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Time for Indian tea to show its fun side

From valleys to mountains, and spring harvests to aged, India has a vast variety of teas that remain undiscovered. It's time for an image makeover

It's time to support the tea industry in India.
It's time to support the tea industry in India. (Istockphoto)

I was in Guwahati in January to attend an event celebrating 200 years of Assam tea. There were sessions on topics that the industry is preoccupied with these days. 2023 was not a good year for the global tea industry. It’s struggling with low prices, adopting technology, improving soil health to tackle climate change and dealing with an oversupply of black tea. Brands need to rethink how they market tea.

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Interestingly, of the several cups of tea I sampled at the event, no two were similar. I had some classic Assam orthodox black tea from storied estates like Amgoorie, Harmutty and Dejoo. There was a fiery and sharp black tea blended with bhut jolokia and pepper by Assam-based Aromica Tea. I even embraced the instant chai premixes that are proliferating these days. Wagh Bakri, Goodricke and Chaayos offer a sweetened range while TeaFit has unsweetened premixes. The highlight had to be he tea brewed in a nifty new invention, a chai machine called cha.i by Pune-based Carafe Werk. Cha.i, which is not out in the market yet, uses AI and can be programmed to make everything from green tea to chai.

Returning from Assam, I have been thinking about what can be done to support the tea industry. Buying directly from farmers who have taken to retailing online, and choosing better quality tea even if it costs a little more than the supermarket fare are some thoughts that come to mind. However, our problem is that we are habituated to a single tea—CTC with milk and sugar.

One of the speakers at the event talked about tea being flavoured water, well suited for hydration. Another spoke of a campaign being planned by the FAO’s Intergovernmental Group on Tea, to promote it as the go-to cup for well-being. Yet another spoke about all the cool tea stuff trending in China beyond the classics—milk teas, fruit teas and ready-to-drink options. In a nutshell, everything they said seemed to be about displaying tea’s amazing versatility. Clearly, there’s a need to overhaul tea’s image, and reimagine how it will be branded and marketed, keeping new consumers in mind.

With a terroir-focused approach, brands like Araku, Blue Tokai and Subko transformed the image of Indian coffee. Recently, I was at the Maverick & Farmer café in Bengaluru when a coffee session, titled Let’s make filter coffee sexy, was in progress. It focused on brewing, flavours, hacks, adaptation, even peanut butter filter coffee!

Tea needs to relinquish its image as an beverage for the aged and show its fun side. It’s about time too, when you look at the choices in India. There’s tea grown on mountains like Darjeeling, the Nilgiris and Kangra, or plucked in the valley, like in Assam; crafted by artisans like the compressed teas from Woolah, or machine-processed like our CTC; freshly harvested in spring like the prized first flush, or aged over time like the puerh. There’s a tea for every kind of palate, with many ways to brew, and numerous ways to enjoy them.

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Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series on the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

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