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Tea is very much central to India’s life. Indian teas are often consumed as chai and over history wild tea has been consumed by indigenous people in Assam both as a food and a drink. Today, tea is India’s second biggest employer. with over two million people, and it is responsible for one quarter of the world’s tea production. Since independence in 1947 main export markets for Indian teas have changed markedly, moving away from the UK and Ireland to eastern Europe, the Middle-East and even Japan.
In 1823 British merchant, Robert Bruce discovered tea growing around the town of Rangpoor in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, in northern India. This assamica variety of the tea plant Camellia sinensis grows wild there but it was not until Britain, as the colonial ruler, had discovered the methods of tea production in China that tea was cultivated in India. The native Singpho people of Assam drank tea but it was produced in a very different way.
In 1834, with the loss of its monopoly of trade with the Far East, the East India Company decided to bring tea cultivation to India and James Gordon, the secretary of the first Tea committee, was sent to China to understand tea production. This led to the escapades of the spy Robert fortune to steal tea know-how from the Chinese as inland China was off-limits to foreigners. By the end of the 19th century India had surpassed China as the world’s biggest tea exporter.
India is the world’s largest producer of tea and the fourth largest tea exporter. The three best known producing areas for Indian teas: Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri each have very different climates and topography, yielding teas that are quite distinct from each other. In a world market where there has been an over-supply of standard teas there has been increasing emphasis over the years on producing traditional orthodox teas which appeal to tea lovers prepared to pay for higher quality and better taste. This focus on quality has further increased demand for these superbly made Indian teas.
Tea in Assam
Tea was found growing wild in Assam in 1823 but the larger-leafed variety Camellia sinensis var assamica was from bushes growing considerably taller than the China variant.
In 1836 20,000 seedlings from China were sent to Charles Bruce (Robert’s brother) in Sadiya where the Brahmaputra descends from the Himalayas and meets the plain. This sub-tropical plain, 50 miles wide and 300 miles long, is an area of high fertility receiving annual alluvial mineral deposits from the Himalayas as the snows melt.
In due course, with the help of Chinese tea makers recruited by Gordon, a sample of tea from Assam was sent to the Viceroy in what was then (until 1911) the capital of India, Calcutta. In 1839 eight chests of tea were sent for auction to London. Shortly afterwards the Assam Tea Company, capitalised with £500,000, was formed and took responsibility for cultivating two thirds of the East India company’s tea lands in Assam. In those days transport of the leaf was only possible by river, 1000 miles from Calcutta with the final two hundred miles out of reach of steamboats and only navigable by polling and being pulled along stretches of river through dense jungle to Nazira where experimental tea nurseries were established.
In the 1860s the success tea growing in Assam became so widely known that applications for 500,000 acres of new tea lands were submitted to the government. In searching for more reliable labour than the indigenous people, many of whom had sold their land to the Assam Tea Company, over 100,000 workers were brought in from neighbouring provinces such as Bengal.
The shortage of labour encouraged innovation in the tea manufacturing process. In the 1860s a rolling machine was invented by a planter which reduced the time needed for this most time-consuming process by 75%. In 1875 Samuel Davidson invented a tea dryer which was three times as fast as conventional techniques.
As much as 75% of India’s tea production originates from Assam and teas from Upper Assam are considered to be the best. The teas are rich, full-bodied and malty with a bright, coppery appearance in the cup. First flush teas are picked in March with ‘croppy’ creamy second-flush teas in dry June weather before the arrival of the monsoons. Autumn harvest is in October-November.
Tea in Darjeeling
Darjeeling is responsible for what are arguably the world’s best teas. In the ‘land of the thunderbolt’ altitude is the key to determining the finest teas. The slower growth at higher elevations contributes much to the fresher, aromatic style of these teas.
In 1841 Dr Campbell had Chinese and Assam tea seeds planted in the cool hill station of Darjeeling, in the Himalayan foothills 300 miles north of Calcutta. It was here that the Indian Medical Service brought injured soldiers to convalesce. Tibetan Buddhist monks revered its location, having vistas of Himalayan peaks such as Kanchenjunga. The Chinese tea plants especially proved a great success, surviving the frosts yet thriving in the high altitudes of well-drained soils, high rainfall and cool, sunny conditions to produce fine teas. Labour had to be imported from Sikkim and Nepal to clear the land, terrace the hillsides and cultivate the tea. In 1856 the Alubari tea garden was opened and by 1866 several of today’s famous gardens such as Badamtam and Singell had been established at altitudes of between 2000 and 7000 feet. First flushes are picked in March, the smoother second flushes in May. Despite the quality of the leaf the terrain and cool temperatures limit yields and production. Darjeeling teas account for only about 1% of India’s total.
Darjeeling teas are noted for their delicate, flowery character with a sweetness likened to apricots and peaches. First flushes have a concentration of flavour after the long harsh winter which is reinforced by a hard wither and a short oxidation. The volatile zesty, fresh aroma and conspicuous flowery taste is much sought-after. The muscatel notes for which Darjeeling teas are famous become more apparent with the fruitier and more rounded second flushes, these being more redolent of raisins and apricots. This is partly the result of jassid insect attack at this time of year to which the leaf protects itself by creating flavours in response to their consumption of sap.
At higher elevations Chinese varieties predominate and old bushes are greatly valued for the character of their leaf and accordingly several clonal varieties have been developed. Organic and bio-dynamic farming methods have enhanced the taste by avoiding the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. The latter has been achieved by careful use of local plants for controlling pests.
In 1832 Dr Christie introduced tea to the Nilgiri hills, fifty miles inland from Calicut on the southern tip of the Western Ghats, known as the Blue Mountains, which cross from the states of Tamil Nadu to Kerala. Coffee growing there had suffered the same fate as coffee in Ceylon – hit by fungal infection so tea was soon considered more promising to grow. Centred upon the hill station of Ootacamund or ‘Ooty’ reached by narrow-gauge railway it is perfect terrain, rising up to 8,000 feet and covered by jungles and lush forests yet being much further south than Darjeeling the temperatures are typically ten degrees warmer.
1986 the area has formed the largest nature reserve in India, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. From 1835 gardens were established by Scottish and English planters; Burnside and Glendale being amongst the oldest. Thiashola was planted in 1859 and in 2003 was certified organic.
Nilgiri teas use the China variant like Darjeeling yet the character of these teas is more akin to Ceylon teas than either Darjeeling or Assam but have a highly-regarded mellowness. Whilst plucking is year-round the prime season is from December to March. Nilgiri accounts for about 25% of India’s total tea production.
The teas are bright and fragrant with good fruity, flavour. They are attractively low in tannins. Frost teas, picked in the winter and noted for their distinctive flavours, have an especially enthusiast following. Today there is increasing priority attached to the production of orthodox teas in the face of world-wide over supply of CTC teas, despite them costing twice as much to produce as CTC.
India produces some of the world’s best teas
India’s malty Assams, fine Darjeelings or fragrant Nilgiris are three categories of black tea that are amongst the most celebrated of teas produced world-wide. Beyond black orthodox tea, Indian teas include green and some oolong teas. This is bringing wider appreciation of the wonderful teas that can be produced in the very different topographies and climates of India. Other, lesser known, tea producing areas are present in India but these are not well-known in export markets and India does after-all have a huge home market of tea lovers to satisfy! Explore these wonderful teas and you will soon appreciate why they have such a strong following internationally.