Indian Tea

Kashmiri Pink Chai

Kashmiri Pink Chai

Chai–sweet, caffeinated, and exotically spicy–is a massively popular drink, and only getting more so as time goes on. So, what actually is it? You order a chai at Starbucks and walk off with what tastes like sixteen ounces of sugar syrup, just like everything else there, and all you can be sure of is that it involves sugar, milk, and possibly tea? Some brown liquid, anyway. But that’s why you have me, because you don’t have time to spend all afternoon figuring out what you’re drinking, and that’s what I’m being paid to do. So here’s what I found out for you today:

Chai is short for masala chai, which means “spiced tea” in Hindi. The earliest masala chai wasn’t a real tea drink at all, it was a drink made of a number of spices chosen for their Ayurvedic medical benefits, as a medicine for a king. As the mythical invention of chai is said to be before the mythical discovery of tea (both supposedly at least 5000 years ago), and substantially before tea was widely drunk in India (cultivation began in the 1830s, and it was almost all exported until the beginning of the twentieth century), tea was not one of those spices. The connection between the original masala chai and the current drink is largely in the name.

Modern chai got its start in the early twentieth century, when the huge British tea producers in India finally saturated their markets in Europe and had to start looking for new ones. Tea had not been grown in India until the British started their plantations, so it wasn’t something the Indians were in the habit of drinking. The producers started encouraging the locals to drink the stuff they spent all their time making, giving the factory workers tea breaks and encouraging people to set up tea vending stands. The producers were hoping the tea vendors would sell tea in the British style, with tea lightly flavored with milk and sugar, but the tea vendors soon began cutting their tea with spices, since tea was more expensive than cardamom and the like. It may also have been to improve the flavor; as the story goes, the high quality tea was being exported, and the Indian factory workers couldn’t have afforded it anyway, so the tea being sold by the vendors was of poor quality. The spices made their tea tastier.

In the nineteen sixties, chai got another boost in popularity in India with the invention of CTC processing. This dropped the price substantially, making it affordable to more people in India. It also worked well with chai, because CTC creates particularly powerful black tea. You may have seen it, it looks almost like coffee grounds, and produces a drink that’s nearly as strong! The strong flavors of CTC tea cuts through the milk and spices, so the tea can still be tasted. The flavor balance issue causes an odd realigning of priorities in chai. High quality teas are made to have gentle, smooth flavors, nothing harsh to shock the palate. But if you tried this with chai, the tea would be impossible to taste, overwhelmed by the milk and spices. So even in affluent situations chai is often made with relatively low-quality tea. What works alone and what works in blends are remarkably different!

The basic chai recipe is strong black tea, milk, sweetener, and spices. Usually the tea is a strong Assam, the kind of thing used in English Breakfast blends, often the CTC I mentioned above. The spice blend shifts depending on where the chai is being made and what the tea maker likes, but cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon are usually present. In general Indian blends emphasize cardamom, and American ones emphasize cinnamon. Almost anything can be put in, though, including ginger, anise, fennel, pepper, saffron, salt, and even almonds! The almonds are a favorite in a northern variant, the Kashmiri chai that we sell. It’s based on green tea instead of black, something strong and Chinese like gunpowder or hyson. It’s turned pink either by saffron or by messing with the pH balance during the brewing process. It has a gentler and richer flavor than the more common black tea chai. And a more exciting color, obviously.

Whew, I had no idea chai had such an involved history. We can all order our chai with a whole new level of smugness, wait sorry confidence, I meant confidence. Go forth and get all confident at your chai, now!

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff


Afternoon tea is a quaint little social ritual involving pretty china, little pastries, and determinedly chipper conversation with an older female relative. Is that last just me? Possibly not, considering the history. Like any dated social ritual, tugging on the loose thread that is afternoon tea leads you to a thick fabric of historical events. In this case, the events are the Industrial Revolution and the social shifts that English society made to accommodate it.

High Tea

Before the Industrial Revolution Britain was largely populated by farmers. They had a different pattern of meals than we do today; they grabbed a bite on the way out the door to the fields, had a large dinner at midday, and a smaller meal in the evening. When they became factory workers this had to change.

Even now,with our rosters of worker’s rights, it can be tricky to get your employer to give you enough time for lunch; eighteenth and nineteenth century factory workers were often required to eat while still working. The main meal was now taken immediately after work. Tea was a mainstay of the new factory worker’s diet, replacing beer; tea was newly plentiful, and caffeine was better for helping factory workers keep all their fingers than alcohol. The new after-work meal was named for the new part of their diet: high tea.

Afternoon Tea

The working class was not the only one transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The middle class exploded in size, and with industrial production many things that were a mark of wealth came within the reach of less wealthy people. One of these was idle family members. Middle class women did not work, or even go out unescorted. The options for filling their spare time being rather limited, the ladies invented new ones. Since there was nothing scandalous about them visiting each other they took to spending their long afternoons at each other’s houses at a rotating series of dances and conversation parties, at which refined refreshments were served.

Tea, fine china, and white sugar were now affordable to a broad segment of the population, but they retained a sense of sophistication from when they could only be bought by the rich. The tea, elegant settings, and pastries of afternoon tea were props for the new middle class to help solidify their place in the upper echelons of society. The origin story of afternoon tea makes it clear; the story goes that the seventh duchess of Bradford took to having it by herself because she became hungry before the late dinners favored by the aristocracy After all, they did nothing to work up an appetite earlier! When the duchess was discovered by her friends she was afraid they would tease her, but they loved the idea, and it became a social event. What better story for a fashionable new habit of the middle class than that it had been invented by nobility?

Modern Remnants

As society adjusted to the changes made by the Industrial Revolution meals settled into their modern form, and the teas fell out of fashion. High tea now exists in a few corners of Britain, an Australian habit of referring to dinner that way, and confused Americans who have merged high and afternoon teas in their minds. Afternoon tea is less popular too now that everyone is expected to work, but most of us do get weekends and retirement off, so the tradition continues in a reduced fashion, and we have somewhere to take our grandmothers when we’d like to take them out for some conversation.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Assam Black Tea - Cream of AssamTea does not grow in England, or anywhere near it. In fact, it grows so far away that when tea first became popular there it took a year to get the tea from it’s source, China, to the teacups of European enthusiasts. The early imports were mostly green tea, too–not well known for it’s ability to travel and resist staleness–since that was what was popular in China. The British Empire never felt compelled to do things the easy way, though.

Tea’s popularity in the west started in mainland Europe, as one of the many curiosities Dutch merchants brought back from abroad. It came to Britain when Charles II married a Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662. She loved tea and continued to drink it after her marriage, and this particular royal fashion slowly spread through the country. It started showing up everywhere, mostly in coffeehouses, another recent fashion from the east, if not so far east, which had gotten a quicker start off the blocks. The tea fashion moved more slowly, but it did move. By 1686 tea was widely sold in Britain.

Various shifts in trade around the 1720s made tea a more appealing import for the shipping companies, and tea established itself in British tea and society. No, wait, I’m losing the fight against this pun. Steeped itself in British society. Ouch, ouch, only throw soft fruit! OK, while we were messing around with lowbrow humor Britain’s gone wild for tea, buying it legally, illegally, cut with sawdust, anything to get their daily cup of tea.  But after a century of this things come to an abrupt halt.

Tensions between China and Britain went seriously south, and China shut off all trade in the early 1830s. The government started up the Opium Wars, the populace flailed about, getting tea from wherever it could, and businessmen took trips to the colonies. India was firmly in British possession, and had a lovely warm climate, a population that the British felt no qualms about exploiting, and tea plants growing wild. The East India Company threw its weight behind growing tea on British land. It was a brilliant idea even without the difficulties with Chinese trade. The industrial revolution was in full swing, creating a middle class and filling their houses with things that had once been luxuries for the rich, fine china and crystal wine glasses and exotic foreign imports, like tea.

By the time the tea plantations were up and running Britain had w0n the war (or round one, at least), and imports were coming from China again. But the new plantations were designed for large scale industrial production and export,  and when Indian tea hit British markets, in the 1850s, it was cheap and plentiful and tea’s popularity went wild. Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, added its supply in the 1880s, and cheap, strong, black tea became one of Britain’s most popular drinks. This is when afternoon tea came into existence; legend says it was invented by the Duchess of Bedford, who needed a snack to tide her over between lunch and a fashionably late dinner. Tea shops also sprung up at this time, two hundred years after the coffeehouse craze hit the streets. Tea culture in Britain had finally taken on its modern form

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

The industrial revolution was in full swing, creating a middle class and filling their houses with things that had once been luxuries for the rich, fine china and crystal wine glasses and exotic foreign imports, like tea.

China Trip The sun’s coming out in cheering, treacherous bursts that drop a cloudburst on your head when you’re in the middle of enjoying the non-winter weather, and the Easter candy just got marked way down: it’s definitely spring. But there’s more to spring  than cheap jellybeans and alarming weather. There’s new tea. There are people picking fresh leaves off tea bushes as you read this, sending them on their way to become new drinks for us.

In India, especially down south, the jungle climate is so good on plants that there are tea harvests all the time, literally constantly in some places. That pace isn’t possible farther north, though. In China and Japan and even Darjeeling, still inside the Indian borders, they have temperate climates with winters and springs, and spring is when the harvest starts.

