Tea Story – Chai, A Global Journey Commencing in India
The Evolution of Tea
Tea is a globally loved beverage and despite its inability to grow in European shores, that hasn’t discouraged the West from exhibiting a pronounced efficacy for the light coloured beverage. The taste for tea was introduced, inculcated and developed to the world by the travelling colonial British who first took interest in commercial cultivation and trade of tea, charmed by the beverage initially in their voyages to the Far East in China.
The British had colonies all over the world at one point of time and it is a direct consequence of their relentless explorations into virgin territories that resulted in the discovery of the brilliant magical beverage better known to the world as tea.
In India, which used to be a British colony at one point of time, tea gardens were promulgated in the hill slopes and relatively warmer foothill plains of Darjeeling, Assam & Dooars respectively, in an effort to thwart the Chinese monopoly on tea. At that point of time the Chinese had declined to part with tea in trade with the British and had made their control over tea even stricter by prohibiting the growth and cultivation of tea plant beyond Chinese territories.
Not to be outdone the travelling British explorers managed to acquire some seeds of the plant and decided to begin their foray with tea in the colonies in India and Ceylon.
Even today most tea gardens that are still prevalent and functional in India are of British colonial inheritance and they have retained every bit of their legacy by not changing the architecture or the process of tea manufacture and harvest under manual supervision. Today the best of the black tea from Assam tea estates and the choicest Darjeeling second flush tea find widespread markets in Europe and abroad and are all exported before they can make it to Indian markets for public purchase or consumption.
The Global Evolution of the Indian Chai
Coming to the reason underlying such disparity, one would be furious as to why the best of our tea produce is not made available for consumption or purchase in our country but rather exported to foreign markets. The logic governing such behaviour is that unlike Indian tea or chai as it is colloquially referred to, which is tolerant to milk and other taste enhancing additives, whereas the idea of tea consumption in the West is without adding any external ingredients to the brew for taste. Hence the exclusive tea leaves that are harvested during the respective seasons, find a greater audience overseas than in India. India tea is generally a hardier version of its seasonal black tea counterpart, using generally broken leaves or fannings to crush tear and curl into a variant that is extremely tolerant to external agents of taste, to the extent, it brews best when milk and other spices are infused to the brew. The taste and aroma is much stronger with a heady buzz to it as compared to whole leaf orthodox tea which is a more subtler muscatel aroma with a delicately bold taste to it. And for years the two cultures progressed with this divide growing stronger. Tea, although universally loved, became divided by the preference of taste buds and the method of extracting the brew. It is not known whether either tried to influence their contemporaries to try and switch to the other’s method of preparing and consuming tea, but India continued to serve chai or milk tea infused with spices in domestic households as well as commercial outlets, making it synonymous with the Indian culture itself.
And so it remained for years to come, till technology got upgraded, removing the wide barriers of distance between these two lands of human settlement, bringing them closer through a computer. With the changing times, and the advent of Internet, the world came to be at your fingertips and more and more people were exposed to global media content. Young people from both landscapes gave into their curiosity and sought to venture and travel to cultures that were completely foreign to them earlier. Thus with more and more people travelling and taking their memories and souvenirs back to their homelands and uploading them on the Internet as content for the whole world to see and interact, the curiosity around the mystic India tea, or chai began to grow stronger and developed more interest globally. This lead to more and more people, foreigners especially, travelling to India muster the courage to try the Indian chai , an experience unavailable in their shores. With more and more people trying their hand on their travels, the fame of the Indian chai as a unique singular entity of a blended tea began to travel to Western shores gathering tremendous pace. Such was the affinity to this mystic cup of tea that curiosity and intrigue got the better of foreign consumers and it created a demand for a blend of tea leaves that could be pre-infused with spices and packaged for transport and mobility without affecting the quality of the tea desired. And that is how the brainchild of pre-infused packaged Indian chai blend of tea leaves came to be a present day reality.
The New Kid On the Block
Whilst ingrained Western milk tea drinkers follow a rather traditional consumption habit, there are those who have recently discovered the spicy milk teas from India. The Indian style, sweet and spicy tea cup does not appeal to the British palate the way it does on the US market, but most manufacturers will have a chai version in their portfolio. However the spice infused Masala Chai which has become synonymous with India is fast gaining ground amongst consumers in equal amounts in both the UK and the USA. In recent years the popularity has surged exponentially in these markets where variants of the traditional cup of tea include Cold tea, this hot sweet and spicy variant has immediately struck an immediate chord with consumers and aficionados alike making it a trending topic. Although chai traditionally refers to plain tea, the word chai in foreign markets essentially accords to the spicy milk variant of the beverage which owes its origin to India. American audiences are quite experimental in indulging with their taste buds and hence Indian chai has found it easier to penetrate these markets as compared to European markets where the trend is steadily catching up, but still not a rage. Globally, tea remains a hot beverage in Europe with one traditional spicy version which is available during the winter season. These are usually black teas, which are blended with spices quite similar to those used for masala chai. However, people will mostly drink them without adding milk.