Traditional Chaiwalla at an Indian Party in New Delhi, India. Serving authentic Chai in classic clay cups. The Chai is kept warm over charcoal fire. Guests can be seen getting into a ‘chai-drink’ state.
India has several prominent tea growing regions, each with their own special quality and character. In the northeast, we source teas from the regions of Assam and Darjeeling and the hillside communities of Mirik and Kurseong. In the south, we have relationships with farmers in Nilgiri and Coonoor.
India is one of the largest tea producers in the world. Tens of millions of people make their livelihood from the tea industry and more than 70% of Indian tea never crosses the border and is consumed within the country itself.
While tea is a vital part of India’s culture and economy, the country has been manufacturing the product for less than 200 years — relatively recent by comparison to China. Though native populations likely used tea leaves for centuries, it was the 1830s when India began producing tea commercially. This history is complex and involves British imperialism and trade.
The British East India Company was in the tea-trading business and for many years had a monopoly on all trading with China. When they lost this monopoly in 1833, they were suddenly motivated to find a new source of tea. At that time, the British occupied parts of Northern India and over the years had become aware that the climate was suitable — perhaps ideal — for tea production.
The British government then took on a huge initiative to plant tea gardens in the Assam region. Though tea grows natively in Assam, originally the British brought tea seeds (and tea growers) from China. When seeds from China struggled to grow, they began using seeds from the native plants, which fared better. The first tea was ready for market by 1838 and was received extremely well by tea drinkers in London. From there, the industry continued to grow and develop into what it is today.
India is most famous for its classic black teas from regions like Assam, the Nilgiris, Darjeeling, Doars and Palampur. Each region has its own distinct tea plant varietals, a rich history and notable tea growers. India is also famous for its chai, tulsi (holy basil) and fragrant spices. Recent inspirations have led tea growers to develop new styles of tea processing in addition to black tea.
A large portion of Indian tea is produced as the Cut, Tear and Curl (CTC) grade which goes into classic style tea bags, iced teas and chai blends. A much smaller portion is made using an “orthodox” style of manufacture, wherein at least some of the steps include hand processing.