Time for a cup of tea…

The British, India and Tea

It has been a while since I wrote, for I was busy on the home front with yet another move. I did not have to move far this time, and did what many in America do, I downsized. In simple terms I moved to a smaller home without a backyard and many of those other extra amenities, in order to make our life after office hours a bit more manageable. Unlike what most people think, we have to do most of the work ourselves when it come to the shifting and leave only the final furniture moving to the big and the brawny lads and their truck. So as you can imagine, it was a back breaking affair for the last three weeks  and at long last, we are somewhat settled, looking forward to a new neighborhood, and hopefully a new relaxed routine. After all that tiring work, I guess I deserve a stimulating beverage, but naturally, a cup of tea, brewed the Indian way, with milk and sugar.

I did traverse this path in another direction some years ago, looking at the tea shops in Kerala, but this is about the beverage itself, the drink which is supposedly stands second to water, as the most consumed beverage. For a while I was lost in my memories from a childhood spent in the tea estates of Waynad, at least those vacations, the smell of the tea leaves in the curing factory and the walk among the tea bushes. I have traveled far and wide, and have had tea in many a continent, the Arabic versions, the Turkish versions, the American, the British, the European, Chinese, Far Eastern, Korean and so on, but I would still prefer the traditionally made version with tea leaves, milk and sugar. Time has gone by and today you have all kinds of new ideas creeping into the art of tea drinking, with peppermint, chamomile, aloe Vera and so on added for flavor.

In Kerala you have many types of this popular beverage, there is the kali Chaya, the kattan, the sulaimani, the Paal Chaya, the special Chaya with extras of everything, the light Chaya, the meter tea, the biryani tea, the kadupathil made version and the version with added spices or the so called masala chai. Offices have to have a tea break and even the game of cricket sports these ever important tea breaks. I am sure some region or the other will have even more special versions and readers are encouraged to contribute with comments.

As all these thoughts swirled around through the grey matter in my head, I mulled a bit as to whether I should make this article light like a Ceylon tea or strong like the Assam tea, and eventually decided to keep it light, so here goes…….

Tea became a drink favored by all the Indian classes only in the 20th century and was at times associated with the working classes or certain religions. For example in Tamil Nadu, tea was considered a Mussalman’s drink while Coffee was popularized by the Brahmins according to Chalapathy’s research. What is of course interesting is that tea became a commonplace drink in India only after the arrival of the British. The routes that this simple leaf took to become a perennially favorite drink of the masses presents a remarkable story of ingenuity and single mindedness of the Englishman, perhaps in pursuit of refinements to his otherwise unsatisfactory life back in the blighty and the hope of minting more sterling. This leaf as you may recall, went on to become the symbol of national resistance back here in America when in 1773, Bostonians destroyed a good amount of British tea laden in three ships when rebelling against the tea act.

Trying to find out when and how tea drinking originated is quite difficult and there are quite a few conclusions, but most agree that it all started in South Eastern regions of today’s China, many eons ago, in any case before the advent of the Common Era. Legends and lore have also crept in such as the sprouting of the tea plant from the eyelids of the south Indian monk Bodhidharma, at Shaolin. Tea preparation and its drinking became a ritual, an art so to speak in various Chinese regions and it is rumored that the Manchurian method was what popularized the so called ‘builders cup’ or concoction with milk and sugar. It is also said that one Mme de La Sabliére, a French hostess of an influential literary salon during the 17th century, is among the first to add milk to tea.

Some others opine that milk was added to stop porcelain from cracking, or there is this story that unscrupulous employers added milk to cool down tea quickly and therefore reduce the time taken for tea breaks. Tea cups, saucers and the pots of course originated in China, so also the fine porcelain medium or bone china in their manufacture. And as time went by, the Chinese and British spent time sipping it daintily from ornate chinaware or brassware and perfecting the art of serving and drinking tea in elaborate sessions, the people of Kerala perfected the art of slurping tea from the omnipresent standard ribbed tea glass! You won’t miss it, for that is what they serve it in at any Chayakada, to date!

From those Chinese regions, tea traveled to the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands to become somewhat popular with the Arabs though coffee was their forte, till all of a sudden, they turned in the 19th century to embrace tea. The first to port tea to Europe was either the Portuguese or the Dutch, a matter still hotly debated, not really the British, but they quickly caught on, as we shall soon see. Back here in India, the EIC had by then firmly entrenched themselves in the various regions and went on to enrich themselves and Britain with trade of various goods from and to India. 

