How do you convert a nation of chai drinkers to tea without milk? someone asked. As I mulled over the question, I found myself in the midst of another discussion, on how to convert tea-baggers to loose-leaf tea. First things first, though: There’s no need to “convert” anyone; there’s room for more ways to enjoy tea without a radical change in habits. It would indeed be foolish to insist on only one way of enjoying tea.
If I had to introduce new teas to a chai drinker, I would begin with the chai itself. I would tweak the base tea to include some loose-leaf Assam black tea for added flavour. The effect is immediate—the tea becomes lighter, less tannic, more flavourful. Having won their trust, I would recommend other black teas—not a Darjeeling first flush just yet, however, since that would not find favour with someone who enjoys a dark and strong tea.
Chai drinkers also enjoy the sociability tea brings, the comfort of familiarity, the nostalgia it carries. So another way to introduce new teas is by introducing new tea cultures. Think Sulaimani or kahwa or Moroccan mint…these are all teas that a chai devotee will enjoy. None of them use milk (although the kahwa has a milk variant) and two of these three are made from green, not black, tea. They come from very different cultures and regions. With each of these, using a good base tea makes all the difference—a good quality CTC for the Sulaimani, a loose-leaf Kangra green for the kahwa or an authentic gunpowder green tea for the Moroccan mint elevates the experience, offering you an opportunity to talk about what makes the tea so special. Conversations can then turn to origin, season, terroir, types...
I find some teas are great conversation starters, like the lapsang souchong, the bright green powdered Japanese matcha, the indigenous falap, the aged pu-erh tea, and, I would say, all oolongs…these teas tell a unique and unusual story.
If I had to introduce loose-leaf tea to one who prefers the quick brew of a teabag, I would brew a set of teas made from teabags and their loose-leaf equivalents. The flavours are immediately perceptible and the differences are there for anyone to experience. This is true of black as well as green tea, Earl Grey, English Breakfast and bagged Lemon Tea. All these are available in a loose-leaf version that’s easy to source and brew. Once this is done, I would recommend teaware that simplifies the steps involved in steeping tea, so that the convenience of a teabag is not entirely ignored.
If we want our nation of chai drinkers to try different teas, it certainly won’t be achieved by dissing what they have always enjoyed—but rather, by showing them the vast and wonderful choices we have.
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. @AravindaAnanth1