India contends 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 India. Tea is so ingrained in the fabric of India’s culture that 70% of the tons of tea produced is consumed by its own people.
The three main Indian tea regions are Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri, each defined by their unique climate and geographical situation. Both Assam and Darjeeling are located in the northeastern section of India. The Assam region is located in the lush, dense jungles at the foot of the eastern Himalaya, and the Darjeeling region bumps up against Tibetan Himalaya and stretches between high mountain ridges and deep mountain valleys. Nilgiri, however, 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.
India is known to have quite the variety of population and geography, therefore it’s fitting that the tea grown there is just as varied. Each tea-producing region of India provides a different yet perfect climate for tea growing, providing us with so many ways to explore the subcontinent through its culture of tea.
The discovery of this tea plant in 1815 was a huge boon for English trade in British- colonized India. Robert Bruce, an English explorer and botanist, is said to have confirmed the discovery of India’s native tea plant in 1823. His research, however, was taken over by his brother, Charles Bruce, when he 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 labour. 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.
Assam is a large, tropical river valley. In the northern part of Assam, The Brahmaputra River descends down the centre 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 floodplains 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 known 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 midsummer produces the “tippy” teas considered to be the most distinctive of the Assam teas. These more mature, tippy leaves (more coppery in colour 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.
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 labelling 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 flavour 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 Indian tea bush variety (assamica), much of the tea cultivated in this region is the Chinese 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 effects 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 flavour.
The month of May calls for the “second flush”. It yields 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 flavour.
The “monsoon flush” from June through October bears large leaves that brew into a stronger colour and bolder flavour that is less nuanced than the previous flushes. The reason why this is referred to as the monsoon flush is that this tea thrives in areas subject to monsoonal weather patterns and in Darjeeling heavy rains fall from July until September.
The “autumnal flush” happens in October and November and bestows a rich copper-coloured liquor that can be described as full and smooth in flavour.
No matter which “flush” it comes from, each batch of fresh leaves 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. As a result, no batch of Darjeeling will ever be the same.
The same Chinese 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 to – although not as severe as – Darjeeling’s, so it proved to be a fertile tea-growing region.
While the size of the growing region and number of tea estates were 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 compared to England and the Americas. Fast forward 150+ years and Nilgiri’s distribution reach and quality experienced vast improvements. Nilgiri now accounts for about 25% of India’s total tea production, about 50% of which is exported to the United Kingdom and Europe. In 2006, Nilgiri tea growers had their first tea-buying action 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 are less extreme with more rain and tropical-like weather. It borders the Indian Ocean instead of the Himalaya, 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 colour and rich flavour. 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 flavour and production yield than both Darjeeling and Assam.
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 in a tea-like beverage. Recipes for chai vary across continents, cultures, towns and families. The traditional ingredients of a spiced tea, however, 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 neighbourhood where the beverage was being made. Interestingly enough, original versions of “masala chai,” or “spiced tea,” contained no actual Camellia sinensis tea leaves.
You can’t visit India without witnessing its chai culture. Masala chai (spiced tea) is a drink consumed in almost every corner of India.
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.
By Kezia Futter