As we saw earlier, the French Madame de la Sabliere introduced milk tea in France where tea was considered the drink of the nobility (of course when wine was not imbibed) and across the channel, Queen Anne broke protocol by drinking tea for breakfast instead of ale in London, the coffee capital which at that time boasted of some 2,000 coffee houses. By the end of the 17th century, teahouses were commonplace, with the British drinking even green tea with milk (heralding also what we know as milk bottles).

The first tea house was opened in London by Thomas Twining in 1717 where tea could be purchased. It is interesting to note that while tea became popular in England and coffee got abandoned, the French decided to forget tea and embrace coffee. Some of the French traders who lost their business took to smuggling tea into Britain while John Wesley the Methodist rallied in London against the effects of tea consumption. The debate heated up when eminent personalities such as Jonas Hanway agreed with Wesley and writer Samuel Johnson advocated for the continued and shameless consumption of copious amounts of tea. Innovative methods were used by the French to smuggle tea and the body suit used by some of these nefarious individuals to carry as much as 30 lbs of tea on their persona, reminds you of the design of today’s body armor! As adulterated tea known as smouch was also finding its way into the markets, Europe moved slowly away from consuming green tea to sipping black teas.

As the purchase of larger and larger amounts of tea drained British coffers, the EIC resorted to large-scale export of opium to China in return for silver and that is why the British started to grow opium in a large scale in British India. Thus the original spice business of the EIC slowly gave way to trading and the growing of cotton for the benefit of the British textile industry. Then came about the industrial revolution which destroyed the handicraft textile industry in India, making the EIC change course again and now the North eastern regions drifted to becoming fields of opium, the produce of which the British pumped into China, decimating and addicting the populations there. Opium trade enabled British to buy tea from China and as the demand increased even further and rebellion loomed in China, the EIC decided to cultivate tea in Assam. Thus came about the tea estates that we speak of today (the very same tea estates which was home to those who participated in the Ehrenfels operation in Goa during the Second World War!) many of which still exist in full splendor even today. This EIC’s tea business made it one of the wealthiest organizations in the world at that time, for it did cost a lot, as much as $1500 in today’s terms per pound and earning the EIC, well over a 1000% markup.

Across the waters, the very same tea played a role in Britain losing its colonies in America. 18th century was when tea became omnipresent in all such matters. It was incidentally in America that the venerable teabag came into play as a trader packaged Indian tea in sample silk bags as samples for promotion, and the idea caught up with the ‘lighter’ tea drinking populace. As the British lost America, India took the place of the Jewel in the British crown and became home to the production of that magic elixir and rival China as a premium producer of the magic leaf. So it was towards the end of the 18th century that Joseph Banks made a blueprint for the mass production of Tea in Indian estates though it was only by 1833 that a decision was taken to implement it in Assam on a large scale. In Britain and even in far away Russia, tea was even used to combat alcoholism, and this you can observe from word teetotal, for it was a drink purported to be one to instill temperate behavior. Tea was, later in the 19th century the reason for the destruction of China, inundating the country with opium, addicts and dragging it into the opium wars and emptying its treasuries.

To get to the locales and origin of tea cultivation in India, you don’t have to stray further than Sadiya
in Assam where a British Merchant Robert Bruce had espied indigenous tea cultivation among the Singpho tribes. A bloke named James Gordon was sent to China to acquire seeds, seedlings, manufacturing equipment as well as experts from China. By 1836, thousands of seedlings grown from those seeds in Calcutta were sent to Sadiya, Kumaon, Dehra Dun and the Nilgiris. The

Chinese experts agreed that the original Saidya tea was by itself quite good and just two years later in 1838, the first shipment of eight chests (3 of Pekoe and 5 of Souchong) of Assam tea found their way to London. The popularity of the new batch resulted in the formation of the Assam tea company in London and locating its Indian headquarters in Nazira. It was a huge success and the business soon started a rush with everybody wanting a piece of it (which resulted of course in a meteoric rise and a rapid fall of fortunes in 1865). Sprawling estates came into being, estate factories with newly invented drying machines processed the plucked leaves, but it was not very easy for the pioneers and life was difficult for those white men faced with malaria, wild animals, heavy rains toiling in a place far away from civilized Calcutta.

