’s a problem though.
The Gorkha are peacefully protesting to show solidarity with those trying to create an independent state of India called Gorkhaland (some of which are also using violence). The Gorkhas feel marginalized in part because of an announcement that learning a language not their own would become compulsory (they speak Nepali, and the government wanted to make learning Bengali mandatory). The state sent security forces to protect the area and has cut off internet connections to prevent them from connecting to the outside world. Government security forces have also killed civilians.
There have been prior uprisings to create Gorkhaland – one in the 1980s when about 1200 civilians were killed. Afterwards an “autonomous” government was created to appease the Gorkhas, but that didn’t last long. It’s unclear how long the Darjeeling gardens will be closed and whether there will be a peaceful resolution to this political unrest.
On a lighter note, the Yanki tea featured here will be in the new 14 Day Tea Tour coming in October. It has a floral aroma that melts into its taste too. In addition to the floral flavors, it tastes of menthol and plum. It has a juicy mouthfeel too.
This is a second flush Darjeeling (it’s the second harvest out of three that happen each year). Each harvest or flush has a distinct flavor. The second flush has a touch of muscat flavor to it too.
Green teas in India
Indian tea farms are experimenting with creating teas that aren’t their traditional black teas.
The Silver Queen
Silver Queen is an experimental batch of white tea from Assam, India produced by the Heritage Assam garden. They hand-pluck young leaves that are dried carefully to preserve the downy white hairs on the leaves. The tasting profile is fresh and lush, but it’s strong, so it shouldn’t be steeped too long to prevent it from becoming too astringent.
A word on Masala Chai
This post wouldn’t be complete with a little info on Masala Chai (chai meaning tea, of course). The British introduced drinking tea with milk and sugar. Instead of adding milk, however, the people of India created a drink using simmering black tea (usually CTC) and spices that added milk, then reheated it all together. There are innumerable variations of chai. Pictured below are a few variations. One is more cinnamon flavored, while another has more cardamom, and still another has a stronger clove taste and aroma to it. They each use different quality teas too. A couple use higher quality loose leaf teas while another uses poorer quality CTC teas. Can you guess which one uses CTC?
Each chai has unique tastes and flavors. Want to dissect what your favorite chai blend has? Grab your free guide to tastes and flavors to help you out.
Brewing Indian Teas
Most Indian teas are black and can tolerate boiling water. Use about 3 grams (or about 2 teaspoons of tea) per 8 ounce cup of water.
Chai Masala may be brewed like this, or you can simmer them on the stove for 15 minutes or longer to extract more of the spices. Add a bit of almond mil to cut the astringency of the tea leaves.
As far as the newer green teas go, I would brew those the same as traditional greens: 185 degrees F (boil water then let it cool 5 minutes before pouring over your tea.) Use about 2 teaspoons per 8 ounces of water.
Next week, we’ll chat more about black teas from other parts of the globe.
Lots of love to you,