India has been competing with China to stand as the largest tea producer on the globe. Today, India has over 100,000 tea estates that employ millions of people. Around 70 percent of the tea India produces is consumed within the country, indicating that tea is already engrained into the fabric of the Indian culture. The terrain of India defines the main tea-growing regions by subcontinent's significant differences in geography and climate.
The three primary tea-growing regions are Darjeeling, Nilgiri and Assam. The northeastern part of India is home to Assam region, which is situated in lush dense jungles near the foot of eastern Himalaya, and Darjeeling tea growing region, which bumps against the Tibetan Himalaya and stretching between the deep mountain valleys and high mountain ridges. By contrast, Nilgiri is located in the mountains of southernmost tea-growing regions. The Nlgiri, Blue Hill, Mountains have high altitude ridges that feature jungles and lush forests where the tea plants thrive well.
The tea grown in India today varies as the population and geography do. Each tea growing region produces a different but perfect climate for tea. But did you know that tea in India has a long history? Perhaps, no. Historical records show that the Indians were consuming tea before 750BC and in the 16th century, they were using tea leaves, garlic and oil to make a vegetable dish. However, the British are known to have rediscovered the tea and grown it on a commercial level in this country.
The British who consumed tea in large quantity from China is known to have started commercial tea cultivation in India. By 1750, they were importing millions of pounds of tea from China each year. Even though they were able to counterbalance the import with the opium trade, they realized that their tea consumption was getting expensive and unsustainable. The realization led to the sustained effort of tea production in India.
In early 1771, the Governor-General of Bengal by then, Warren Hastings, gathered samples of tea seeds from China and sent them to India for planting. English botanist Sir John Banks was supposed to make notes on the tea growing and in the year 1776, he concluded that tea cultivation was possible in India. Colonel Robert Kyd of the British East India Company army regimen also tried to grow tea in a botanical garden that he started (now the Indian Botanical Garden, situated at Howrah Kolkata) in 1780.
In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scottish explorer, discovered native tea trees that grew in the upper Brahmaputra Valley and were brewed by the Singhpho tribe. A noble Assamese, Maniram Dewan, is said to have given this vital information to Robert Bruce and his brother. Fortunately, Maniram Dewan became the first Indian to start tea growing privately in Assam. Robert Bruce died before the tea was officially graded, but Charles Alexander Bruce, his brother, managed to bring tea samples to the Calcutta Botanical Garden on Christmas Eve 1834. After a careful analysis, the plants were classified as variants. of Chinese tea plant and named Camellia sinesis var Assamica Kitamura.
The discovery of native tea in India was a boost to the English trade. The British were already addicted to tea but the importation from China was getting expensive. Conflict from India and China in addition to the trade and shipping competition with the Dutch traders made it even harder for the English to succeed in the tea trade. After Robert Bruce and his Brother discovered that the natives of Assam had been brewing tea for centuries, they decided to propagate and cultivate it in the region. The result was a British-dominated tea industry.
By 1870s, the British had invented machines to help speed up the production of tea using less labour in India. Originally, the Indians hand-rolled tea fired it slowly over coals and left it for several hours to dry. The 8000 machines introduced by the British could do the work of 500,000 people in a shorter time. Within a short time, the British had established tea plantations and resources that helped increase per capita tea consumption in Britain from 1 pound annually in 1820 to 4 pounds in 1880. More importantly, the Indian black tea was about to eclipse the Chinese green tea.
As Robert Bruce and his brother were discovering tea growing in Assam, the British were smuggling tea seeds from China into India. Most people doubted the ability of Indian native tea bushes to compete with the quality tea from China’s tea bushes. The British were successful in smuggling tea seeds and growing varietal tea bush in the Indian high-altitude, cool, rainy mountainous Darejeeling. The region mirrored the regions were tea bushes grew in China.
