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Teas of the World: Pt 6 India (Living Kerala Series)

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

7 minute read. //

India is one of the great tea producing nations in the world, and we were lucky enough to spend almost a year there through 2018. Commercial tea production only came to India in 1837, which in the 4000-year history of tea feels like yesterday. However, in the 4000-year history, the brutality, injustice, racism and hypocrisy of the past 180 years deserve more attention.

It is easy to simply enjoy India’s tea while ignoring the history. Tea is an everyday drink consumed constantly, sold by the chai-wallahs who bike around with large thermoses strapped behind the seat and go business to business in the afternoon, serving small paper cups of chai or instant coffee. Likewise on the train – their thermos has hot tea or water, and then sugar and hot milk are added. A beautiful, sweet and fragrant drink, it leaves a sticky residue on one’s fingers from the drips down the outside of the paper cup.

[Caption: A nice cup of milky chai on the way back to Kochi from Munnar, right before the green and red striped flying tree snake fell on our parked car (with open windows) and panic ensued...]

Green tea is growing in popularity as well, with endemic billboards for green tea to lose weight. The green tea tends to be strong and grassy, though a few we tried had the sweet notes found in the best oolongs. There is a tiny market of white tea, with Munnar's Ripple Tea (see below) producing only a few hundred tins a year of their silver needle white tea that is one of the best white tea we’ve tasted. Tulsi ‘tea’ (well, really a tisane) is also popular, though at a much smaller scale. It tends to be consumed as ayurvedic medicine, with the Tuli Holy Basil being popular for general health and curing insomnia. We drank a fair bit of this basil ‘tea’ in the evenings, as we found it impossible to source de-caffeinated black teas (which rarely taste as good as the real thing anyway).

[Caption: Black tea samples at the Ripple Tea Factory, Munnar; the photo of Tulsi we took at a Kerala riding stable has gone on walk-about so you'll have to imagine it...]

The British found that strong black teas (as opposed to lighter Chinese teas) had a consistency that went well with milk, and did not require the same amount of skill to make, thus allowing more tea to be made without regard for labour conditions. It also travelled quite well, as its strong flavour masked any mustiness and smells absorbed on the journey from India to elsewhere in the Empire.

Which brings us to the history that is too often ignored.

In the 1830s, the British were still sourcing most of their tea from China via the British East India Company (BEIC), and were continuing to have difficulties due to the Chinese economy being too self-sufficient. This resulted in British (well, New World) silver being paid to China in exchange for tea, and then that silver remaining in China. What could the British offer to a country with everything? Or at least what the local leaders and monarchs would be interested in?

Quick answer: opium, though how Britain became a suzerain of an angry and humiliated China is a topic for another day.

In an effort to find a new tea source, one that perhaps could be dominated, colonised, and otherwise used with impunity, the BEIC investigated Assam in north-eastern India as a possible terroir for Chinese tea seeds. After years of failed attempts, Camellia sinensis sinensis seeds were successfully smuggled out of China and planted in Chabua, Upper Assam in 1837. In addition, Camellia sinensis assamica, a new variety of tea native to India, was columbussed by Robert and Charles Bruce......after being guided there and told it was tea by Indian nobleman Maniram Dewan. It was later incorporated into production once the snobby horticulturalists were satisfied that it was indeed tea. Thus began India’s tea-growing ordeal.

[Caption: 'Just another Camellia' as Dr. Nathaniel Wallich, the superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, declared it in the early 1820s - it was only recognised as tea a decade later]

Once the British government realised that tea could grow in India, and thereby eliminate the reliance on solid Chinese trade relations, all hands were on deck to tame India’s mountainous regions and make them produce tea. European citizens were offered the chance to move to India, receive large tracts of land, and not have to pay taxes – if within five years a quarter of the land was being used to grow tea. [1] The wild lands up for offer had already been leased by the BEIC from local monarchs and leaders, who mostly viewed the high altitude mountains as impossible to farm and dangerous to settle and so were not that opposed to leasing it out.