Tea, especially high quality tea, is the newest, youngest leaves on the bushes, often picked after only a few weeks of existence. In white teas, and the occasional green, you can often still sea the downy covering on buds that never grew into full leaves. These downy teas, like Silver Needle and Snow Bud and Bi Lo Chun, are the first ones picked, often even before the Qing Ming festival in early April which is the official Chinese start of spring, which was just this week.

After Qing Ming harvesting goes into full swing. High grade and delicate teas are both often considered best when made with very young, tender leaves. In China people spend shocking amounts of money on the earliest Dragonwells. Japanese tea enthusiasts wait all year for shincha–literally “new tea”–season, when the fresh new senchas are sent out, powerful, aggressively flavored teas that I highly, highly recommend you don’t steep for more than a minute and a half. Darjeeling, still maintaining some of the year-round Indian tea schedule, makes rounded and mature summer or ‘second flush’ teas, but their bright, astringent, almost green first flushes are still a favorite for a lot of people.

Spring teas are strong and fresh, waking you up like the nearly-forgotten sun first thing in spring; sweet and delicate, like the first moments that the air gets warm enough to go out without a jacket, and just as fleeting. That kind of freshness can’t last for long, and the value of it can be drowned out as all the other plants we spend all winter waiting for start to be harvested. The year’s first cup of new tea is as important as the morning’s first cup of any tea that has some freaking caffeine in it; pay attention.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Nilgiri Black TeaAssam and Darjeeling are the big names in Indian tea; the one for quantity and the other for quality. They aren’t the only places that make tea there, though. The Nilgiri area has a healthy tea industry, and it’s clawing its way up in the world.

Nilgiri is a range of mountains way down in the southern end of India, at about the same latitude as Sri Lanka, which produces Ceylon tea. It mostly produces CTC tea (cut tear curl, that really finely chopped stuff that looks a little like coffee grounds) for blend, and when I drink a cup of pure high grade Nilgiri tea it reminds me of English Breakfast even more strongly than Assams and Keemuns do. You may not know the name Nilgiri, but the flavor will probably be familiar.

Their production system is kind of different. Only a third of Nilgiri tea is produced by huge plantations; most of it is grown on small farms, which then sell their freshly harvested leaves to processors. The processors have no problem putting out a consistent product, though, which in itself has been a bit of a problem for them. The thing is, when the USSR was buying massive amounts of tea in the 70s and 80s, they dominated the Nilgiri industry. Unfortunately, what the Soviets wanted to buy was leaf that looked pretty when the purchaser looked at it, which only has so much to do with the quality of the tea that results. After a few decades of making tea that the Soviets would buy, Nilgiri wasn’t putting out particularly good tea, and when the USSR collapsed, Nilgiri was left hanging.Decaf Organic Nilgiri Green Tea

They’ve retooled and rebuilt (we have the technology! </notentirelyrelevantreference>) by this point, so the Nilgiri tea industry is slowly getting healthier, and they’re producing some worthwhile teas. We have two, one basic black which is in the picture at the top of the article, and one really quite nifty decaffeinated organic green, fig. 2. The word that springs to mind is unexpected, and when we got it there was a lot of handing around a cup of it and saying “what? Decaf Nilgiri green?” It’s quite tasty, so if you’re looking for something that’s decaf and different, you should definitely try out the green, just like, if you’re looking for something quality and familiar, with a nice caffeine kick, you should try the black.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Darjeeling Black Tea - Namring EstateDarjeeling is a small district in the Indian state West Bengal, and pretty much the only reason there are people there is because of tea. Before the tea industry started up maybe a hundred people lived there, which is not unreasonable for a little patch of hilly land edging up into the Himalayas. Now roughly 700,000 people live there, and the largest industry is growing tea.

The Tea Industry in Darjeeling

They export about 20 million pounds of tea a year, which sounds like a lot, but it’s actually kind of low. While India’s other primary tea grower, Assam, exports massive amounts of tea that ends up in every black tea blend tea bag in the world, Darjeeling is about quality instead of quantity. The tea is picked by hand, two leaves and a bud, and there’s a movement to make every estate in Darjeeling organic, which has gotten remarkably far. Darjeelings have a solid history of being considered an exceptionally nice, high quality tea, especially in Britain, and the tea growers are now pushing that idea for all it’s worth, trying to cement the idea of Darjeeling as quality in the modern market.

