Brief history of Indian tea
Tea is native to India (Camellia sinensis assamica), but tea cultivation was imported (or perhaps smuggled) from China. The chronology of how tea planting began in India is confusing, because so much of it happened simultaneously, yet in isolation. However, the events are interwoven.
The first successful tea gardens in India started in Darjeeling in the 1850’s with seeds and plants brought by Robert Fortune from China and cultivated by Archibald Campbell (both Scottish born). However, tea was found growing wild in Assam two decades earlier by brothers Robert and Charles Bruce (also Scottish born). Initially, British botanists weren’t so sure these native plants were tea and the first efforts at production were clearly not as good as the Chinese. But this Assam tea was now arriving in London and demand was being established. Success in Darjeeling boosted Assam efforts and by the 1870’s the tea gardens numbered in the hundreds.
During this same time, the British were experimenting with Chinese plants in the southern region of Nilgiri, though this area did not show commercial success until the 20th century. The initial motive for all these efforts was to satisfy increasing demand for tea in the west and break the monopoly that China held over the tea trade. In ways both chance and direct, India became the catalyst that spread tea growing around the world.
Indian Black Tea
Though other types of tea are produced in India, the overwhelming focus from both a level of volume and expertise is black tea. When we talk of Indian tea, it is assumed we are talking about black tea. This is not to say that the occasional green, white, or oolong teas produced in India are bad, but they are not the norm and because of that they often lack the quality of the Chinese originals.
Indian black tea is different from Chinese black tea for three primary reasons:
- The local climate and geography (known as “terroir”) are fundamentally different than they are in China and significantly different even amongst the particular regions of India. This makes direct flavor replication impossible.
- Tea was developed in India to meet growing demand in the west, where tastes and interests are different than in China. The Chinese tend to prefer larger leaf styles and more subtle flavors where westerners tended to prefer stronger cups meant to take milk and sugar.
- Black tea processing in India has matured over time and tea producers have developed their own standards for quality and purpose. It’s no longer a direct replication of Chinese methods. This is not yet the case for other styles of tea: green, white, oolong.
- Almost immediately the British focused on increasing the volume of tea produced, which has evolved into a never-ending effort, and started the mechanization of the tea industry. There are still some tea manufacturing machines, which were made in the 19th century, in use today.
Masala Chai Tea
Masala chai is the traditional drink of India and defined as a blend of black tea, milk, sugar, and spices. It is a direct and uniquely Indian influence on what was a “British” culture of tea in India. There is no exact masala chai recipe, but all include those four ingredients.
Masala chai is extremely popular in India. Most households make it and each region has particular variations that are popular within their locality. It is sold by countless street vendors called “chaiwalas” (which translates as “tea seller”) in big ready-to-serve pots. The word “Masala” means “blend of spices” and the ones most commonly used are ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove (though there are many others that might be included). In its most traditional form, the black tea, sugar, and spices are boiled in water. Then milk is added, boiled again, strained and served. It’s also worth noting that “chai” means “tea” in Hindi, so “chai tea” is redundant. “Masala chai” is the better term for this beverage.
Indian Tea Regions
Tea field in Darjeeling
Arguably the most famous tea region in the world. Darjeeling is a city located in northeast India and any tea bearing its name must come from the designated region surrounding it. This is the home of the original Chinese plants brought by Robert Fortune and their descendants still populate the Darjeeling tea fields today. The smaller leaves and structure of the Chinese plants perform well in the higher altitudes of the Himalayan climate. Darjeeling teas have an unmistakable floral spice and a musty grape-like sweetness commonly referred to as “muscatel”. The first and second harvests of the year (commonly referred to as “flushes”) are the most popular and the best lots are sold as specific vintages noting the garden name, flush, leaf grade, lot, and year of production. The monsoon and autumnal flushes that follow are typically less refined with most of it destined for blends and tea bags.
Darjeeling tea statistics:
Area of Tea production: 17,820 hectares
Annual production: Approximately 9 million kg
Elevation ranges: 1,800 - 6,000 feet
Number of tea gardens: 87
Assam tea factory along the upper Brahmaputra River valley
The home of India’s native tea plant – Camellia sinsensis assamica. The Brahmaputra river valley’s low elevation and tropical climate produce the ideal growing conditions for this larger-leaf subspecies to thrive – making Assam the single largest tea producing region in the world. Assam black teas are known for their bold, full-bodied cup with a strong malty presence. Assam teas are often a preferred component of breakfast tea blends, but the fine summer harvest (known as “Second Flush”) will produce high quality orthodox teas that command higher prices.
Assam tea statistics:
Area of production: 312,210 hectares
Production: over 500 million kg
Elevation ranges: 150 – 250 feet
Number of tea gardens: Approximately 800
Blue Mountains in Nilgiri
Nilgiri is the most popular and prolific tea producing region of Southern India. Nilgiri translates to English as “Blue Mountain” because the area is covered with the kurinji flower that blooms only once every twelve years. Nilgiri tea was primarily CTC tea for export for many decades, but is switching back to more orthodox teas in the 21st century. Their unique “frost teas” (produced from the earliest flushes in January-February) are starting to get some notoriety. Most of the black tea produced here is used domestically as a base tea for masala chai or for export as an iced tea because of their smooth, fruity appeal.
Nilgiri tea statistics:
Area of production: 66,175 hectares
Production: Approximately 100 million kg
Elevation ranges: 3,000-6,000+ feet
Number of tea gardens: Approximately 30,000 small growers (and a few large ones)
Other tea producing regions include: