Is India developing a taste for quality teas?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Mar 26, 2016 22:49 IST
High-quality Indian and Chinese teas are finding takers across India. (Photo: Shutterstock)

I once interviewed Jean-Claude Ellena, the legendary French perfumer (First by Van Cleef & Arpels, Declaration by Cartier, Terre d’Hermes, etc.) who created the first green tea fragrance for Bulgari and started a fashion for tea aromas. I asked Ellena what he liked about the smell of tea.

Actually, said Jean-Claude, he wasn’t particularly fascinated by the smell of tea. He liked the taste, of course, and so he bought teas from all over the world at Mariage Freres, the Parisian tea-house (established 1854). He liked hanging around the Mariage Freres tea room because he enjoyed the aromas associated with the making of tea, the steam that arose from the pot, the smell that filled the room etc. much more than the actual fragrance of the tea.

Last month, I met Francis Kurkdjian, one of the best perfumers of his generation (he is younger than Ellena) who made his global reputation when he was only 26 by creating the gloriously sexy Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier. Francis is probably best known in India for Green Tea, the fragrance he created for Elizabeth Arden, which, perhaps because it was cheaper than the Bulgari scent that Ellena created, went on to become a huge international success and spawned hundreds of imitators.

Francis didn’t like the smell of green tea either. The point of his fragrance, he said, echoing Ellena, was to evoke the idea of tea, of the mysteries and experiences associated with it. (He is a tea lover though. We met at the Emperor’s Lounge at the Delhi Taj and he drank cup after cup of tea!)

Later, I pondered the irony. The two men who helped make green tea a basic fragrance material on par with, say, jasmine or musk, didn’t actually like the smell. They liked the taste but what they were capturing was the experience of making and drinking tea.

Do Indians, as one of the world’s great tea-producing nations, have any sense of how special that experience is?

My sense is that we do, at least at a subliminal level. If you ever pass a chai stall at a railway station or a chai shop on the streets, you’ll get a strong whiff of cooked milk and the sharp taste of strong black tea. For me, at least, that is one of the key aromas of modern Indian life.

But what about green tea? Do we even drink much of the stuff? And what about the fragrance of high quality Indian tea, which is as complex as the finest Burgundy? Do we ever notice it? It is much, much better than the green tea aroma that the perfumers were so disdainful of.

Vikram Mittal, a long-timer in the tea trade, is seeing an upswing in Indian customers asking for specific regions and plantations by name (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

I asked Vikram Mittal from whose shop in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony Market, I buy my tea. Did he feel that Indians were taking the whole experience of tea more seriously?

Vikram’s family has been selling tea for half a century now so he has some perspective on the market. In his view, Indians are more into tea than ever before. Yes, he concedes, the strong industrial CTC tea (about which I have complained many times in this column), which we cook with milk and sugar may still overwhelmingly dominate the mass market. But a growing number of Indians are beginning to ask for the better stuff, not just orthodox teas from Darjeeling, but more unusual choices.

Take green teas for example. For a long time, people only drank them at Chinese restaurants or if they were on a health kick. But now, says Vikram, the demand is coming from an unusual source.

Many Indian businessmen (and their senior managers) visit China regularly for work. Many are there to import Chinese products (furniture, consumer goods, machines, etc.) and have to spend around 20 days in China while the deal is concluded, the goods are packed, etc. Says Vikram: “They are made to drink Chinese tea there because the Chinese don’t make black tea with milk and sugar like we do. For the first three or four days, this is torture for them. But by the end, they find they actually like green tea. And when they come back to India, they start buying green tea and drinking it at home.”

Rekha Sarin’s book, Chai, traces its colonial and tribal Indian roots (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

The real growth, though, is in high-quality Indian black teas. In the old days, these teas were exported because there was no market for them. But now, as more and more is being written about tea, Indians are increasingly knowledgeable about the best Indian teas. Consumers ask for Castleton, Lopchu and even Makaibari by name. This is a new development. Some years ago when I included Makaibari in a TV film for TLC, virtually nobody had heard of it; I guess TLC can take some of the credit.

The other change has been the growth of tea regions that challenge Darjeeling’s position at the top. For years, Darjeeling was regarded as fine tea, while Assam was regarded as strong, robust stuff without any great delicacy.

This may have had something to do with the origins of tea planting in India. As Rekha Sarin tells us in her lavish Chai, the Experience of Indian Tea (which won the prestigious Gourmand Award), the British planted Chinese tea varieties in Darjeeling to create an alternative to the Chinese suppliers who dominated the global market. Till then tea was virtually unknown in India.

Except for one place. The Singpho and Khamti tribes, who lived in the jungles of Assam, drank what was clearly tea, even if it was hard to recognise. Whereas the Chinese had little bushes, the Assamese had large tea trees with big leaves. The tribals smoked these leaves and then turned them into a drink . These tea leaves also turned up in their cooking.

At first the British rejected these leaves as being unsuitable for making what the world regarded as tea. But eventually, work on creating hybrid bushes and clones (much of it done at the Tocklai Experimental Station in Jorhat, which was set up in 1911) led to the creation of an indigenous Assam variety that would yield a tea that could be adapted for the Western style of tea drinking. But it remained much stronger than the delicate, Chinese-origin tea of Darjeeling, so much of it went into the mass market and into CTC industrial teas, leaving the top of the market to Darjeeling.

But now, says Vikram, Assam is striking back. Assam tea will always be different from Darjeeling because it is a different variety and has a full-bodied malty taste, but some of the best orthodox teas from top gardens can be excellent, and the demand for them is growing.

Similarly, teas from South India, which were once treated as mass-market, meant-for-CTC rubbish have come of age. The best South Indian teas come not from Munnar or any of the well-known tea towns but from less-known gardens in the Nilgiris near Ooty where they have planted the Camellia sinensis bush (the Chinese origin variety that grows in Darjeeling, the indigenous Assam tea is called Camellia assamica) at high attitudes and created a tea that merits comparison with Darjeeling, though, obviously, the terroir gives it a character all of its own.

So, lots is happening in the tea world. And yet, it is not enough. As Rekha Sarin points out, though India produces 1,111.76 million kilograms of tea, we drink only 80 per cent of this. Around 20 per cent is exported. If every Indian had just one more cup of tea a day, that would wipe out the amount we export. More gardens would be planted to service the export market and more jobs would be created.

And it’s not difficult to increase domestic consumption. Our per capita consumption is still lower than say Ireland or the UK’s.

And at the upper end of the tea market, the room to grow is enormous. At the moment, we are all going crazy over coffee (as I wrote some weeks ago). But even if you take the excessive prices charged for coffee by the likes of Starbucks out of the mix, it still costs you around Rs 25 a cup (minimum!) to drink a cup of good coffee at home. (In fact, most machine capsules cost more) along with special equipment (percolators, capsule-machines etc) to make decent coffee.

But the best teas in India (and therefore, the world) will cost you around Rs 15 a cup if you make them at home. And no special equipment is required – just a cup and a kettle. So, even at the top end, we miss out on one of the world’s great gourmet bargains when we ignore tea.

And then, there is what Ellena and Kurkdjian call the experience; the sound of the water boiling, of the steam that emerges from the cup and more. And dark tea is even better for this than green, because it has a more complex fragrance.

But why go that upmarket? Find an Indian anywhere in the world and remind him of the rich, creamy aroma of a dhaba chai, full of dark tea notes, milky fragrances and a whiff of sugar.

It is the smell of home; the smell of India. The fragrance of chai.

From HT Brunch, March 27, 2016

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