By mid-1850s the British were producing large amounts of tea in Darjeeling – both the native India and China varieties and even hybrids of the two. The British government continued sending resources to India to develop the tea industry in Darjeeling. Even though the number of tea gardens, tea estate acreage and the amount of tea increased, it never reached the output from Assam. Including today, Darjeeling only produces 1 percent of India’s tea output.
Darjeeling is known as the “Champagne” of teas. However, like in any other place, the tea production varies from year to year depending on the soil conditions, weather and accessibility of the unique mountain terrain. Tea has to be grown, cultivated and processed in the gardens.
The British moved the same China tea variety that thrived in Darjeeling to Nilgiri, known as Blue Hill, Mountains in Tamil state for experimental planting. The geography was similar to that of Darjeeling but not severe. Even though the number of growing estates and the growing region was more like that of Darjeeling, Nilgiri tea did not enjoy similar price or prestige that the tea from Assam and Darjeeling enjoyed. Most of the tea was produced for Russia and Europe, where people were not tea addicts. Even more, the countries did not demand the quality of tea in other countries, like Britain and the United States, demanded.
After 150 years, the distribution of tea from Nilgri increased and the quality improved. Today, the region accounts for roughly 25 percent of the tea production from India and around 50 percent of the tea exported to the UK and Europe. In 2006, the tea-buying auction of tea from this region happened in the United States. The auction was met with high praise and success for the high quality of tea.
Related Article: Exploring India's Nilgiri Tea Growin Region and Its Teas
India tea industry did not come to a standstill after the British left the country. In fact, the tea industry has been growing rapidly. Assam has over 43,293 tea gardens, Nilgiris has over 62,213 gardens while Darjeeling has 85 tea gardens. To ensure the supply of genuine tea, the government incorporated a compulsory system of certification in the Tea Act of 1953. The terms "Darjeeling", "Assam logo", "Nilgiri logo” and “Darjeeling logo are already registered under Geographical Indications of Good Act of 1999.
In Hindi, “Chai” is the word for “tea”. The term was derived from the Chinese word “Cha”, which also means tea. Chai refers to spices steeped into tea-live beverages. The recipe for Chai varies across, towns, families, cultures and continents. However, the traditional spiced tea ingredients included black tea and spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and black pepper. The Indians brewed spiced tea with milk and sweetened it with honey or sugar.
Chai dates back to over 5,000 years when ordered the preparation of a healing spiced beverage. The beverage was prepared for use in the traditional medicinal practices, known as Ayurveda, in which spices and herbs were used for healing. The spices used to prepare the healing drink varied from one region and continent to the other. Originally, spiced tea or masala chai did not contain Camellia Sinensis tea. People started adding sugar, tea leaves and milk thousands of years afterwards – in the mid-1800s – when the British established tea growing regions of India and people learnt more about tea as a beverage.
Related Article: Authentic Homemade Indian Chai Tea Recipe
Today, you cannot visit India and fail to witness the Indians’ chai culture. They drink spiced chai, or masala chai, in almost all corners of India. Even though the tea might be available everywhere, people prepare it and spice differently depending on the customs of their region, town and the individual preparing it. If you do not get a chance to sip some tea in someone’s home, you will get it on the street. Chai Wallahs, Indian tea makers, stand, sit or establish shops on almost every street corner.
Keep in mind that every chai wallah will have a unique style of spicing and brewing Chai but they always boil the tea leaves with spices and then boil them again after adding the sweetener and milk. That is the opposite preparation of British tea, which requires steeping of tea leaves in hot water and the addition of milk and sweetener later. Chai latte concept became popular in western countries around one decade ago but chai brewed with sugar and milk has been a way of life in India – they have prepared it for hundreds of years and it is likely to continue.
Drinking of tea in India has evolved in many ways, with every region making its unique chai variant. The humble chai wallahs make hundreds of teacups each day to connect the society. On the other hand, stores in the country offers a wide range of fine Indian for everyone to try. When touring the country, you should remember to try some tea variants.