December 17, 2017 6 min read

India is the world’s second largest tea producer, beaten only by China. The country has a long and illustrious history where tea is concerned, growing some of the world’s most popular varieties and shipping them around the globe to delighted tea fans in hunt of their perfect brew. Many different areas in India grow their own types of tea, and with so many different locations and varieties to choose from, the country truly is a tea lover’s paradise. But which are India’s most famous teas, and what stories do they have to tell?

A Brief History of India’s Tea Industry

The origins of India’s connection with tea can be traced back to the British Empire, who were the international discoverers – and initial consumers – of India’s tea-producing capabilities. From the early 1800s until India’s independence from Britain in 1947, tea became a major export from the country, and even all these years later, Brits are still one of the top markets for India’s tea trade and over the last few years niche higher-quality organic black teas have shown strong growth

Commercial tea production began as part of the East India Company, and by the 1920s tea had been well and truly adopted as a refreshing and relaxing recreational drink, following several promotions and advertising campaigns.

Today, India’s tea companies are as powerful as they are prolific, acquiring household names such as Tetley and Typhoo as well as their own unique blends. The main tea-producing regions of India include Assam, West Bengal and Tripura, and the tea industry is one of India’s top employers.

Darjeeling

This delicate tea hails from West Bengal’s Darjeeling district. Darjeeling is likely India’s most famous tea export, renowned for its quality. Traditionally classed as a black tea, there are many different varieties of Darjeeling, from green, to white, black and oolong, but the perfect cup is light in colour and scented with an incredible floral aroma.

Civil servant Archibald Campbell was the first to plant tea in Darjeeling, all the way back in 1841. He had brought Chinese tea plant seeds from a prior posting in Nepal, and just a few years later, the UK government began to establish tea nurseries in the region.

Before long, Darjeeling tea was in high demand, with the opening of the Darjeeling Tea company. There are now 87 tea gardens within the Darjeeling hills, which produce some nine million kg of tea each year. However with changing trends in consumer behaviours, emphasising health and the environment, there are a growing number of niche gardens focusing exclusively on high-quality organic tea production. Each garden creates tea with a subtly different taste and aroma - much like fine wines or French champagnes, giving Darjeeling fans plenty of varieties to enjoy until they find their favourite.

Chateau Rouge Fine Foods UK @mapsofindia.com Darjeeling-district-map

Assam

This tea is named after the Assam region. Assam is traditionally regarded as a breakfast tea - and the main ingredient in our organic English breakfast tea blend, with a full body and strong vibrant colour. Tea from Assam is often referred to as malty, which is attributed to the tropical climate in which it thrives - primarily being able to produce tea all year round.

This part of India is recognised as the most extensive tea-growing region in the world, and while it is predominantly known for black teas, the area also creates equally distinctive green tea and white tea.

Assam tea first arrived in Europe after Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce encountered the Assam tea bush in 1823, and noted locals brewing and drinking its leaves. It was the British East India Company who first recognised the commercial potential of the tea, and during the 1830s, it was decided there was a market for it in the UK. Due to its vastness and the popularity of it’s produce, Assam is regarded as the second most significant tea producing region after south China.

One of our teas picker in plantation in India, producing our 100% Organic loose leaf black teas

Nilgiri

This dark, intense and aromatic tea is grown in the hills of Nilgiris, in southern India. A mountainous area with dramatic landscapes, the same drama has transferred into the distinctive taste of the tea. More than 50% of Nilgiri’s tea is exported overseas, and can be found in many different blends within well-known tea bags. Nilgiri tea is made by largely independent tea producers operating their own factories, alongside smaller producers.

Sikkim

Hailing from the southern region of Sikkim, this tea is regarded as some of the finest in the world. The Temi tea estate is the only one in the state of Sikkim and the teas are sold internationally to an audience of true tea connoisseurs.

The Importance of Tea Grading

Tea leaf grading refers to the quality evaluation all tea undergoes, checking for quality markers which will indicate a truly great cup. Amongst the most common tea grading terms, a tea expert will search for:

  • Fannings - These are what’s left after tea of a higher grade has been gathered – normally small pieces of tea which were once considered as fit for rejection during manufacturing, and are now commonly used in tea bags. Fannings are the lowest possible tea grade – though in the case of luxury teas they may still be considered saleable, alongside broken leaf tea and tea dust from the same tea leaves.
  • Orange pekoe - This traditional grading refers to the size and shape of the tea leaves within loose leaf tea, derived from new flushes or pickings. The grading system is used to grade black tea, though other teas can also be used outside of this context, where the term pekoe refers to unopened leaf buds. Orange pekoe describes any medium-grade black tea with whole leaves of the same size.

Tea grades are broken down into subset whole leaf, broken leaf, dust and fannings grades, allowing tea specialists to understand everything they need to know about the tea they are cultivating, manufacturing and selling.

Summary of the terminology used for grading tea:

F.O.P. Flowery Orange Pekoe These are quality whole-leaf teas made from the first two leaves and bud of the shoot. India produces the most significant quantity of this grade.
G.F.O.P. Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe  The golden refers to the colourful tips at the end of the tea bud.
T.G.F.O.P. Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Like FOP but with a more substantial number of tips.
F.T.G.F.O.P Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe  An more even higher quality but with more tips than FOP. This is what we predominantly use in our loose leaf organic teas.
O.P. Orange Pekoe Refers to a high quality thin, wiry leaves rolled more tightly than F.O.P. These are picked later in the year than F.O.P.
S. Souchong A twisted leaf picked from the bottom of the tea bush. China produces this grade used in their smokey teas.
P. Pekoe A light, sizeable broken leaf usually without golden tips. Sri Lanka produces large amounts of Pekoe, used in more common varieties of breakfast tea.
B.O.P. Broken Orange Pekoe A small, flat broken leaf with a medium body. Other broken leaf grades exist including F.B.O.P (flowery broken orange pekoe), G.B.O.P (golden broken orange pekoe) and F.G.B.O.P (flowery golden broken orange pekoe).
Fanning & Dust Leaf particles too small to be classified as broken leaf fall into two categories, fanning and dust; and many grades exist within each.

India’s Tea Tradition

It is only recently that China has overtaken India as the world’s largest tea producer. India remains one of the top two producers of tea, with everything from a rich organic Assam to a smooth herbal tea, a floral Darjeeling or prized white tea - India is truly a world of tea all in one!

All of these teas have been shaped by the country in which they grow, and tea remains a significant part of Indian culture. There have been suggestions of instating tea as the country’s national drink, and this would make a lot of sense for a country which has given the world some of its finest varieties of this delicious and ever-popular beverage.

Our modern world is changing very quickly and India too has many challenges to overcome, but like with all industries tea in India is evolving to adapt, with some very exciting developments to follow. Watch this space and enjoy exploring the rich diversity of India teas!

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