It’s Everyone’s Cup Of Tea: Understanding India’s Obsession With Its Favourite Drink Through History And Experts

What was it that drove an entire population of a nation to collectively fall head over heels in love with a beverage that has little or no mention in its rich past?

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A look around the world today is all it’ll take for most of us to collectively sigh at the first few words of Dostoyevsky’s quote. But if you’re an Indian reading this, it’s the latter part of the Russian author’s quip that will resonate with you more than any other race of people. After all, at 837,000 tonnes a year, Indians are the largest consumers of tea in the world. As a country, India is also the second largest producer of tea (behind only China), but such is the demand that 70% of tea produced is consumed within the country itself.

So it’s not exactly a secret that Indians love their chai — but believe it or not, that wasn’t the case even a century ago! So what caused this sudden monomania? What was it that drove an entire population of a nation to collectively fall head over heels in love with a beverage that has little or no mention in its rich past?

Well, we aim to answer that, and much more, by dint of two things we can rely on best: recorded history and experts in the business. If your thirst for knowledge is insatiable, brew yourself a nice, strong cuppa and read on to know more…

The Early History Of Tea

To understand the history of tea in India, we have to begin with where it all started in the first place. While there are claims that Indians discovered and used tea leaves way back in 750 BC, the fact remains that even if that were the case, Indians used the plant for its medicinal properties, and not because it was a refreshing drink. That claim can be made by the Chinese, as only last year, it was discovered that tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC. Even today, tea forms a huge part of the Chinese culture, so that barely comes as a surprise, but the idea that tea could be consumed as a beverage was only popularised outside China in the last thousand years or so, first reaching China’s neighbouring nations and eventually, finding its way to Europe

And as anyone with a half-decent knowledge of modern history will tell you, anything that found its way to Europe quickly found its way to its colonies as well. Given India was the British Empire’s healthiest cash cow and the British had taken to drinking tea like a duck to water, it was inevitable that large scale tea production would commence in the subcontinent sooner or later. And that, folks, is what brought tea to our lands.

Introduction Of Tea To India

The British initially tried to trade with China, but as the imports cost millions of pounds every year, their little tea parties were burning holes in the treasury. To counter this as well as to break the Chinese monopoly on tea, The East India Company began large scale production of local tea in the 1820s in Assam. By the 1850s, large tracts of lands started being devoted to the production of tea, and given the discoveries of local tea plantations along the way, by the early 20th century, India became the largest producer of tea in the world.

But that still doesn’t answer our question — if tea was meant for the Britishers, how did the Indians get so obsessed with it? Well, as the British had more than they needed, they decided to do what any ruling nation would do for its people — to sell the tea grown by us, to us, to make more profits.

The idea of drinking tea was alien to Indians, though — but from the 1920s onwards, the British ran multiple advertising campaigns, offered free samples, and started selling tea at stalls at railway stations. The results were both immediate and terrific — and just like that, tea became a part of everyday life for the common Indian man.

India’s Tea Culture In The Postcolonial Era

India bid adieu to the British in 1947 — its tea drinking habits, not so much. If anything, more desi companies popped up post independence, causing tea consumption to increase exponentially. Unlike most parts of the world, though, Indians began to take their tea with milk and not boiled water. Tea stalls became ubiquitous, and spices came into the mix, leading to the creation of variations like adrak chai, kadak chai, and masala chai. In fact, chai started being associated with everything imaginable — chai paani, chai nashta, and of course, chai sutta as well!

In the past decade or so, though, the influx of teas from around the world in the Indian market has seen a significant paradigm shift. If a 2013 report is to be believed, the consumption of Green Tea is growing at a rate of 50% every year, and is expected to grow even more over the next few years. So this means, the average urban Indian isn’t afraid to make the change from the traditional ways in which we enjoy our tea — and that’s where our next point comes in.

Engrave’s Favourite Homegrown Brands In India Today

While traditional methods of brewing tea remain popular, a few brands are trying to make people more aware about the alternatives that either taste incredible or have magnificent health benefits. Some of our favourite brands include…

Chai Safari

Vivek and Ashis founders of ChaiSafari

When travelling through India, the one treat that remains a constant is the various types of Teas and their styles of preparation, characteristic to each region that one treads on. Founders Vivek Singhal and Ashish Agarwal, ardent tea lovers and avid travellers, had the pleasure of experiencing this first hand. And as the name of their brand Chai Safari indicates, they are looking to share their journey through these diverse-teas! Being brought up in Darjeeling the best tea producing state in the country, it was the best place for Chai Safari to begin. A former ASM in PepsiCo, Vivek combined his love for sales and tea, realising that while he and Ashish understood and appreciated the complexity of the various kinds of teas (as per the geography and estates they came from), it was best they kept the jargons to themselves. In lieu, both partners decided to simplify and market their teas to be sold as per moods, so that all their customers could choose and discover their various kinds of teas in a more relatable fashion. Yes Moods! Depending on your mood, you can Chai Safari through 25 such unique and handpicked teas, which can make you feel – Fresh, Cheerful, Vibrant, Peaceful, Nostalgic, Romantic, Relaxed, Excited, or even Mysterious!

