Credit: Teabox, To get the taste of authentic flavour and aromas, have your cup of tea without milk and sugar, like this Darjeeling green tea.

Getting the tea leaves right in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic has got people spending time and energy making themselves a cuppa. Know more about tea and its tribe, some trivia and how to get the perfect brew

Namrata Kohli | New Delhi

Your tea moments are the kind that count in the day, starting from the time you savour the aroma, deep dive into flavour and mindfully enjoy the brew sip by sip. Tea time is me-time and a true connoisseur wouldn’t swap it for anything else in the world.

Everyone knows we need to eat and drink right to be healthy. And tea is a potent combo of wellness, delight and convenience, says tea scientist Gurmeet Singh, who has 25 inventions of the brew to his name. “Tea is as natural as can be. It is a whole food and across the lifecycle of its plucking, drying and processing, it is never subject to anything above sixty degrees or changes in PH.” It’s the only drink after water that is zero calories and is one of the healthiest beverages, rich in antioxidants, useful in weight loss, and endowed with anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce cholesterol. For instance, the Darjeeling green variety made from unfermented leaves is loaded with polyphenols. In fact, the benefits of tea outweigh its price, and as Singh points out, that’sprobably why it’s the only thing “free” in office. Tea has a unique ability to rejuvenate, refresh, make you alert and also calm you, all at the same time.

During the pandemic, drinking tea has become the singular most popular activity for many Indians who are consuming far more cups now than pre Covid times. “We seem to have forgotten our roots,” says tea connoisseur Divya Puri, for whom the day starts with the Darjeeling first flush, which he enjoys while reading his six newspapers. “As kids, we never had medicine for stomach upset but we were given black tea. You can have as many probiotics as you want, but nothing can compare with tea which has the maximum antioxidants as compared to anything else in the world.”

Tea varieties: Rainbow of options

Some of the bestselling brands include Tata, Goodricke, Red Label, Lipton while the boutique brands that sell premium/exotic teas include Teabox, Vahdam, Teacupsfull, Tea Culture of the world, Tea Trunk, Tea Monk Global.

Tea can be classified as white, oolong, green and black, but they all come from one plant, namely Camelia Sinesis. So, what is it that distinguishes one from the other. Says Bala Sarda Founder, Vahdam India, “It depends the regions the teas are plucked from, the harvest (first flush, second flush, autumn flush), the quality of the leaves plucked, altitude of the tea garden, growing conditions, geography etc. Even though all kinds of teas are manufactured from the same plant, camellia sinensis, the way it is processed, fermented and oxidised contributes massively to the difference.”

The purest and the priciest is the white tea, which is also the least processed. The Moonlight white variety is extremely popular worldwide and is produced in limited editions from the special AV2 clonal bushes, plucked just before sunrise. Silver needles require a certain skill while plucking the leaf.

To pluck the leaves is an art and science and that is the job of an experienced tea master. “The task of a tea master,” says Gurmeet Singh, “is to understand the potential of every leaf. Even the juices of a tea leaf are different on different days. It’s similar to how when I look at a child, see the potential of a child and individualise my teaching rather than impart an assembly line kind of education.”

Darjeeling tea is one of the niche teas consumed by people. Says N K Puri, ex-tea planter and Co-Founder, Teacupsfull: “Darjeeling tea is one of the oldest brands in the world. It has over a century-old loyal consumer base globally. Today a new generation of tea lovers is experiencing the taste of Darjeeling. Companies are now appealing to this segment with modern packaging which retains the aroma and flavour of the tea.”

The prices of tea can vary from Rs 100 to a lakh or two a kilo. High quality teas from Darjeeling are highly prized for their flavour, taste and aroma.

The lush green Avataa tea gardens in The Nilgiris, near Coonoor in South India. Picture Courtesy: Vahdam India

Cuppa chai

More conversations happen over tea than coffee. The beverage cuts across economic classes–while the home of your domestic help will serve you tea, the Darjeeling variety makes its way into Buckingham Palace and the abode of the Emperor of Japan.

In India, 60-70 per cent of tea is produced to be sold at mid-level and lower/entry level. Atul Asthana, Managing Director, Goodricke Group Ltd, gives a sense of where the tea is consumed the most. “Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab is where the numbers are big. In the South Indian market, they prefer the tea dust. Even Andhra and Jammu & Kashmir are good markets.” He adds that the market for the beverage has expanded across all three categories of tea. “With people now sitting at home, the niche market for health-oriented brews such as tulsi, ginger and the green tea has really caught on during the pandemic,” he says. Talking specifically about Darjeeling tea, Asthana says 80-90 per cent of the domestic produce is exported. The consumption is there only by niche customers within India but during the pandemic, the market for this niche product has also expanded.