Down south, it was a Dr Christie who first ordered Chinese saplings for cultivation of tea in Coonoor though he passed away before they arrived and they were first planted in Keti experimental farm and soon abandoned after the building became the quarters of the governor of Pondicherry. They were nursed to health by a French botanist named Perottet. One Mr Mann started the Coonoor plantations after which followed the plantations at Sholur, Kothagiri and Ooty. By 1869 tea grew in some 200-300 acres in the Nilgiris. The earliest record of commercial planting in Kerala was in Peerumede around 1875. The development of Kanan Devan Hills by James Finlay and Co. in 1878 with tea as an exclusive crop is a landmark in the history of tea planting in that part of the country. Tea cultivation caught up in Waynad and by 1889 planting was taken up on a large scale in the district. Wynad which boasts much bigger plantations started tea growing around 1892 after the failure of the coffee crops due to the copper rust. Estates at Anamallais (near Coimbatore) started later, around 1897.

Nevertheless Ceylon won the battle for attention as it was considered more salubrious and genteel, and Tamil coolies were available from across the waters in large numbers when seasons so demanded. So much so that by 1900 there were over 300,000 Tamil laborers working in the Ceylon tea estates. However what the reader must bear in mind here is that the Ceylon tea was considerably milder than the Assamese tea. The former was drunk straight while the latter was mainly used to create fine blends of varying strength.

Commercially the tea crop in India enabled the British to double exports to 175 million pounds and in 1889, the Indian tea export crossed the Chinese output for the first time. So much happened in those days and the waters saw the appearance of famous specialist sailing tea cargo ships called the tea clippers. A lot of interesting characters entered the scene, and you might recall that Twining was the first to open a tea shop in London. Well it was in 1890 that Lipton, the son of a grocer who was famed for his butter, bacon and eggs business, landed up in Ceylon and built his estate named Dambatenne. His vision was to create a tea which went directly from the garden to the pot without any middlemen. It worked and Lipton went on to build his tea empire, with his yellow label brand a head above the rest.

My wife is nevertheless one who favors the stronger Brooke bond red label and so we have to see how Brooke did in this business. Brooke started his teashop in London around 1869 and created the red label brand in India by 1901. Strange isn’t it, those were times when tea went in bales to Britain from Assam and Ceylon, then came all the way back in nice packets and we acquired them with pride from the Spencer’s shops! That is marketing, trade and commerce in a nutshell for you.
On the other side of the waters, while Yorkshiremen preferred Travancore tea, Scots liked the stronger Assam tea. Irish and the Londoners preferred Ceylon tea.

Tasseography incidentally is the art of reading tea leaves, but has less to do with Chinese practices and was mostly perfected in Europe. LDalrymple in her NPR article mentions - When tea first made its way into Britain from China in the mid-17th century, it was an aristocratic beverage, but as trade fueled falling prices, the general population began drinking it. Already culturally superstitious, lower classes were quick to use tea leaves instead of some of their cumbersome and often dangerous methods of divination, such as the use of molten metal (molybdomancy), hot wax (carromancy) or the entrails of animals (haruspicy). 

There are so many varieties of teas, some quite exotic, and so a question - any idea what Sherpa tea is? Made with tea leaves, butter and salt, the blend used in those regions diffuses at a lower temperature in high altitudes. Bubble tea on the other hand is popular in the Far East where tapioca pearls are added to tea made in condensed milk and honey. Herbal tea by the way, is not really tea, but a tea-like drink made from flowers, fruits or herbs while ‘Flavored’ teas, on the other hand, are made of real tea with various essences, including herbal ones.

I was always intrigued by the art of tea tasting and during my younger days, I’ve heard stories of a distant cousin named Appan who used to do it for a career somewhere in Dehra Dun or thereabouts. As I read, it was a French scientist names Francis Galton who perfected it into a science, deducting that the best tea was made if the leaf was infused in water heated to 180-190 degrees F for precisely 8 minutes. Anyway, tea tasting is the process in which a trained taster determines the quality of a particular tea. A tea taster uses a large spoon and noisily slurps the liquid into his/her mouth - this ensures that both the tea and plenty of oxygen is passed over all the taste receptors on the tongue to give an even taste profile of the tea. The liquid is then usually spat back out into a spitoon before moving onto the next sample to taste. The flavor characteristics and indeed leaf color, size and shape are graded using a specific language created by the tea industry to explain the overall quality.

