Tea is the second-most consumed beverage after water. It's safe to say that it has found its way across the globe, infusing itself into cultures, traditions, and centuries-old rituals. Among the countries today that boast of a vibrant tea-culture, India is among the forerunners. Tea is had daily with a side of biscuits or traditional savory snacks. Most of the tea consumed in India is black tea, or Chai.
India: One of the Top Producers of Tea
It is fitting that India is also the second-largest producer of black tea, following China. Bolstered by generations of expert tea-farmers, connoisseurs and ancient tea farms, India's black tea has become one of the most coveted and well-known teas today. The most famous teas produced in the region include: Darjeeling, Assam, and Nilgiri. All three varieties come from the same tea plant - Camellia Sinensis. However, the unique flavors of each tea are a reflection of its region's geography, climate, and harvesting cycles. In this article, we'll embark on a flavorful journey through India's rich tea heritage through these three teas!
Geography: Southern Slopes of the Himalayas (in the District of Darjeeling in West Bengal), Cold, Arid Climate
Located near the foothills of the Himalayas, the Darjeeling district produces one of the world's most premium and demanded India tea. Darjeeling tea is characterized by a gentle aroma and taste that isn't too overwhelming, yet is incredibly tasty. It's flavor is often described as "delicate muscatel" referring to its luxuriously sweet, slightly spicy, and astringent flavor which is reminiscent of Muscat grapes. The flavor may vary based on which of the four harvest seasons or 'flushes' the tea is picked in: first, second, monsoon, or the autumn flush. The first flush is picked as early as March, and is among the most expensive teas due to its concentrated flavor and intense aroma. It's regarded as the 'Champagne of Teas.'
Darjeeling tea's color varies based on the flush it is picked in. The first flush has a light golden hue, which becomes darker as we move to later flushes. Darker teas are usually more astringent and earthy. The spicy undertones and muscatel flavor of this tea make it a treat to have all year round. Its also often used in Masala Chai blends, where Darjeeling tea leaves are blended with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and more.
To try a Darjeeling tea blend today, visit ChaiBag's product page. All of our Masala Chai blends contain premium, first-flush Darjeeling tea alongside freshly cut and ground spices, that make for an unforgettable cup of tea.
Geography: Assam (North East India), Subtropical Climate
Hailing from the northeastern state of Assam, this tea variety is known for its robust character and distinctive malty flavor. It's comparatively less fruity than Darjeeling, and results in a far darker brew. Assam tea is widely consumed across India. Assam is also the largest tea growing region in the country.
As opposed to Darjeeling tea, which is grown at high altitudes and low temperatures, Assam tea leaves are grown closer to sea-level. Assam's climate is subtropical - which means it is humid and sees plenty of rainfall, along with short winters. This makes the region ideal for tea production. This is why a significant portion of both international and Indian tea supply is attributed to Assam. Unlike Darjeeling's five flushes mentioned earlier, Assam tea only has two flushes. The first flush, harvested between March to June, like with Darjeeling tea, is bolder and stronger. The second flush takes place just before monsoons, and is less astringent and sweeter to taste.
With its flavor being described as nutty, earthy, and malty, Assam teas pair extremely well with milk and sugar, making it a staple for classic breakfast blended teas. It's also a dark brownish and ruby-like color
Geography: Nilgiris Mountains (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka - Southern India), Subtropical Highland
From the 'Blue Mountains' (or Nilgiris) of South India originates the lesser-known yet delicious Nilgiri tea. Tea production began in Nilgiri in 1840. Like Assam, this region benefits from a warm, humid tropical climate which allows for year-round tea growth. Interestingly, Nilgiri has two monsoons in a year, leading to an average of 1350 mm rainfall. The cold peaks of the mountains, coupled with the rich soil, makes the region ideal for agriculture - with farmers growing everything from eucalyptus, cloves, tea, to beetroots.
The tea's flavor is best described as balanced - with a mix of floral, earthy, and astringent, Nilgiri tea is usually lighter than Assam (in astringency and color) but stronger than Darjeeling.
The moist conditions and soil allow Nilgiri tea to be grown year-round. This long term, non-dormant growth imbues Nilgiri teas with a deeply earthy flavor, alongside sweet and floral notes. The color of Nilgiri tea is similar to a chocolate brown, but as with earlier teas, the color and taste depends on what time of the year it is harvested. Winter flushes are usually considered the most flavorful type of Nilgiri black tea.
For All Teas: Single Estate vs. Blended Teas
For all three teas, there's a difference in how the teas are blended post-harvesting. This impacts both the flavor and taste of all teas. Below, we'll generalize a few of the main differences that arise between single estate and blended teas.
Tea leaves' unique tastes vary not just across the climate and season they're harvested in, but also based on whether they're blended. Some packaged teas originate from multiple tea farms as opposed to a single tea estate. Single-estate teas are considered premium. This is due to the fact that each tea leaf and its taste profile is reflective of its terroir - or specific natural conditions under which it's grown. These natural conditions can differ across years (for example, if more rain is seen in one year but not the next), the number of harvest seasons, and so on. This means that even though two tea plants may be from the region of Darjeeling, the specific terroir may lead to subtly different taste profiles.
Blending teas of different terroirs leads to a dilution of all the unique taste profiles found in the teas used in the blend. To taste the highest quality and most full bodied cup of any of the three teas we discussed, its recommended that you try a single estate tea pack.
Celebrating the Diversity of Indian Teas
This article tries to summarize a few of the geographical and flavor differences in these three popular Indian tea varieties. Learning about these differences can help elevate the Indian tea experience, allowing you to enjoy and savor the breadth of teas grown across India.
What you prefer comes down to taste - each tea variety has something new and unique to offer. Each variety holds little hints of its origins, the climate it was grown in, and the way in which it was harvested. Whether you're a tea connoisseur or simply curious about tea, we hope you can experience each of these teas!