This Stuff Is Actually Pretty Tasty

All advertising aside, they are quite good. It’s hard to make good tea, and places that haven’t been doing it for several hundred years often have difficulty making a really top quality tea, but Darjeeling is doing an excellent job. This is the part where I admit that I’m not very good at tasting things and giving paragraphs of well reasoned opinions on the bright overtone contrasting with the notes of burnt toast in the aftertaste or what have you, but a lot of people agree that Darjeeling is doing a bang up job on their tea. It’s delicately flavored and complex, and sometimes comes out with this muscat grape flavor so startlingly distinct that even I can pick up on it. I think those bright, clear flavors are good for those of us who aren’t taking time off from training for the sommelier exam, because they are more obvious than the quiet flavors in the high grade Chinese teas. A high quality tea for beginners, if you will.

The Headaches of Success

The problem with making low amounts of a high quality product is that you get fakers. Four times as much

Darjeeling Logo

The official Darjeeling Logo. You probably won't see it, because it's on the wholesale packaging, but it's the guarantee of real Darjeeling.

‘Darjeeling’ tea is sold as Darjeeling actually makes. The fakes aren’t necessarily horrible tea, but tea is only Darjeeling if it comes from that little corner of West Bengal, like Champagne is only Champagne if it comes from that part of France. The other things on the shelves are just sparkling wines that wish they could get in on the brand power of Champagne’s name. In fact, Darjeeling is sometimes called the Champagne of teas, I think both because of the place issue and because the light, bright flavor of Darjeeling in comparison to other Indian tea is similar to the difference between how Champagne and other wines taste. That’s just a guess, though, I don’t know a whole lot about wine.

Those Harvest Types That People Keep Mentioning

Darjeeling has enough tropical climate to drive several harvests in a year. The first flush is the basic spring harvest that every tea grower in the world does, very bright and green. The next export is the second flush, the summer harvest. The green notes fade a little and the flavor becomes rounder. This is the harvest where those crazy muscatel notes are most distinct, which adds a certain kind of fun to the proceedings, at least if you’re me and have an addiction to muscat flavored candy. There can be a harvest during the mons0on season, but that tea is mostly used in blends, you won’t see it on the market. And finally, an autumn harvest, where the green notes have retreated almost entirely in favor of the rounded, mature ones.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Cream of AssamAssam! Tropical paradise, assuming you like 103 degree heat and 100% humidity, which tea plants do. Well, not all tea plants. Let’s go back to the beginning, by which I mean the beginning of Assam’s commercial tea production. Before the 1830s tea plants grew wild in Assam, a river valley in the northeastern part of India, and some locals would make a drink out of them, but it all seems to have been fairly low-key. But then the British noticed.

The British Tea Industry in India

At the time, Britain had a problem. They were swiftly developing a tea addiction like yours and mine, but Japan was closed off and uninterested in much trade, China was charging through the nose and not exporting much, and tea didn’t grow anywhere else, as far as they knew. Discovering that tea could grow in a newly conquered corner of India made the Brits flail and jump up and down and make high-pitched squealing noises. Well, maybe not that much, but they were very excited, and immediately started setting up for commercial tea production there.

At first they tried to grow Chinese plants, on the grounds that the domesticated and long cultivated plants would make better tea than the wild local variety. Unfortunately for them, those plants had been cultivated to thrive in a different climate, and the Chinese plants didn’t do well. After more than a decade of beating their heads against that particular brick wall the estate owners finally accepted the inevitable and started growing the local plants, called the Assamica varietal, and hybrids of the Chinese and Assamica plants. Production exploded, and by the 1850s they were making a profit and exporting massive amounts of tea.

The Tea ItselfAssam Halmari

The tea was more bitter than the Chinese teas, because the Assamica varietal has more caffeine than the Chinese plants do, and caffeine has a bitter flavor, but this worked out. Even though the prices were lower now that the British could grow their own tea and not pay the Chinese monopoly prices, it still cost a lot of money to get tea from Asia to Europe, so they lowered the cost per cup by cutting their tea with milk. The more bitter, robust Assam teas stand up much better to milk than the smooth Chinese styles, and everything worked out properly in the end. Back in India, since all the good tea was being exported, the locals put spices as well as milk in their tea, to mask the low quality flavor, and invented chai masala, the spiced tea drink that’s so popular now.

The Current State of Things

Fast forward to now, and life is pretty good for Assam tea growers. The British have gone home, people aren’t working in conditions quite as bad as they were back during the industrial revolution, and the machinery advances during and since said revolution have massively increased yields. Assam now exports more tea than any other region in the world, and is expanding beyond its traditional domain of black teas into green and white teas, although it doesn’t go for the complicated, more artisanal types of teas that come out of China. Assam’s roots as a major commercial exporter show strongly today. It’s the rare breakfast blend that doesn’t include Assam black tea, as well as your standard black blends, although Kenya is the new Assam, in that it exports massive amounts of black tea to feed the Western world’s caffeine habit. Assam is still making a third of the world’s tea, though, so it isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Next Page »