Giles Oakley a taster opines - It takes five years to train a palate to identify, blindfold, the origin and blend of each sample and an expert is expected to be able to detect not only the country that produced a certain batch, but the region. A background in botany or science is useful but unnecessary – what’s crucial, according to Oakley, is a good head for numbers and interpersonal skills. New recruits spend their first months sipping their way through hundreds of spoonfuls of tea a day under the eye of a supervisor, memorizing the names and groups of leaves and mastering the bespoke language used by different tea companies to describe them.

I won’t agree with Galton’s method anyway, since in the Kerala tea stall or chayakada version, the tea
brewing bag is in reality one that had been used by the brewer for many months and had dregs from the previous brew and the brew before that and the brew even before that, now looking like a relic akin to a sad brown wrinkled and drooping sack (in Kerala the comparison is with something else that I dare not print here). The concoction from that bag after a good squeeze, is mixed with a liberal spoon of sugar and some pre-boiled milk after which it is mixed by rapid transfer from a mug to a glass and back - back and forth over a meter of space to produce a half inch of froth and a supreme medium hot beverage served in that special ribbed glass. The man who has been perusing the local newspaper grabs it from the hand of the server and proceeds to noisily slurp it and continue with his daily ruminations on how to tackle the vagaries of the world. That is how the day started for many a man in remote villages.

The tea plantations in Kerala are spread around the Western Ghats, notably at various Waynad locales, Munnar and Nelliyampathy. At Munnar, it started when Kannan Devan hills were leased to the British Resident Col Munro by the Cochin Raja. In 1880, AH Sharp planted tea in around 50 acres of land at Parvathy, which is now part of the Seven Hills estate. By 1895, the Finlay Muir & Company (James Finlay and Company Limited) entered the scene and bought up around 33 independent estates. The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed in 1897 to manage these estates. In 1964, the Tata Group entered into collaboration with Finlay which resulted in the formation of the Tata-Finlay Group. Tata Tea, the owner of the Tetley brand, was formed in 1983.

The British as you may be aware, have two much talked about tea drinking sessions, the low or afternoon tea and high tea. Low tea is a light meal or snack (scones, thin sandwiches, tiny cakes) served on a tea table usually at 4 in the afternoon. High tea is a heavier meal served at about 5 or 6 in the late afternoon on the dining table where meatier hot dishes are often served. And in Burma, they have something called lahpet, which is a fermented or pickled tea salad containing ingredients such as fried garlic, peas, peanuts, tomatoes, fish sauce, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, shredded ginger, fried coconut etc. Wonder how we got our tea breaks? It appears that during World War I, many employers gave their workers cups of tea throughout the day and discovered that it seemed to increase their productivity and stamina. This practice continued after the War as more businesses took up the art of taking tea breaks and so we have morning and afternoon tea breaks.

There is so much of trivia associated with tea, for example did you know that the tea gardens in Assam do not follow the Indian Standard Time (IST)?  The local ‘unofficial’ time in Assam's tea gardens, known as 'Tea Garden Time' or ‘Bagan time’, is an hour ahead of the IST. The system was introduced during British days keeping in mind the early sunrise in this part of the country and was successful in increasing the productivity of tea garden workers as they save on daylight by finishing the work during daytime, and vice versa.

Turks incidentally drink the maximum tea on a per capita basis, followed by the Irish, UK and Russia respectively. There are some 1500-2000 varieties of tea and is a drink perhaps the longest in existence, going all the way back to 2737 BC when as they say, the Chinese emperor Sheng Nung discovered its taste by accident. And then again you may wonder who Earl Grey is, for he is the chap who lent his name to some high class teas. Charles Grey was the PM of UK 1830-34 and had this tea developed by a Chinese expert, to suit the heavily calcified water in Northumberland.

I have been going on and on about this moderately priced beverage, favorite of so many around the world and now it is time to drink my cup. My wife is hollering from the kitchen that my brew is ready, but before I go, I must quote Eleanor Roosevelt - A woman is like a tea bag, you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water…

The true history of tea - Victor H Mair, Erling Hoh

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once remarked, "Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place; and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion of Waterloo". In many ways it is also a testament to the Tamil laborer in Ceylon who toiled hard to make the dream a reality.