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The language of tea labels

Is it a summer or autumn flush, straight or blended, and organic or fair trade ? Almost everything you need to know to decode tea labels

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

Do you find the language of tea cultivation mystifying even though you shop for “fine” Indian varieties? Here’s what you need to know.

Speciality, artisan, orthodox and CTC are production styles. Speciality teas are made from carefully selected leaves, processed skilfully. They tend to be from a single garden, often representing its best offerings. Artisanal teas imply handmade teas. Think small farms, no machinery and a talented tea maker at work. Orthodox is traditional tea-making, high-quality, flavourful leaf teas. CTC produces uniform pellets of black tea that infuse quickly, for a strong and dark cup.

Spring, summer, autumn and winter indicate the harvest season, aka “flush”. This is important because there are seasonal highlights, like summer Assams, spring Darjeelings, winter Nilgiris. Most tea regions don’t harvest in winter.

Tea types, regions, grades, plants. Tea types are the easiest filter—black, green, white, oolong, chai, etc. The region is indicative of the quality or flavour. When it comes to grades, all you need to remember is that the greater the number of abbreviations (like SFTGFOP1), the higher the grade. Some sellers list plant types, like chinary, assamica, clonal. Chinary plants originated in China, while our native variety is the assamica. Clonals are developed scientifically for, among other reasons, higher pest-resistance, better climate tolerance and higher yield. They impact flavour but are a detail you can save for later in the tea journey.

Straight, blended and flavoured. Straight teas are sourced from a single garden and sold as is. Blended teas are made by combining two or more teas. You might recognize them by a more generic name, like a Darjeeling Special or Premium Assam, with no mention of the garden. I find that blended teas offer a good starting point to explore a new tea region/season before you narrow in on a garden. Flavoured infusions are teas blended with herbs, florals or spices. They tend to use mediocre teas, heroing the flavouring.

Organic, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance (RA) and Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) are certifications. Organic refers to the use of natural pest control methods. Fair trade focuses on workers, essentially wages and working conditions. RA, which is quite comprehensive, focuses on a range of things, from the biodiversity of the tea garden to worker rights and efforts to mitigate the threat of climate change. ETP focuses on the empowerment of plantation communities, in particular women. But certification is expensive and often mandatory for exports. Its absence need not be a deterrent; instead get to know the producer better..

Tasting notes. Most online sellers offer tasting notes, not unlike wine. Think of them as a guide but don’t base your buying decision on them.

Steeping instructions. Probably the most important. The temperature of the water, steeping time, and amount of tea used greatly influences its taste. When you have selected the right tea, brewing it right will make all the difference.

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

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