Exalté

Shivani founder of Exalté

Shivani founder of Exalté

Story has it that when the Chinese stopped exporting tea to India in the 19th century, the English memsahibs asked the company generals to come up with a solution. They simply could not live without their afternoon brew! The company officials planted the tea in the fertile slopes of Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiris and voila, they had the delicious steaming brew that the world has come to love. A decade back, when Tea Curator, Shivani Chakravarty traveled to the Far East and discovered the flavours of Green Tea and the health benefits it offered, she knew that she had to start these flavours and health revolution in her own country. And thus, Exalté was born in the second half of 2014. A tribute to the rich tea tradition of India and a unique journey to curate an infusion of flavours in the ever evolving world of teas, Exalté’s teas are thoughtfully crafted to celebrate each and every moment and occasion in your life. Our teas are carefully crafted with natural and best ingredients to uplift your taste buds and stimulate your spirits. Welcome to this journey of experience and discovery — into a Palate of Divine Teas.

Gardner Street

Rashi Sanghvi, Garnder Street Tea

Rashi Sanghvi founder of Gardner Street Tea

Gardner Street is the brainchild of Rashi Sanghvi, who holds an MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship from Babson College, Boston. In her past avatar she has been a retail consultant with Ernst & Young, and a marketing executive with an organic snack company and a specialty tea company, both US based. Having always wanted to branch out on her own, she saw a gap in the market for good quality specialty tea in a nation of tea drinkers where over the years tea had become synonymous with ‘chai’.

How Are These Different From The Commercial Teas Available In The Market?

Vivek from Chai Safari says,

“Chai Safari directly sources their tea leaves from tea-estates in Nepal and North East India, apart from directly procuring fresh leaves from Tea gardens in Darjeeling. Picking and processing our tea ourselves, we directly ship our tea to our customers, avoiding middle men and large distribution networks. This allows them to have their tea fresh and ready, with limited manhandling, in 1/5th of the time it takes for tea to usually reach your nearest supermarket. Being strongly opposed to artificially flavouring products, we instead choose to blend our teas with freeze dried herbs, fruits and flowers for natural flavour. Additionally, since we’re hell bent on providing our customers with the means to assess the quality of their products, Chai Safari provides a 3-step litmus test in the form of product pictures, which show visuals of their tea leaves before its made, when it’s in the cup and how the tea leaves look after.”

Exalté’s owner Shivani says,

“Today’s consumer is well-informed, well-travelled, and is aware of the different types of teas. That tea can be sugarless and milk-less and yet delicious and healthy — and that is what we have always emphasised by offering free sampling and tasting of our teas. Awareness is spreading and people like to make healthy choices, and thus, at Exalté Tea, we offer a huge variety of healthy options, including Green, Black, Oolong, Herbal and White teas. These are whole leaf teas sourced from the best tea estates across India and blended with high quality ingredients that does not contain any artificial flavouring. Along with the teas, we offer exquisite tea accessories to make your tea drinking experience a celebration in itself.”

Rashi, who runs Gardner Street, says,

“Gardner street is an experimental tea company that uses high-grade, whole leaf tea and blends it with various herb, flower and fruit pieces to come up with blends that strike a perfect balance between health and taste. These teas are then sold in the loose form or packaged in silken sachets for convenience, the list of which you can find below. Commercial tea brands use extremely low grade tea also knows as tea dust. Tea dust is the tea leftover once the good quality tea is picked for export and has barely any beneficial anti-oxidants. It also tends to turn bitter and needs to be mixed with a lot of artificial flavours and colours to mask the bitterness. Over and above that, this low quality tea is packed in stapled bleached paper teabags which release harmful chemicals once dunked in hot water. And thus, a huge challenge for us is Customer Education. They have been somehow gulping down cups of an insipid liquid in the name of health and firmly believe that non-milk tea like green tea cannot taste good. Once they understand and taste Gardner Street green teas they just can’t believe that they are actually enjoying a green tea and that it is better for them than what they’ve been having.”

A variety of tea products by Gardner Street Tea

A variety of tea products by Gardner Street Tea

And Finally, We Ask The Experts, What Makes The Perfect Cup Of Tea?

Shivani’s pro-tip — the tea leaves never go onto the flame directly!

“To make that perfect cup of tea, boil the water and switch off the flame. Add the tea leaves and let it steep for 1-4 mins depending upon the type of tea being brewed. Sieve it and enjoy your cuppa!”

Ashish, though, says,

“I’ve been asked many times what my favourite tea is, and my answer has always been that it depends on the on the mood I’m in! We ChaiSafari believe one should choose their tea, based on the kind of mood that they are in. Tea has a vast variety to it and all flavour profiles shall suit you best at different times to have a perfect experience.”

A pragmatic Rashi, though, says,

“Good quality tea leaves, the perfect water temperature, correct brewing time, and of course great company is what makes the experience perfect!”

Rameez Shaikh

Rameez Shaikh is a twenty-three year old writer. With a degree in journalism to his name, he's an aspiring author with an absolutely astounding admiration for alliteration. Leisure propels him to read, dance, pen fiction and gloat about himself in third person. On weekdays, he works as a features writer. On weekends, he's a Manchester United fan.

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