Indian tea at a glimpse

India, with its vast population and storied cuisines is something of a tea legend. Yet, India hasn’t always been a chief exporter of tea – India’s less than 200-year timeline pales in comparison to China’s vast almost 5000-year history. Back when India was but a colony under British rule, India had yet to even begin tea production. The British were wholly reliant upon the Chinese for their tea, a power dynamic which the British desperately wanted to offset. But it wasn’t until Britain and China were plunged into war that the British had their moment of reckoning. In the throes of the Opium War, China ceased provision of this prized import. The unprecedented move forced Britain’s hand, driving them to outsource tea production to India. This shift would prime India to become one of the world’s largest tea-producing regions, giving rise to some of the most notable and beloved tea varieties. The rest, as they say, is history.

Amidst the plot to develop their own means of tea production, the British enlisted a botanist to spy on the Chinese and siphon their ancient trade secrets. With his help, the British smuggled Chinese tea plants over the border from China to India in hopes of recreating the cultivation processes they’d learned. What ensued was a series of experiments, a tumultuous process of trial and error. The very first of these tea experiments took place in the valley of Assam, a lush region traversed by the Brahmaputra river. Then, Assam seemed like the prime candidate for cultivation simply because it bordered the historic tea-producing region, Yunnan. The assumption was that the conditions would be comparable and result in the same growing success. The holes in the plan rapidly widened as the British encountered one problem after another. The tea plants brought from China were accustomed to cooler temperatures and mountainous heights. The Indian climate in the valley, however, was far more humid, seeing temperatures that soared in the sweltering heat of Indian summer. Unsurprisingly, these initial tea experiments failed. The botanists eventually noticed another variety of the precious tea plant already growing in the region – Camellia sinensis assamica. Unlike its Chinese counterpart, Camellia sinensis sinensis, this tea plant seemed to be perfectly acclimated to the muggy climate and low elevation, and turned out to be just the lifeline the British needed.

It wasn’t love at first sip, however. The British public was loath to embrace the new Assam variety after having grown accustomed to delicate Chinese black tea. Yet, the very intensity of Assam tea is exactly what won dubious Brits over in the end. The tea’s bold flavors, undeniable depth, and robust quality soon became its greatest selling point. Assam black tea grew so quickly in popularity that the once-overlooked variety eventually became synonymous with British tea. In time, Assam became the largest tea-producing region in the world. It’s not hard to see why – Assam tea’s rich, malty, and astringent flavors hold up to multiple types of preparation. Tea lovers who favor adding milk and sugar to their morning brew will find Assam black tea is exactly what they’re looking for. For those who want this balance of rich flavors, try our Nandana. It's an intense and full-bodied black tea from Assam that’s rife with milky sweetness, spicy honey notes, and a wonderfully fruity palate. Nandana is something of an enigma – bold enough to retain its flavor when mixed with milk and sugar, yet delicate enough to be enjoyed without. A testament to the iconic Assam region from which it hails, each red-gold cup of this malty delight begs to be savored on its own. If you love Assam tea, you’re not alone – the Assam region accounts for more than 10 percent of global tea production. 

As such, it comes as no surprise that India has eclipsed China as the biggest producer of black tea. Also helping assert India’s status as a major high quality tea-producing country is the Darjeeling region. Unlike the Assam Valley that was chosen for its proximity to Yunnan, Darjeeling became a region for tea production much through happenstance. Vacationing Brits discovered the cool mountaintops provided relief from the heat, and surmised the plants might take a liking to the brisk mountain air as well. Tea plant experiments in Darjeeling began a decade after those in Assam. Across the two regions, the growing conditions proved to be the key determinant of the experiments’ success (or failure). The Assam Valley’s low altitude and extremely high temperatures are a stark contrast to Darjeeling in the Himalayas, the highest mountain region in the world. Tea farmers who took to the mountaintops to cultivate the Chinese tea transplants cultivated a more delicate, aromatic tea. This outcome was due largely to elevation; the effects of altitude on tea cultivation and production can’t be overstated. Higher elevation teas bear an unmistakable complexity, sweetness, and sometimes even a creamy texture. These attributes are as a result of specific environmental factors such as clean air and  cooler winters, which cause longer dormancy periods and slow leaves’ growth thus intensifying the tea’s flavor. Darjeeling tea exhibits the best of high elevation teas. Nicknamed the “champagne of teas” Darjeeling makes for a light, delicate, and aromatic amber-colored cup. 

Due to the fact that longer dormancy periods affect tea’s complexity, the time of harvest bears particular importance in the nature of the tea. The two most important harvests occur in the spring and summer, referred to as “first flush” and “second flush” teas, respectively. A first flush Darjeeling comprises the tea which is first harvested in spring at the end of the winter dormancy period. At this point, these tea plants boast the most complexity in flavor and the brightest green leaves as a product of accumulating nutrients throughout the time of dormancy. The second flush is the summer harvest of tea, with warm flavors to match. Second flush Darjeelings have a warmer, nuttier flavor profile and their leaves are a darker shade of green. Both types have different qualities and characteristics, so it’s important to understand which one better suits your palate. Kali-Ma Reserve, fresh from this year’s harvest, is now part of our first-flush selection. Kali-Ma Reserve is an organic tea which is one of the elite  “flown teas”. These teas are so named to indicate that they’ve been flown directly from their harvest site in order to maximize freshness. Kali-Ma Reserve is born of the commitment to nurturing a harmonious relationship with Mother Nature. Our Queen’s Grace is our standard first flush tea Darjeeling with notes of a floral bouquet. It’s flavor notes of almond, camphor, and floral offer a brisk and lively cup, reminiscent of the crisp, cool air of its Himalayan home. For second flush teas, our Muse is second to none. It’s a stout, complex and somewhat rugged second flush Darjeeling cultivated in the dazzling heights surrounding the so-called “Roof of the World”. Ocher in hue, this expressive cup asserts its classical second flush palate with succulent fruit and full-bodied spice.

Assam and Darjeeling aren’t the only two tea-producing regions in India, however. The area surrounding the Himalayas is awash with other tea-manufacturers: Kangra, Dooars, Bihar, and Sikkim are just a few of the other Indian locales that contribute to the nation’s tea yield. Most notable is the Nilgiri mountain range at the southernmost part of India. The second-biggest tea producing region in India after Assam, Nilgiri specializes in medium-body, flavorful teas which typically remain in India for internal consumption.

Of course, the above refers almost exclusively to pure teas. But to know how to drink tea like an Indian, look only at the name of their national drink – masala chai, loosely meaning “tea with spices”. Tea in India is a familial experience, so the mix of different spices reflects specific cultures. Furthermore, masala chai recipes are closely guarded family secrets passed down between generations. But regardless of the proprietary blends, one aspect of chai preparation remains constant – the addition of milk and sugar. Across India, it’s customary to balance out the strong flavors with these two additional ingredients, creating a final brew that’s equal parts rich and mellow. Our take on this is the Classic Hariman Chai, an energizing organic chai made of malty black tea with traditional warming spices. Just the right side of spicy, our savory blend of fine, restorative spices meets its perfect match in the full-bodied, malty depth of a rich Assam black tea.


Photo Credit: Photo Paetau

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