[Caption: The 'wild lands' of Nilgiri and Munnar; high up with some very British weather at points]

Between 1838 and 1900, 4150 European applicants were granted land to cultivate under the Waste Land Act 1838 (which was rewritten to be more and more lenient due to lack of interest from potential settlers). These plantations were under the direct control of the BEIC, though the landowner shouldered the costs and risks. Indian applicants were not welcome, though no law specifically forbade Indian-owned tea plantations. For example, Maniram Dewan (that nobleman) went on to found his own plantation, which quickly became profitable. In response, the BEIC changed the tax code to classify his land as a rice paddy and he therefore owed large amounts of tax. The British then accused Dewan of fomenting rebellion (due to complaining about the horrific working conditions of tea labourers and demanding that the British reinstate Assam’s original rulers) and he was publicly hanged in 1858. [2]

Working conditions on the plantations were barbaric and a neo-slavery system was created to obtain and retain workers. Recruiters spread across India to obtain labourers using any means necessary. Due to poorly written legislation, recruiters were paid per recruit at the point of signing-up, not delivery. This resulted in abysmal transportation conditions, to such an extent that mortality rates were between 10 and 50% on the trains delivering new tea labourers. Shocking and hard to grasp. Conditions on the plantations weren’t much better – lodging was overcrowded, food was minimal to cut costs and hours were brutal. [3] The standard tricks were used to attract labourers: moving people across the country so they were separate from their family and town; mixing people of different religions and castes to encourage in-fighting and prevent a unified rebellion; charging more for food and lodging than workers were paid, so that an individual’s debt would spiral until they and their family had no choice but to continue working; and the regular use of beatings and killings to ‘set an example’. Children were commonly used as tea pickers due to their nimble hands and the fact their families were already employed in the tea estates. [4]

In Assam, the annual mortality rate of tea workers in the 1900s was around 35%, but labour was practically free and recruitment and training costs were negligible. As a monopoly and with a large population, it was more profitable for the BEIC to allow workers to die regularly / kill them slowly, than to improve working conditions.

[Caption: The Highfield Tea Factory in Coonoor, Nilgiri: very dark inside, and extremely dusty. Thankfully not all tea factories are like this.]

Due to the cheap labour costs, tea production spread beyond Assam and into Darjeeling in 1853, a high-altitude region that produces some of the finest black teas on Earth. Generally, the higher the altitude the higher the quality of tea. Tea production then spread across the rest of India, such as to Nilgiri in western Tamil Nadu and Munnar in eastern Kerala, both of which are in the Western Ghats mountain range in the south of the country. Tea production truly began to boom in the 1870s and 80s due to a coffee blight, which destroyed coffee crops and forced planters to switch to tea production as well as trigger demand for an alternative to coffee.

After Partition in 1947, conditions began to improve and have continued to do so, although the effects of racist and abusive policies still linger. In the 1970s, the Assamese government began encouraging tea cultivation on fallow land to reduce unemployment. The positive response surprised the government, with massive uptake in the 1980s and 90s. In Assam today, 44% of tea gardens are owned by STGs (Small Tea Growers), cultivating plantations of 25 acres or less. Across India, there are 250,000 STGs employing 700,000 people. [5]

In the south of India in Munnar, the behemoth Tata Tea Ltd (Tata being the conglomerate with a market cap over US$150bn) sold up after growing tea in the region for 136 years. It sold the tea estates to the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP) in 2005. KDHP was founded in order to buy Tata, and is the largest employee-owned tea company in the world. Of Munnar’s 38,000 inhabitants, 12,000 work for KDHP and hold shares in the company. Quite a change… [6]

[Caption: Photos from our November trip to Munnar where we visited the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Tea Factory]

