A quick look at online tea stores and supermarket aisles reveals our preferences in tea. Lately, green tea and immunity blends have been dominant.
I find myself searching for pure teas, not blends but teas that are of this season, single origin if not single estate. They are few and far between, lost among the many colourful blends. I ask Atulit Chokhani, who runs The Tea Shelf, an online store, about this. He tells me he had started out by offering single-estate teas but educating customers about these was both challenging and expensive. So he added a range of flavoured blends. Given the choice between a range of Darjeelings and a range of tisanes and flavoured teas, he says, Indian customers will gravitate towards the latter. The Kashmiri kahwa (blended tea) and the chamomile are best-sellers at his store.
The kahwa, a green tea and saffron blend, is easy to like—flavourful and indulgent. Chamomile, on the other hand, is often recommended to help one relax and sleep better.
And yet, in my own tea journey, I have found that the more single-estate teas I try, the less appeal blends hold for me. Mind you, on a cold morning, I like a spiced chai as much as the next person but the sheer variety single-estate teas in India offer is what keeps me hooked to tea; it’s like choosing a craftsperson’s studio instead of a shiny storefront. As with other pursuits, I think that as our palate experiences different tastes, it begins to seek out the natural flavours, discarding the additions and flavouring.
Producing tea is an intensive process. A lot of work goes into soil and plant health. When there’s no rain, the leaves shrivel. When there’s too much, the roots rot. There’s a method to plucking; different teas need different plucking standards. The more progressive tea gardens are always experimenting with plant types, clonal varieties, processing techniques; it’s both science and art. To make a tea that meets the planter’s intended quality requires a combination of factors. Which is why many producers I speak to seem baffled that when it comes to choosing between a high-quality crafted tea and the mediocre tea used in a blend, popular choice generally favours the latter. Something is clearly amiss.
A set of samples arrived this week from the Gopaldhara estate in Darjeeling, from this summer’s harvest. In summer, Darjeeling’s gardens produce the muscatel, a black tea so named because of its pronounced Muscat grape flavour. I see not one but six muscatels in the samples; a pepper muscatel, a Jamguri muscatel, two muscatel oolongs, the classic woody muscatel, and a rosy muscatel. They don’t look the same, they don’t taste the same. They are the outcome of experiments with Japanese clones, China clones, from controlling oxidation levels while processing the leaves.
This is but one garden and one season. Can you imagine, then, the possibilities if you set off in pursuit of single-estate teas? That would truly be an adventure.
Ask your favourite stores for single-estate teas. The second flush is coming to a close so it’s worth stocking up on the season’s Darjeeling muscatels and Assam tippy teas.
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.