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Opinion | Capitalism, craft and India’s CTC tea

From the industrial revolution to post-independence India, how the machine-made CTC became a pantry staple

CTC's fantastic backstory, one that takes you back to the industrial revolution, a newly independent India...and the Titanic
CTC's fantastic backstory, one that takes you back to the industrial revolution, a newly independent India...and the Titanic (ALAMY)

My morning cup of milk tea reminds me that we are a country of CTC drinkers. Machine-made tea, CTC (cut-tear-curl) is granular in texture, with a consistent flavour—completely different from orthodox tea. It’s not posh or expensive, and cannot really be enjoyed without milk and sugar. Some have wondered if the making of chai was a way to mask the tea’s inferior quality. Frankly, I think there is some basis for the CTC’s popularity and it has one of the most fantastic backstories, one that takes you back to the industrial revolution, a newly independent India...and the Titanic!

The story of CTC is what Raj Barooah, director of the Aideobarie estate in Assam, describes as “one of the finest examples of disruption of an industry".

In China, tea is grown on small farms, harvested no more than two-three times annually, and handcrafted by farmers. “The British said, let’s pluck 32 times a year, let’s make tea granular, let’s add milk and sugar to it, let’s sell it to the world," says Barooah. This audacity of ambition came from the industrial revolution. Three men, in particular, must be credited for pioneering inventions in tea machinery: William Jackson, Samuel Davidson and Sir William McKercher.

In 1875, Scottish tea planter William Jackson was returning from Assam to England when he saw a portable steam engine for a centrifugal pump, made by Marshall, Sons & Co. Jackson began collaborating with them, in a relationship that would last 40 years and see Marshall becoming one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tea rolling and drying machines.

Davidson was introduced to tea as a 17-year-old, on a visit to his father’s estate in Cachar, Assam. Among his earliest inventions was the dryer, meant to replace the rolling stage in tea making. Over the next several years, Davidson set up the Sirocco Engineering Works—his inventions include the ventilating fans for the Titanic, the British ship which sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912.

Davidson’s and Jackson’s were not CTC machines but they were both pioneers in the use of machines in tea manufacturing. The credit for the first CTC machine goes to McKercher, superintendent at the Amgoorie estate in Assam. In 1930, he invented a machine that could cut, tear and curl the leaves. In her book Tasting Qualities, anthropologist Sarah Besky says the machine became popular because “it seemed capable of giving new value to marginal tea"—but it tended to break down frequently. In the 1950s, this flaw was fixed by The Small Tools Manufacturing Company in Kolkata.

The CTC machine, supplemented by the Tea Board of India’s marketing efforts, helped create a domestic market for tea. To erase the imperial associations, tea was marketed as “100% swadeshi", a beverage to energize and fuel a newly independent country.

It was not yet a household drink, says Barooah. But for tea vendors, CTC offered better cuppage—more cups per kilogram of tea—than orthodox. Households acquired a taste for it gradually. And over the next few decades, CTC tea went on to become an affordable staple that continues to be popular today.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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