Unfortunately, in Darjeeling working conditions have not seen the same improvements, with the large tea gardens still paying a pittance and requiring long working hours. From June to August 2017, the Darjeeling region went on strike in a bid for regional independence; although there were many issues at stake, a large number of Darjeeling residents work on the tea gardens and remain voiceless and disenfranchised. An excellent summary of the Darjeeling strike’s politics can be found HERE. [7]

Despite all the abuse of tea labourers during the reign of the BEIC and the British, tea drinking was almost unheard of within India and only British colonists drank it (and could afford it) - the vast majority was exported. However, in 1930, a new production method was invented in Assam by Sir William McKercher: the 'mammary' or 'CTC' method. CTC stands for Crush-Tear-Curl, and is a technical way of saying pulverised. Cutting up the leaf creates a strong flavour profile that does not have the subtlety of ‘orthodox’ tea (i.e. whole leaf) and so stems, old leaves, anything can go into the machines. By breaking the leaf into tiny pieces, it extracts the robust, malty flavour from the leaves that you might associate with a cup of builder’s tea in the UK (you can imagine how much more surface area is produced when turning full leaves into small particles). This production method is most common in India and is ideal for the global tea market. [8]

[Caption: CTC tea production: First stage: Withering; Second stage: Chopping three times; Third stage: Oxidation; Fourth stage: Cooking at 104C; Fifth stage: sieving into the various grades; Six stage: bags which then go to the packing plant]

CTC slowly gained in popularity through the 1930s and ‘40s due to its mechanisation: leaves could be harvested mechanically instead of by hand, and tea could be processed very quickly without tea workers having any specialist knowledge. During World War 2, the British also stockpiled tea to prevent shortages in Great Britain; CTC was helpful for meeting that demand.

This method only truly caught on in the 1950s, though, and suddenly supply was significantly outpacing demand. There was a surplus of tea and prices were plunging. On a related note, this is when tea drinking within India became popular (only after the British left). This tea surplus triggered a national marketing campaign to address the glut of black tea and encourage Indians to add tea to their masala chai. And so the famous India chai was born: strong, strong black dust tea mixed with a range of spices, milk and sugar. Although a spicy-sweet drink called ‘masala chai’ had existed for at least 5000 years, it did not contain any tea leaves or caffeine. Additionally, milk was already a common drink particularly in northern India, so adding black tea to the chai or milk was an easy leap and tea quickly became the national drink.

[Caption: A classic cup of chai in Kochi, paired with samosas]

The main way to make this proper chai is: fill a strainer with a lot of CTC tea grounds. If making a masala tea, the spices can also be added here. In the samovar-like device, steep the tea in a small section of hot water for hours. The liquid should be almost viscous and a very dark brown. Add a finger or two of that liquid to a jug, add several spoonfuls of sugar, and then 7-8 fingers of hot milk, from another part of the samovar. Pour the mixture back and forth between vessels until it is thoroughly mixed and foamy on top. Serve to salivating customer. The at-home method is to boil the tea grounds / dust in a big pot, vigorously, for 20-30 minutes. The masala mix (the choice of spices and ratios vary by region) can be added at the same time as the tea for this method. Add plenty of sugar and then sieve a small bit of tea into a mug before adding a lot of separately-heated hot milk.

Our visits to Munnar gave us a positive feeling for the future of India’s tea production: beautiful mountains coated with tea plants, managed and farmed by a local co-operative, producing a wide range of excellent teas. We met the retired head of the tea estate who told us it was a positive place to work, especially as they were moving towards organic production. We spoke with the Ripple Tea factory supervisor, who took great pride in the quality of the teas and safety of the spotless factory. And we had a long conversation with a sustainable tourism hotel operator and historian, who said that although there is a long way still to go in reducing rubbish, pesticides and environmental degradation, the living and working conditions are fair and just. Now, working in the tea gardens of Munnar is a coveted job, rather than one of indentured servitude. Perhaps another reason the teas of Munnar taste so good.

[Caption: Gratuitous photos of Munnar tea]


If you would like to learn more about the history of tea in India, here are some useful resources:


Further Reading:


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