How does one find authentic tea? If you were to rate in order of purity and even pricing, the best is White tea, followed by Oolong, green and finally black tea. Kausshal Duggar, founder of Teabox, says his company sold India’s most expensive tea at Rs 2 lakh a kilo last year. “White tea is always worth a few lakhs but it’s more like a concoction of fruits and flowers in your mouth. It is handmade and only produced at a specific time of the year under specific conditions,” he explains. “It is not marketed and is produced in very small quantities.”

Says Goodricke’s Asthana, “White tea is very expensive to produce and isn’t commercially viable. Normally, if premium teas are produced from two leaves and a bud, white tea is produced from one leaf and a bud and comes at astonishing prices upwards of Rs 10,000 a kg. There are very few discerning customers for it. It’s for rare occasions or gifting – just like a rare single malt whiskey people buy just for the heck of having it or gifting to somebody. We have it at our Margaret’s Deck outlet.”

Your true tea calling

They say there is a tea for everyone. How do I know my true tea calling? Tea scientists say you have to try various types, from various gardens and seasons and ultimately your palette will settle on a certain taste. Over time, you will start enjoying the flavours.

What is important is diversity of palette. Green tea is more bitter than flavourful and comes with a yellow green tinge, while black tea has a red tinge. Create a moment for different varieties. Ask these questions: Is my tea made from two leaves and a bud? What type of tea is there in my botanical blends, what is the quality of botanicals in my blend?

Does green tea have way more benefits than black tea or it is plain overrated and black tea undermarketed? Experts say that far more research has been done on green tea–especially by countries such as China–and has been well marketed. But people are not aware that equal number of benefits are available in black tea, says Goodricke’s Asthana. He explains that there are two ways of processing the tea. One is when the leaves are cut and then fermented for a particular amount of time that only a seasoned hand would be familiar with. The leaves are then fired and dried to produce black tea. No fermentation process is involved in producing green tea. It’s the green leaf coming straight from the garden that is processed and is “closest to natural”. Yet both are rich in antioxidants.

Tea trivia

One needs to brew tea for 2-5 minutes and it is mostly good without milk. To brew the perfect cup, bring fresh water to boil to about 90-95 degrees Celsius and for best results do not use re-boiled water. For green tea, stop short of boiling to avoid “cooking” the delicate brew. Take one teaspoon of tea, place it in infusing basket or teapot. Pour the water over, cover it in a pot and infuse to taste.

Did you know that more than 50 per cent of tea is produced in Assam? Tea, in fact, sells far more than coffee globally and is the second most drunk beverage in the world. It is a healthy beverage provided it is drunk sans milk or sugar. Says Duggar, “What we Indians drink regularly is nothing but milk, sugar, water put together, with some added tea leaves–but essentially its milk, sugar, water. The real or pure teas are to be drunk without milk and sugar. And that is how you get the purity and can savour the taste and aromas. It’s like wine in many ways.”

Is tea dehydrating? Pure tea is never dehydrating and you can comfortably have two litres daily, say experts. Pure tea is not bad for oral health too. It is rich in flavonoids which are good chemicals. However, the desi chai with milk and sugar should be had in moderation and should definitely not be the last thing you consume before sleeping as it tends to leave the taste of sugar in the mouth.

Should tea be had with accompaniments such as namkeens and biscuits? Chai is social while tea is personal, say tea curators. The former is generally had with savouries and in company of people while latter is savoured alone, literally.

Finally, what are we doing to protect and preserve the legacy of tea. After all, Darjeeling is one of the oldest brands in the world. Manufacturers and retailers concede that they have treated tea as a commodity and not as a legacy. Says Duggar: “Darjeeling tea is the oldest living brand in the world, and has withstood colonialism and world wars, but not much is being done to preserve its legacy. There is no reason why we can’t make it a brand like Napa Valley, which has made wine tours and wine tasting an experience. If we can create that storytelling experience and create a brand around it, with outreach activities, Indian tea, which is already on the world map, will become an incredible beverage.”

Its high time tea transcended from a product to a priceless part of heritage, from a commodity to becoming legacy.

Table: Tea types and prices

Variety Description / Recommendation Price – Regular Price – Premium
White Tea Best enjoyed plain 4,500-6,000 9,500-2,00,000
Darjeeling Tea Best enjoyed without milk. Can add a dash of honey and lemon 1,500 3,500-25,000
Oolong Tea Best enjoyed plain 1,500 3,000-8,000
Assam Orthodox Best enjoyed with milk. Add sugar to sweeten. 500-600 1,500-3,000
Organic Green Tea Best enjoyed without milk. Can add a dash of honey and lemon 1,000-1,600 1,800-2,500
Special Masala Chai Best enjoyed with milk. Add sugar to sweeten. 400-700 900-1,500

Prices are indicative and in Rs/kg; Source: Teacupsfull

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