Everyone’s cup of tea

With an increasing number of tea rooms opening and people drawn to signature blends, gourmet tea is brewing a quiet revolution in Chennai.

Updated - October 18, 2016 12:42 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2016 04:51 pm IST - CHENNAI

STORIES IN A CUP: Tisane being brewed at Tea Trails Cafe, Ashok Nagar. PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

STORIES IN A CUP: Tisane being brewed at Tea Trails Cafe, Ashok Nagar. PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

There is a certain romance to Kashmir. And it extends to its famed tea kahwa, which smells of spicy cardamom, pungent cinnamon and the fragrance of a thousand almond blossoms. The tea that resembles liquid gold has been brewed at my table at the newly-opened Tea Trails in Chennai, and it’s nowhere close to the tepid mug of coloured water we’ve often gulped down when ill.

In a city that prides itself as the ambassador of filter coffee and the guardian of the corner tea kadai that serves builder’s tea (with milk and sugar to fuel the humidity-sapped Chennaiite), to be a lover of gourmet tea is to wander in the wilderness. Until recently, that is.

With Tea Trails, an Indian chain of tea cafes, set to open two other outlets in Chennai over the next month, it only establishes why English novelist George Orwell named tea one of the mainstays of civilisation.

“There has been a 25 per cent spike in speciality teas over the past two to three years,” says Sanjeev Potti, CEO and co-founder of Tea Trails that sources from across the globe.

“It began as a trend in the West, but has caught on with the health-conscious generation in India. Even in Tamil Nadu, which is synonymous with coffee, the number of tea drinkers is four times more. This is a Rs. 20,000-crore market. We hope to expand to 500 outlets across the country by 2020. This growing appreciation of fine tea has led us to innovate — our cafes offer bubble teas, tea-infused dishes, and tea and food pairings.”

Establishment of tea boutiques, promoting the health benefits of tea and making it the preferred beverage of youth, are among the Tea Board of India’s principle objectives for the 12th Plan period.

From the evergreen Camellia sinensis comes the thousands of teas consumed across the world. Variety is determined by where it’s grown, whether the leaves are whole, broken, rolled or oxidised, and whether the buds are plucked early or late. Listing tea nomenclature is like listening to fables from faraway lands — Sencha with red ginseng from Japan, the black Lapsang souchong from China, bergamot-flavoured Earl Grey…

Tea in India has a cup for every mood. Introduced by the East India Company to break the Chinese monopoly, Assam, Darjeeling and the Nilgiris were the Empire’s gardens. While 70 per cent of tea produced is consumed in the country, India also exports some of its finest.

Tea has always been a social drink in India, but over the past couple of decades it was coffee that offered conversation and cool. Tea salons and the theatre of afternoon tea with watercress sandwiches were relegated to the realms of nostalgia.

“But now, tea lovers are no longer satisfied with store-bought and quick infusion tea. Afternoon tea is the thing to do — there is a certain calming quality to sipping speciality teas in this stressful age. Choice leaves, especially from single estates such as Makaibari in Darjeeling, are finding favour. India makes some of the finest, and we opened in Chennai at a time when there were few platforms to showcase its variety,” says Sunny Watwani of Lloyds Tea House, which has served speciality teas complete with strainers and scones for four years now.

The abundant anti-oxidants in green and white teas have found a growing audience among the well-travelled, young urbanite. “There is an increasing curiosity for gourmet teas — many business meetings are held over the Matinee Buffet, Hilton Chennai’s version of the English afternoon tea. People are more open to experimenting with flavours, have easy access to gourmet teas and are ready to pay a premium,” says Devendra Kushwaha, Food and Beverage Manager.

Quality rules over price and speciality teas have become the cornerstone, at least for online tea stockists, who, along with workshops and artisan teaware, also offer an impressive range of teas sourced from niche estates. Goa-based Snigdha Manchanda, tea sommelier and founder of Tea Trunk that celebrates gourmet tea, while narrating her tea story that unexpectedly unravelled from an old wooden trunk in which she collected teas from around the world, says, “I held my first tasting workshop in 2011. At that time, not many knew that all tea came from the same plant. But now, fuelled by an interest in artisanal and healthy food, gourmet tea has become part of a mini food revolution. My focus is to take tea beyond the tea bag — it gives instant colour but not flavour — and look at its nuances that we have, for long, taken for granted. Rose oolong, for example — its subtle blush is soothing in summer. It’s not about replacing chai or coffee, it’s about encouraging people to try different cups through the day.”

Tea Trunk’s collection, available in the city at The Brew Room, Maalgadi, and East Coast at Madras Square, is sourced from farmer cooperatives across India. “Tea is no longer a boring relic of the Raj. There is a street-side comfort, because of its accessibility,” says Snigdha. “Enjoying gourmet tea has become a community celebration — our limited edition mulled spice tea, in tins designed by Alicia Souza, was a hit. And now, our custom-made blends of marigold and lemongrass tea are gifted as wedding favours...”

Back at my table at Tea Trails, I peer into the pot that’s now a clutter of spices. I’m no expert at reading tea leaves, but I understand why wars were fought over tea, how it spurred Edmund Hillary to conquer Everest, and why, for long, many have championed for it to be India’s national drink.

Tea talk

* The tea bush is an evergreen shrub native to Asia.

* Tea originated in Southwest China, thousands of years ago, and made its way West only three centuries ago.

* The most common types of tea are white, green, black and oolong, depending on how the leaves have been processed. Herbal tea is called tisane and is a concoction of herbs and spices with little or no caffeine.

* The institution of afternoon tea was introduced by the Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, in the 1840s.

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